Aaron Gonzalez can count to 100 in English like a whiz, but he clams up when trying to recite the alphabet. Alternating between English in the classroom and Spanish with his parents, the kindergartner at Modesto's Shackelford Elementary can easily find himself mixed up.
"He knows his numbers better in English and his letters better in Spanish," his mother said in her native Spanish.
School districts from Patterson to Denair and Modesto to Turlock this year must pick up the bill for thousands of students like Aaron to get extra help, as more campuses miss testing benchmarks on state math and English tests. Districts are paying for professional tutoring, known as supplemental educational services, for low-income students at schools in their second year on the federal No Child Left Behind Act's "program improvement" list.
In Stanislaus County this year, 37 schools are in this status, five more than during 2006-2007.
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Tawnya Coffey, owner of Club Z In-Home Tutoring in Turlock, said one-third of her business is generated by districts required to provide this tutoring to students. She said companies nationwide have recently opened local programs to pick up the business.
"There are some companies, that's all they do," Coffey said. "(Business) has definitely doubled for us this year."
Coffey said reading tends to give the most trouble to area students. Countywide, one in four students speaks English as a second language.
"You don't know if the student has been here their whole life or if they just came over this year," Coffey said. "They're still in the same spot and being tested the same way."
In Modesto City Schools, about 11,000 students -- or one in three students -- qualifies for supplemental services.
While the number of students getting free tutoring from outside companies has risen from 275 to 760 since last year, that's still only 7 percent of eligible students.
Jim Pfaff, the district's director of federal and state programs, said the low participation rate for the optional tutoring may be partly because of academic overload. Junior high and high school students already are required to ditch an elective class for an extra period of math or English if they do poorly on state tests. And 1,300 children already are taking part in afterschool academic programs, Pfaff said.
Modesto schools will spend more than $900,000 this year for professional tutors, with each child getting roughly $1,200 to use at any of 16 state-approved programs contracted with the district. The $1,200 per student in federal money is calculated based on Modesto's poverty rate. The money goes directly from the school district office to the tutoring company.
Tutoring sessions can take place anywhere from a kitchen table to the Stanislaus County Library, and some companies provide tutoring online. No matter the setting, tutors must use "scientifically-proven" methods to teach children. The students are tested before their first session and after their last to gauge if the tutoring helped.
Transportation an issue
"I think as many parents as eligible should use it," said Jacqueline Popio, whose grandson William is getting tutoring for the second year in a row. "There's not a bit of tutoring that a child can't use. There was a major amount of improvement."
Popio drives William to the Huntington Learning Center in Modesto's McHenry Village three days a week. He started the tutoring during second grade at Walter White Elementary in Ceres, when his grades began to slip badly and his behavior followed.
"He adopted this, 'I don't know it anyway, so why bother?' attitude," Popio said.
Popio said she was "scared to death" when told this year that William couldn't read. What administrators meant was Popio's grandson didn't pass a fluency test that required him to speed-read as many words as possible in a minute.
"I was teaching him (reading) comprehension," Popio said. "In his own little way, he's fighting a losing battle."
Driving from Ceres to central Modesto is a trek for Popio, and many families have found similar trouble finding the state-approved tutoring near their homes.
While three in four Modesto students eligible for the tutoring live in west and south Modesto, there is just one company operating in those neighborhoods this year, according to the district.
Students can get tutors to travel to their homes, but they get fewer hours of tutoring for their money because of a higher hourly rate. One-on-one tutoring can cost $80 per hour, compared with $40 per hour in small group sessions based in a community center.
"A lot of these families don't have the means to get (their children) across town, so they're not going to be involved in the serv-ices," said Abraham Vela, who chairs a committee for English-learning students in Modesto City Schools. "If you can do this in their back yard, their own community, guess what? You're going to have a good turnout."
The Princeton Review, a New York-based company known for its SAT test prep services, started group tutoring sessions in west Modesto's King-Kennedy Center last month. That makes it the only tutoring company based in south or west Modesto.
Only nine students signed up.
"The saddest thing is there's not a lot of information out there, or (parents) don't know how to access it," said Natali Carrera of the Central California Princeton Review. "A lot of times, there's misinformation that the parents have to pay."
Pfaff, of Modesto City Schools, said it will take time for tutoring companies, some based out of Malibu or Fresno, to establish credibility with parents and teachers.
"They're not a known quantity in this town," Pfaff said. "They have to develop that base for three to four years, so parents know they can count on them to be there in year five."
Pfaff said he's looking to churches and community groups to play a main role in bringing tutors to Modesto's poorest neighborhoods.
But gaining approval to start a tutoring program can be daunting. The California Department of Education's application, which is 42 pages long, requires applicants to show hard data that students are improving their academic skills through the proposed curriculum.
"To go through this numbers game, it's awfully frustrating," said Juanita Jackson of the West Modesto King-Kennedy Neighborhood Collaborative. "Just dealing with the regulations is overwhelming."
While Jackson said she's been "disheartened" by the process, she still plans to submit an application with the hope of starting a program near Modesto's Franklin Elementary School off Maze Boulevard next school year.
She envisions a program that brings together credentialed teachers with tutors from California State University, Stanislaus, and Modesto Junior College.
"Regardless of why kids are not learning -- the classrooms are overloaded or students are disruptive -- I've seen success even with kids that have all these additional burdens," said Jackson, a west Modesto community activist since the 1960s. "They can blossom in an environment that is small enough."
Bee staff writer Merrill Balassone can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2337.