Two years ago Marshall Clayton, then 7, liked books and reading about as much as skinned knees and liver. Now the third grader is "almost up to his grade reading level," and is an avid reader, bringing home extra library books from school.
It wasn't a fairy godmother or a miracle that "turned Marshall around," according to his mother, Carolyn; it was volunteer tutor Mildred Smith, who was provided by Shiloh Baptist Church in Northwest Washington. s
Marshall says he now can finish his favorite book, "Chris and the Giant," which he couldn't read before "because the words were too hard . . . Now I get to read the endings of stories -- and they sound good."
It is such successes with Marshall and other children in church tutoring programs over the last 40 years that provide some of the underpinnings of hope for "Operation Rescue," acting school superintendent James T. Guines' recent proposal for volunteer tutoring in District of Columbia public schools.
Earlier this month, Guines asked Sterling Tucker, former assistant secretary of housing and urban development, to recruit 1,000 volunteer tutors to work with the 6,000 first, second and third graders who failed to master enough skills in reading and mathematics to be promoted at the half-year period.
Tucker said this week that he will rely heavily on churches to supply those volunteers, beginning with a request that pastors promote the drive on Sunday, March 8, with appeals from the pulpit. "We're also asking pastors to designate a church recruiter who will sign up people after church," Tucker said.
Tucker said he does not intend to intrude on current tutoring programs but added, "Churches can be a great source of help and we need them. I'm hoping to get many recruits there." He said he also hopes to recruit heavily from community and education groups.
There is no citywide clearinghouse for information on church-run tutoring and consequently there are no firm statistics on the number of programs or students. But a Washington Post spot check around the city found at least four other programs in addition to Shiloh Baptist's, great enthusiasm and an array of success stories.
"I've seen borderline students come in and end up graduating high school with honors," said Virginia Cochran, codirector of a tutoring service at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Cochran, a retired D.C. schoolteacher and counselor, organized the after-school program 19 years ago as a means of keeping junior and senior high school students from dropping out of school. Cochran estimates that over 1,500 students have passed through the program.
Each Thursday evening, Cochran runs an hour "study hall" at the church for 60 students and 45 to 50 tutors. Some tutors meet with students outside the church as well.
Over the past few years another church, National City Christian Church at Thomas Circle, has sent paid professional tutors to work with students at Thomson Elemtary School and supplied volunteers to tutor children in their homes.
"This one-on-one and small-group tutoring seems to have been the answer for many children who were very far behind in reading," said H. Jeannette Felton, recently retired principal of the school.
"It is a very effective program. Several children moved ahead a whole year in reading after only six months," said Felton. "That's unusual progress. One little girl and boy I know experienced complete social and scholastic turnarounds."
Some students entered the Shiloh Baptist Church tutoring program after repeating grades two or three times and many read on a second-grade level, according to the director, the Rev. Ronald Austin. "But there's no question that these kids have improved," said Austin, adding that this year 15 Shiloh volunteers are tutoring 20 elementary and high school students in a program that has operated off and on at the church for 40 years.
Two newcomers to such tutoring, Calvary Baptist Church at Eighth and G streets NW, and St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, started after-school study halls this year.
Three afternoons a week, tutors from St. Stephen's work with 25 students at Bancroft Elementary School, according to Don Burns, the program director.
Four tutors at Calvary Baptist Church in Chinatown help newly arrived Chinese students with homework, working an average 25 daily, according to the Rev. Harry Ng, who heads the program. "Sometimes they don't understand the language very well and they couldn't always understand their homework," he explained.
According to program directors, it is difficult to document students' progress because they often come from many different schools, and teachers and principals don't have the time to keep track of individual pupils.
Cochran is "reluctant to make wild claims" about the success rate of her program, but said that about once a month "I hear from a graduate of the program who has turned a corner." Cochran said she also usually notices a "gradual improvement" in the grades of students who are tutored. Cochran required that the students bring their report cards to measure progress and to verify that students are in school.
Despite their successes, Cochran and other program directors doubt that Tucker will be able to come up with the 1,000 volunteers he's seeking. "I always have five or six more students asking to be tutored than I have tutors available," said Cochran. "Dedicated tutors are hard to come by. I can't just ring a bell and one drops down from heaven."
But, said Cochran, those who do volunteer are in for heartwarming experiences. "I think the students have helped us more that we've helped them. They [tutors] enjoy the opportunity to work with a young person." Sometimes, said Cochran, tutors and students develop deep, lifelong friendships.