The sixth-graders were hunched over their desks behind the metal-screened windows of the middle school -- still digesting the difference between similes and metaphors -- as the limousine carrying their school's best teacher pulled up to the northwest gate of the White House yesterday.
Welcomed at the gate, Jason Kamras made his way up the driveway flanked with red tulips and walked into a limelight that falls sparingly on the weathered urban school where he has taught math for close to a decade.
President Bush honors Jason Kamras, a math teacher at Sousa Middle School in D.C., as the National Teacher of the Year.
(James A. Parcell - The Washington Post)
"My children simply want the opportunity to pursue their dreams," Kamras said as he stood in the Rose Garden beside the president and first lady.
The ceremony recognized Kamras, 31, as the National Teacher of the Year. He is the first winner from a D.C. public school in the contest's 53-year history.
"He's usually at work at 7 a.m., and he rarely leaves before 7 p.m.," President Bush said as bright sunshine streamed down on those who gathered for the event. Kamras receives great joy, Bush told them, "when a student proclaims, 'Mr. Kamras, I get it.' "
At that moment -- six miles and a world away -- students in Room 120 at John Philip Sousa Middle School had their rulers out, drawing rectangles, some of them quiet and studious, others loud and distracted.
Sousa sits at the edge of a park east of the Anacostia River, on the poorer side of Washington's dividing line between the haves and the have-nots. With its tall chimney, the 50-year-old, red-brick building looks more like a factory than a school.
The white flag pole has no flag, and a sign near the entrance declares that firearms are banned within 500 feet. Two women were shot to death down the street several years ago, and the metal detector that students walk through each morning has turned up several knives.
All but 40 of the roughly 380 students qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch, a commonly used indicator of poverty. A year ago, 46 percent of the students scored "below basic" on reading tests, and 73 percent scored below basic in math.
Kamras said he doesn't dwell on the negative. His focus is on the faces in his classroom.
"They inspire me every day with their intelligence, creativity and humor," he said in the Rose Garden yesterday. Teachers "can and do make a dramatic difference in their lives every day."
He was fresh out of Princeton almost nine years ago, and the middle school was showing signs of age, when he first laid eyes on it.
Sousa's principal, William Lipscomb, had fetched him from the Minnesota Avenue Metro station in Northeast, and the two men immediately found common ground.
"We both are from New York and we instantly bonded on that," Kamras said.
Two sixth-grade teachers, Carol Taylor and Elaine Stewart, supplied Kamras with construction paper for his classroom and a bit of an introduction to the school.
"Some of the things they raised were the lack of resources. They talked about the socioeconomic challenges that some students at Sousa face," Kamras recalled in an interview this week. "Some students here have encountered violence personally."
But from the start, he said, he was determined to "never use the negative factors as predictors of ability or potential."
During his first year of teaching, Kamras said, he sought to get to "know the students as individuals, taking the time to learn who they are, what they care about, what their needs are as learners."
Kamras made bridging the inequities in staffing and other resources between urban and suburban schools a priority. He got creative. He brought a cookie with colorful frosting to class to illustrate circumference, diameter and radius. He took his students to outings at the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials and made time after school to encourage their hobbies. He encouraged his students to take photographs of community life, and their prints were put on display in city offices at Judiciary Square and other places in the city.
And he played chess with student Wendall Jefferson once a week. "He would routinely defeat me, and I was trying my hardest," Kamras said.
During those games he learned about the student and his family, and he sought to inspire him to "focus in class and tap into the fullness of his potential."
"I think I was learning as a first-year teacher how to engage students and bring their natural love . . . for their hobbies into the classroom," Kamras recalled. "I wanted to use that as a catalyst."
Jefferson graduated from Sousa in 1999 as valedictorian, and Kamras regularly tutored him in math and science when he went on to high school. Now Jefferson is studying electrical engineering at Morehouse College in Atlanta. He is the first in his family to go to college.
"He said, 'Wendall, you have great potential,' " recalled Jefferson, 20, who attended the Rose Garden ceremony yesterday. "I said, 'I'm destined to do great things.' He said, 'Always keep that dream.' "
Kamras began "early bird" advanced math classes before the regular school day began, working to prepare students for the standardized test known as the Stanford 9.
He also came up with an idea that doubled the amount of math instruction by providing two teachers -- teaching separate classes -- for every student. The program was started for seventh-graders and then expanded to other grades.
"Our Stanford 9 scores went from approximately 80 percent below basic to 40 percent below basic in one year," he said.
Though the program continues in other grades, it was discontinued for seventh-graders because there weren't enough qualified teachers.
Kamras said he steadfastly refused to let "negative factors shape my perspective."
At the White House, Kamras, who with his boyish looks could have been mistaken for a student all dressed up, heard Bush say, "Your students are fortunate to have you in their lives."
He shook hands with Bush and -- holding his teaching award, a glass apple on a plaque -- posed for photos with the president and first lady Laura Bush.
Next year, he plans to travel the country to promote innovative teaching techniques. He's taking today and tomorrow off. But he plans on being back in the classroom, as usual, first thing Monday morning.