David George swiveled in a chair as Corisa Davis struggled with the word river.
"Spell it for me," George urged as he and Davis sat together for a reading lesson in a fan-cooled second floor office at 14th and R streets NW.
"R--I--V . . . " began Davis, an 18-year-old Cardozo High School student, before giving up.
"Attack the word, attack the word," George chanted softly. "Always try."
"R--I--V," Davis started again, writing the word in her notebook, " . . . I--N?"
In a brick-by-brick effort to tear down the walls of illiteracy and "social promotion" that imprison some D.C. school children, George, a volunteer with the nonprofit For Love of Children (FLOC), is part of a growing campaign to enlist college students, federal workers, corporate professionals, senior citizens and others as tutors for individual pupils.
In Northwest Washington's Shaw community, the organization is expanding what is already one of the biggest efforts in the city to teach youngsters how to read. Begun in 1995 with six children, the neighborhood tutoring program enrolled 240 children last year and hopes to serve 350 this fall.
To accomplish this goal, which means reaching about 1-in-10 area children, For Love of Children says it is going to need as many as 110 volunteer tutors once school begins.
"We can all remember that one teacher, or that one adult, or that one moment, or book that changed our life," said George, a 31-year-old environmental manager from St. Croix who works for a local government association. "Whether it's for one semester or a whole year, you can go a long way in [determining] how a kid turns out in life. It can mean everything."
Corisa, who is learning disabled, is among a small group of students who signed up for the group's summer extension program, because she needs the extra help. When she started with a tutor in January, the high school junior couldn't read. Now, as she starts her senior year, she's testing at the third grade level--and striving for continued improvement.
"David gave me a lot of help," Corisa said with a wide smile. "He teaches me, 'Don't give up. You can't give up, because you're going to make it.' "
For Love of Children, a 33-year-old community service center, is looking for tutors who are willing to be trained and can spend an hour or two a week tutoring 5- to 19-year-olds at its offices. It also needs volunteers for its after-school tutoring programs at Garrison and Montgomery elementary schools and Shaw Junior High School.
The program is privately funded, according to Christine Young, the service center's tutoring manager, although a handful of AmeriCorps volunteers affiliated with George Washington University have been helping in the tutoring effort.
Young said about 1,000 of Shaw's 3,300 school-age children lack basic reading skills, including the ability to read a newspaper. Citywide, 62 percent of District residents of all ages are in the two lowest levels of reading proficiency and comprehension, according to the Washington Literacy Council.
For the children, tutoring provides an educational boost that also can be kindling for the imagination.
"It builds kids' sense of self. It helps them to know somebody really cares about them," said Lynette Neal, 35, whose son, D'Angelo, is in the For Love of Children program. "The tutors ask questions, 'What do you think will happen next? What do you think the character is feeling? What does he looks like?' Sometimes parents don't know how to do that."
Mary Robinson, resource and program administrator for federal poverty-related aid at Montgomery Elementary, praises volunteers for lavishing Shaw children with attention. The adult tutors, she said, help school professionals and function as informal counselors, which can be valuable in a neighborhood where some parents are afraid to let their children play in parks that also are drug markets, where 95 percent of elementary students qualify for subsidized lunches and where many children are growing up in broken homes.
"You can't help but notice" the difference tutoring makes, said Hezekiah Baxter, 42, a telecommunications specialist who was picking up his daughter, Jasmine, 14, from a tutoring session. "She picks up a book lying in the car, books lying at the computer."
Jasmine used to avoid reading because she got frustrated, said Baxter, who has put two older children through college. Now, "She can read the story and close the book and tell you everything in it."
In another For Love of Children office, Carol Throssel, 33, grades an arithmetic test with her student, Dorothea Williams, 14.
"At first, I could see when I just showed up she was like, 'Oh, she came back,' " said Throssel, a supermarket public relations specialist from Arlington, who remembers how much Williams needed someone to trust when they first met three years ago. Now the teenager has a secure and supportive place to go every week to find an adult who will help her learn.
"I can read better than I read before. I can read anything, I guess," said Williams, a 10th-grader at Washington High School whose favorite books are the "Baby-Sitters Club" series.
"People should come here because the tutoring program helps you a lot."
Young, the tutoring manager, said the average improvement for students in the program is 1 1/2 grade levels for every 40 hours of tutoring. About 90 percent of children re-enroll in the program each year, she said, as do 85 percent of the tutors.
"A lot of my friends have these jobs where they go to work and they're not sure what they've accomplished at the end of the day," Throssel said. "I can come here and see Dorothea go from a third-grade reading level to a sixth-grade level. That's an incredible reward."
CAPTION: Ronald Johnson and Phyllis George, his tutor from the community agency For Love of Children, laugh and join in a phonics song with a preschooler.
CAPTION: Diamond Lee, 6, and her tutor, Sarah Kilbey, play a game with the alphabet at Thurgood Marshall Center. For Love of Children needs more tutors in the Shaw neighborhood.
CAPTION: "I can read better than I read before," said Dorothea Williams, 14, of working with tutor Carol Throssel, left.