Joanna Hoffler, 13, typed a school paper. Her brother Joseph tapped on the computer next to her. Just outside their room four younger children were reading, writing and reciting their lessons. Meanwhile, upstairs, a group of older students learned new vocabulary words.
Every afternoon, and all day Saturday, the two-story, red brick home of Henry and Mary Ann Gaskins becomes a makeshift schoolhouse.
The Gaskinses value education so much that five years ago they decided to open their Southeast home near Pennsylvania and Branch avenues to neighborhood children who wanted help with their schoolwork. Today the couple tutors more than 60 schoolchildren from throughout the metropolitan area.
"A lot of people ask us why we are willing to turn our home into a school," said Mary Ann Gaskins, 45, who works as a consultant at National Aeronautics and Space Administration headquarters.
She said she believes that charity and civic responsibility begin at home. "And I tell them: Because we want to help the black children learn so they can have the same opportunities in life that other children have.
"There just isn't enough emphasis placed on education in the black community," she continued. "Too many of our children want to be instant superstars, and they just don't realize that only one in a million make it to that level."
Henry Gaskins, 51, who holds a doctoral degree in education, spent several years working in a Rockville tutoring service in which most of the students were white and attending private schools. Gaskins said that he taught such skills as how to be an active listener, effective note-taking techniques, memory skill through visualization and association, speed reading and time management, as well as how to prepare for standardized tests.
"For $35 an hour these kids were working their way into some of the best schools in the country and scholarship money," said Gaskins, who now works as a supervisor at the Library of Congress. "I knew that most black families could not afford that service, so I decided to bring it to them for free."
The couple arrive home at 4 p.m., bringing some of the children with them. The other children begin arriving at 4:30. Mary Ann Gaskins takes over the den to teach math, English, composition and reading on a one-on-one basis to the elementary school children.
Henry Gaskins conducts his one-on-one sessions in an upstairs room that has been converted to a classroom with two folding tables, chairs, books and a television set connected to a videocassette recorder with standardized test questions. He teaches vocabulary to all students but concentrates on preparing high school students to take the College Board exams.
The couple's school closes at 8 p.m.
The Gaskinses are no strangers to children. They have five of their own: Two have finished college, one is enrolled at Florida A&M University and two are at home and join the tutoring classes.
The classes had been free but the Gaskins recently began asking students to pay $5 a session -- enough , they said, to keep up with the expenses of school supplies such as the computer software, photocopying, books, videos and even the food they provide for the children.
"We always have a pot of something brewing in the kitchen," said Mary Ann Gaskins. Children of parents who can't afford the $5 are still welcome, they said.
Annette Moody said she heard about the Gaskinses through a friend more than two years ago and has been bringing her sons Aaron, 9, and Albert, 11, since then.
"My Albert needed help desperately in reading," said Moody, who works for AT&T. "He gave up learning at the end of fourth grade and I started paying a tutor $15 an hour, and he still didn't want to work." But he wants to work at the Gaskinses, she said, "and that plays a big part in his learning."
Moody said that the $10 she pays for her two children to attend once a week seems inexpensive when compared with the help her children receive. "They get books and materials to take home, they work on the computer here, and these people have the patience of Job," she said. "They just have a natural way with these children."
Anthony Saunders, 16, said that he has been coming to the Gaskinses' classes for almost four years and that he plans to continue for as long as possible. "You never know too much," said Saunders, who said he wants eventually to run his own sporting goods business. "I learn something every time I come here, and my grades are proof of that," he said, boasting of all A's and B's on his latest report card.
Saunders' father, William Saunders, who came to pick up Anthony, said that his son is "making tremendous progress."
"He was an average student, and between the Gaskinses and myself, he began to get on the honor roll," said the proud father. "He even surprised himself.
"It's not just reading and writing . . . . the Gaskinses know how to instill motivation in the kids, and that's when you really begin to notice the difference."
Mary Ann Gaskins said she and her husband at first focused mainly on tutoring high school students preparing for the national standardized college placement exams, but it soon became evident that many of the children were doing poorly because they lacked elementary skills.
"We decided we would start with the fourth grade because their minds are like sponges then," said Mary Ann Gaskins.
Joseph Hoffler, 14, said he actually enjoys the Gaskinses' classes on Saturdays. In fact, he said, he would rather go there and work on the computer than sit at home and watch cartoons.
"The other kids at school teased me and told me that I couldn't read," he said, as he pushed another correct answer on the computer, "but the Gaskinses have been helping me sound out my words just like the dictionary."
Joseph said his reading has improved in the past three months since coming to the Gaskinses every Saturday. Now if anyone teases him, he knows it's not because he can't read but just because "they want to get under my skin."
His sister also enjoys her Saturday tutoring classes. "Sometimes I do my homework here," said Joanna Hoffler. "They have more information here than I have at home," she added as she typed a paper on Brown v. Board of Education.
The Gaskinses said they have an open-door policy. But no matter how many kids are there at any given time, they still work with them one-on-one.
Henry Gaskins said he is afraid that as the classes grow he may need help in order to give the children the same quality of time and attention.
"It's just the two of us, and we stay so busy," he said. "There are some nights we are so tired that we just fall out."
"It makes a big difference when you tutor one-on-one," he added. "If we could hire a few other teachers to help out, it would be a tremendous help, not to just us but to the children as well.
"We want to reach as many minorities as we can and show them they can be proud by learning and doing well in school."