IGNORant, an ant-like robot from the planet Ignoramus, doesn't want the children of the world to be able to read or use numbers, so he goes around erasing every word and number he see with invisible ink that spurts from antennae on his head.
But IGNORant has some formidable foes in such super heroes as Numero Uno, the Word Wizardress, Dot the Decimal Point, Inchworm and Fraction Force, who come from the planet Wonk ("know," spelled backwards) and give children the power to use words and numbers.
D.C. public school officials hope to make these comic strip characters major players in the lives of hundreds of elementary school students this year. It is part of a new program that uses comic strips featuring black super heroes, to help slow learners at the third-grade level with their reading and math.
The comic strip series was developed by D.C. teacher David Aaronson and illustrated by Gary Jones, a student at the University of the District of Columbia, for use in this year's "Operation Rescue" volunteer tutoring program.
Operation Rescue originated last March as an effort to help 10,000 youngsters in grades one through three who failed to win promotion at the midyear point in January under the school system's new, tougher standards. Operation Rescue's 900 volunteers tutored students for four hours a week and were credited with helping to reduce by 6,000 the number of students who failed.
This Monday is the start of "Operation Rescue Week" in the city, and volunteers again will be able to sign up for the program throughout the week at elementary schools, libraries, fire stations and university campuses. Half of last year's volunteers already have agreed to return, according to Betti Whaley, the program's coordinator.
Tutors also can sign up for Operation Outreach, an after-school tutoring program for seventh-to-ninth-graders.
Last semester's Operation Rescue was a hastily organized effort, spearheaded by former City Council president Sterling Tucker, to help slower students catch up. This year's program is more elaborate. The emphasis, organizers say, is on preventing failure, since the standards --- which require students to master specific skills in reading and mathematics before they can be promoted --- have been extended beyond the first three grades and now go through the sixth grade.
Because students in grades four through six have not been subjected to the new standards, greater numbers of elementary students are expected to fail this year.
Some of the tutors last year complained that they did not receive enough instructional materials or training for the task. Thus, training sessions with public school asministrators will be held once a month this year, according to C. Vanessa Spinner, volunteer coordinator for the public schools.
All tutors will receive instructional kits, with those for the third-grade level getting an additional five-part comic strip series featuring IGNORant and the other comic book characters. The books will contain exercises in mathematics and reading, for the children to complete.
For example, in the first installment, IGNORant erases all the numbers from a clock, and the students are asked to fill in the numbers. In another segment, he erases certain letters from words printed on signs, and students are asked to replace those letters correctly.
Aaronson said school officials are banking on the idea that most youngsters are "comic book freaks." Other school systems have used the comic strip concept successfully. Chicago, for example, has a popular program that uses cartoon-style drawings featuring people and places known to the students, to help them learn to read.
Aaronson said that such materials should also make it easier to get parents involved in helping children at home with their schoolwork.
The children also will receive instructional kits to take home. The kits contain such items as Numero Uno flash cards, with multiplication problems parents can do with their children. And the kits come with a book cover that features the multiplication table and all the super heroes on one side and examples of fractions, Roman numerals and geometric shapes on the other.
The comic book series will be used by 600 third-graders this year, but Superintendent Floretta D. McKenzie said she would like to see the use of such instructional materials expanded to other grades.
"It is an example of how we can show parents, teachers and students that learning is fun," McKenzie said. She noted that the comic books were designed and printed by D.C. students at the Lemuel Penn Center, a vocational school for the graphic arts.
Aaronson said that most of the characters in the comic strip series are black, since about 96 percent of the D.C. school system's students are black and few traditional comic strip heroes are black.
"Many television and comic strip heroes are violent -- they participate in a lot of physical battles. But we wanted to show that you can be a hero in a battle of the wits," Aaronson said.