Reading between the lines

The children stand in a line, clad in green and white school uniforms. The neckties they knotted themselves are remarkably uneven.

The classroom session has ended for the afternoon – the kids soon will be released to personal tutors. The tutors wait in a silent group at the end of the room. The children, growing restless, hop up and down, waving to the tutors.

These are not just ordinary teachers. The tutors provide the children with important one-on-one attention two days a week, throughout the school year.

One pupil sat alone – his tutor was absent. GW freshman Shafkat Anwar invited the child to join his group, but teaching two children proved difficult. He could barely keep them in their seats, let alone fix their attention to the reading.

Glancing at the colorful pictures in their Amazing Otters book, Calvin and Jerome, began to dispute. Which of the critters would make the best pet? And do otters bite people?

Anwar seized his chance, strategically reshaping the debate into a phonics duel.

“But I know this one!” Calvin shouted, unable to contain himself. “No,” Anwar corrected, “This question is for Jerome. You had the last one.”

“But I know it! Let me whisper it to you,” begged an impatient Calvin, climbing on Anwar’s lap to reach his ear.

Still eager to prove himself, Calvin scrawled the word “cat” across the face of a notebook.

“Look, I can do it in cursive,” Calvin added with a satisfied grin. Everyone, his smile seemed to say, should have the word “cat” written on their notebooks.

D.C. Reads, a mentor and tutoring program, began Sept. 24 at the Scott-Montgomery Elementary School. The program is an effort to prevent area students from slipping though the cracks in the D.C. public education system.

The program, working in cooperation with local advocacy group For the Love of Children, pairs 50 GW work study students with pupils at Scott-Montgomery. Students like Calvin and Jerome are the first tests for the young program.

D.C. Reads borrows its curriculum from the 36-step “Sing-Song Read and Write” program, which teaches students to read using a progression of phonics. The exercises steer clear of reading by memorization, a method that was once an educational standard.

“If you’re teaching kids to read by memorizing words, they are going to run into problems when they see a word they don’t know,” GW junior Eliza Thompson explained. Thompson coordinates first-, second- and third-grade tutoring at Scott-Montgomery.

“The Shaw neighborhood is the community GW pledged to help,” Thompson explained. “Our goal is to help them learn to help themselves, and then move on to a different community.”

Tutors are required to meet with their pupils twice a week. Each one completes an eight-hour preparatory training seminar before teaching, and supplementary training sessions every two weeks.

“Besides money, it was an excellent way of having a job where I could give something back to the community,” freshman tutor Gareth Danker said. “This is the time to catch them, when they’re young.”

Many of the children in the D.C. schools are reading far below their grade level, which makes the one-on-one attention from their tutors particularly important.

“They (tutors) pay more attention than your other teachers,” nine-year-old Simone said. Simone is a third grader at Scott-Montgomery.

“GW is such a huge resource to the school,” explained For the Love of Children manager Christine Young. “The kids obviously need this and enjoy it.”

“It’s fun and we get to learn and when we ask to go to the bathroom they let us,” third grader Bianca Johnson said.

The school picks out students who struggle to read. These students join the after-school tutorial program. But many of the other students, who also could benefit from the program, go without tutors.

“My goal would be to reach every student,” Young said. “But I believe in starting small and getting the kinks out of the program.” said Young.

“When (my student) Gary first came in here, the first thing he told me was, `I’m not stupid,’ ” freshman tutor Erin Wasserman remembered. A third grader who read at a first-grade level, Gary, according to Wasserman, was defensive and insecure.

“It’s not just the school’s fault,” Wasserman explained. She said that in many cases home environment has as much to do with the child’s reading level as the overcrowded school system.

Periodical exams designed to assess reading levels have shown improvements in six students in Thompson’s classes.

Shyia, a third grader, showed the greatest improvement. Her scores jumped from .7 below a third-grade level to .7 above.

Like many of the students, Shyia said she enjoyed coming to tutorials, and looks forward to seeing her tutor.

The tutor, freshman Laura Kurjanowicz, said she too benefits from the sessions. Tutoring, she said, has so far been the highlight of her college experience.

“I’ve learned a lot about myself as a person, friend and teacher, and how I can make an impact,” Kurjanowicz said.

For teachers and pupils like Kurjanowicz and Shyia, the significance of the bond reaches far beyond reading. Eight-year-old Kelvin said that he wants to grow up to become a tutor like “Mr. Joe,” freshman Joe McCahill.

“I got lucky,” McCahill said. “He’s made me remember a lot about what it’s like to be a kid and how frustrating that can be – the learning and all.”

Kevin will be moving out of the school district soon. McCahill said he hopes to take Kelvin to a GW basketball game as a farewell gift.

Even though much ground is left to cover, D.C. Reads has made a strong start.

“I wrote all these words,” eight-year-old third grader Rashaw Jackson exclaimed. “I just learned to read all these words.”

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