Birney Elementary School wanted a few good tutors.

First Sgt. Bob Daniels, U.S. Marine Corps, delivered.

Last Thursday, the students and faculty of Birney Elementary in Anacostia gathered in the school's auditorium to honor Daniels and the 15 tutors he recruited from the Marine Barracks at Eighth and I streets SE. The Marines at Birney are part of Operation Rescue, a program that has placed 950 volunteer tutors in 53 of the District's 124 elementary schools.

"The entire tone of the building has changed," said Rose Gidderon, coordinator of the program at Birney. "We have mostly women teachers here at Birney and a building full of Marines in uniform has been a great morale booster for the kids. Their presence has meant a great deal and we wanted to thank them."

All 16 Marines were honored on stage with certificates presented by some of the 75 students they tutored. But Daniels was the star.

The tall, broad-shouldered Marine, who coordinated the Noncommissioned Officers Extension Program, leaves for Okinawa in May where he will be training with the Fleet Marine Force unit for one year. He sat in the front row, medals shining on full dress uniform, and watched with obvious pride as the school bid him farewell with a military-style marching display by an 18-member Birney patrol unit, with a vibrant chorus of "Reach Out and Touch" and a plaque presented by PTA representative Julia Turner.

"Sergeant Daniels is a superhero," whispered second-grader Tony Brown to his neighbor as Daniels received his gleaming award. "He's the best Marine there is."

Daniels, 38, joined Operation Rescue when it originated in March 1981. The program was formed as an effort to help 10,000 pupils in grades 1-3 who failed to win promotion to the second semester. For several months, Daniels was the only tutor at Birney, but through phone calls and individual meetings he persuaded fellow Marines to donate what little free time they had in the busy barracks schedule to nearby Birney.

"I feel that as Marines we have something very special to impart to these kids," Daniels said. "We come from a very strict and disciplined environment and the kids come from a disadvantaged background where they are basically unprepared to learn. They look at us from head to toe--they see the haircut, the uniform, the polished shoes--so we can act as role models and motivate them, teach them to listen and perform."

Most of the Marines at Birney tutor math and reading skills on a one-to-one basis. They work closely with the teachers to find out each child's weaknesses and usually review instruction that has taken place in the classroom.

"He'll go over mistakes again and again," Melissa Hill, 12, said of Daniels. "It's more easy to learn than in a big classroom."

Sgt. Gina Copeland, 23, a barracks correspondence clerk, tutors Timeka Ross in reading skills twice a week. Copeland spent most of her session last Thursday afternoon standing at the blackboard circling prefixes, but she says the value of tutoring often goes beyond academics.

"To Timeka, I'm really just a friend in a green uniform," says Copeland, sitting on a wooden desk top. "What I give her is more than education. Sometimes she just needs someone by her side to hug her."

Daniels left the auditorium after the ceremony like a conquering hero: grasping outstretched hands in a swarm of waist-high admirers.

One of his greatest admirers stood in the empty corridor after the other students returned to class. Melissa Hill's eyes sparkled with tears.

"I will feel very lonely. He was my friend," she said.