In an effort to strengthen the federal government’s after-school tutoring program, known as Supplemental Educational Services, or SES, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) plans to invest $9.5 million in a new test project that will explore the use of mobile devices such as cell phones and other technologies in delivering targeted remediation to struggling students.

Supporters of the project, made possible through a federal Star Schools grant, contend more innovation is necessary to extend the benefits of tutoring services to students in traditionally underserved areas, especially in rural communities, where access to SES–created to help states meet the demands of President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB)–has reportedly been spotty.

“Too many low-income students across the country who are eligible for free tutoring under NCLB are not receiving these services because they are hard to reach,” said Jeffrey Cohen, president of Baltimore-based Catapult Learning LLC, whose company received the grant for a partnership it has with the Kentucky Educator Network and 13 other school districts in Georgia, Ohio, California, and Pennsylvania.

“The challenge is that many children either live in areas where access to these programs is hard to achieve in schools or in circumstances where they would have a very hard time accessing these services from their homes,” explained Cohen. “We believe that all students, no matter where they are, should have access [to tutoring services].”

At its core, he said, the five-year grant project will enable Catapult to modify its existing suite of tutoring services, exploring ways in which technology can serve as an equalizer for certain geographic limitations. Currently, the company has two flagship offerings: Catapult Online, a fully web-based program that connects students live across the internet with certified instructors; and Education Station, a site-based program that focuses on small group learning in school buildings. Ultimately, Cohen said, the goal is to work with schools to build on these two core offerings, finding new ways to extend access to proven SES curricula to more students, parents, and even teachers.

“We want to create an environment that will allow us to overcome the geographic divide,” he said. “This is about how we can use new and emerging technologies to make these types of services more accessible–to take the delivery of SES one step further.”

Early ideas under consideration include integrating cell phones, personal digital assistants (PDAs), laptop computers, and other mobile devices into the delivery of approved tutoring programs.

Though it’s unlikely mobile technologies such as cell phones and PDAs would serve as replacements for online or face-to-face tutoring, Cohen said, the devices could be used to supplement existing programs, providing a means for parents to receive updates on their child’s progress via cell phone, for example, and giving students yet another means of receiving additional remediation and support, whether it’s reviewing for a test or just brushing up on their skills.

“And it doesn’t have to stop with students and parents,” he said. Classroom teachers also might find some uses for the system. By keeping track of what their students are doing in the supplemental program, Cohen said, educators eventually might be able to build a bridge between after-school SES programs and their efforts in the classroom.