It's a cool spring evening in Edmondson Village, and children are playing outside Dontae Melton's house in the still-strong daylight.
The 11-year-old boy, however, is in his family's darkened living room, working by lamplight on a writing assignment under the supervision of a private tutor paid for by Baltimore's public schools.
"Structured activities are what he needs, if I'm going to win this battle against the streets," says his mother, Eleshiea Goode, who is raising two children on her own and worries that Dontae could lose interest in school and succumb to bad influences in their West Baltimore neighborhood.
Dontae is one of a growing number of children whose school experiences have been changed by a less-publicized provision of the No Child Left Behind Act that has made free private tutoring a routine part of life for a growing number of low-income families.
Now in its third year, the federal law has proved to be a boon for the tutoring industry, which is taking advantage of an estimated $2 billion in federal poverty grants that school districts have set aside to help children in failing schools.
At the same time, parents who never dreamed of being able to afford tutors now talk about letting their children stay after school for "Sylvan" - a well-known tutoring firm - or juggling schedules suddenly made busier with sessions of private academic help.
Although research on the effectiveness of tutoring is scarce, the number of needy children in the country receiving after-school tutoring under the federal law nearly doubled last year to 218,000.
"Middle-class parents, in greater and greater numbers, are spending their money to send children to these after-school programs," said Michael J. Petrilli, a senior official at the U.S. Department of Education. "We think it's important that low-income families have these same opportunities."
Tutoring has become more popular among parents than the No Child Left Behind's more widely publicized option for children who attend failing schools, which lets them transfer elsewhere. Local school officials say that's because many parents object to sending their children to schools far from home. Only about 1 percent of eligible pupils have taken advantage of the transfer option, compared with 11 percent who are receiving tutoring, according to federal education officials.
In Maryland, the number of children receiving tutoring more than doubled from the previous school year to this year, to an estimated 5,800 pupils.
After a cool initial reception, more and more parents have begun to view free tutoring as a way for their children to get ahead, rather than as a service that labels their children as low achievers, said Jane Fleming, who oversees the tutoring services for the Maryland State Department of Education.
"I think the program is going to grow like this because parents are going to see the benefits," Fleming said.
Most of the pupils who are eligible for the free tutoring in Maryland live in Baltimore and Montgomery and Prince George's counties.
In Baltimore, where 20,000 youngsters are eligible in 58 failing schools, demand for free tutoring has outstripped supply. More than 7,000 city parents applied this school year, and 4,300 pupils were selected - all the school system could afford. The system limits tutoring to the financially neediest pupils with the lowest test scores.
Barbara R. Davidson, president of StandardsWork, a Washington education nonprofit, said word-of-mouth about tutoring and better outreach by schools are reasons that more parents are signing up for the service.
"For many parents in Baltimore, they're just at their wits' end," said Davidson, whose group used billboards around Baltimore last year to advertise the services failing schools must provide. "These companies, many of them have had a very successful track record, and in many cases they've been out of the reach of parents who have limited means."
To be eligible for tutoring, pupils must attend a school that has failed to meet state academic standards for at least three years in a row and be from a low-income family.
School systems in Maryland pay companies or nonprofits about $1,800 for 40 to 60 hours of tutoring per pupil. The two dozen vendors approved by the state include such major companies as Huntington Learning Center and the Education Station, a Sylvan Partnership, as well as smaller groups, such as the student-run nonprofit Baltimore Algebra Project.
Free tutoring for city pupils focuses primarily on math or reading, beginning after Thanksgiving and ending in March, when youngsters take the Maryland School Assessments.
On a recent afternoon at William H. Lemmel Middle School, a tutoring session run by Huntington Learning hummed along as five tutors assigned practice problems to small groups of pupils, explained new concepts and gave tests to determine who had mastered skills.