Delontae Britton read aloud deliberately, his index finger waltzing over the words of his favorite book, "Grrrrr . . . " by Tony Bradman and Shari Halpern.
"Sometimes when I'm walking down the street, I look at my feet. Grr . . . "
He paused to look up from the cardboard page to make sure he was getting it right before he read on, "and imagine how I'd feel with big, sharp claws on the end of my paws. Grrrrr . . . "
Delontae, a second-grader at the Marie Reed Community Learning Center in Adams-Morgan, was staying after school--not because he was in trouble, but because he is one of 400 elementary school students working with Heads Up, a nonprofit organization that runs education and enrichment programs for children living in the most impoverished parts of Washington, D.C.
Shane Funston also was there. Funston, a freshman at George Washington University, beamed like a proud older brother as the group of fourth- and fifth-graders he tutors with classmate Ricky Gendreau put away their art supplies to prepare for their reading lesson.
"These are our boys," he said, smiling.
Funston and Gendreau are among 53 GW students who donate time to tutor low-income children for the Heads Up initiative at the Reed Learning Center. The organization's goal is to tap into student volunteers' potential and the city's unused resources as a means to provide poor families with learning opportunities.
Heads Up tutors 65 to 70 children in each of six District public schools--Anthony Bowen Elementary School in Southwest, Brookland Elementary School in Northeast, Tyler Elementary School on Capitol Hill, Davis Elementary School in Benning Heights, Birney Elementary School in Barry Farms and the Marie Reed Learning Center. The schools qualify for Title I federal assistance, are attended by severely disadvantaged children and have extremely low academic performance levels.
The children stay after class every day of the week during the school year and attend between 12:30 and 5:30 p.m. during the summer months. The university student volunteers, supervised and extensively trained before they begin service, are committed to come only two afternoons a week, but most come three or more.
"The idea is getting college students involved," said Vincent Pan, who co-founded Heads Up with classmate Darin McKeever, who is now director of communications for the program. In addition to teaching the children the basic skills they need, "we're teaching the college students about civic responsibility, social responsibility and leadership. Hopefully they will be committed to continue going out into these communities after college."
Although the college students are not getting course credits, some are allowed to count the experience as a work-study to pay off part of their financial aid debt while others consider their time at Heads Up as the equivalent of an internship.
Each of the six elementary schools has a partnership with a local college or university. Students from the University of the District of Columbia and American, Catholic, Georgetown, Howard and George Washington universities who are interested in community service, work-study funding or volunteering with AmeriCorps find Heads Up a way to have an impact on the lives of less fortunate elementary school children.
And the college students learn just as much as the children they tutor.
Emma Greenman, one of Heads Up's 80 year-round AmeriCorps volunteers and a sophomore at GW, lived in a group house with fellow AmeriCorps volunteers near the Reed school last summer.
"Living in the neighborhood broke down a lot of barriers," she said, adding that she and the other volunteers got to know "where these kids come from as opposed to being upper-middle-class white kids coming in" to teach them how to read.
"When you live in a dorm, you can't feel D.C.," she said, explaining the impact of living near the school as opposed to visiting to tutor. Living in a "fixer-upper" town house at 11th and Euclid streets NW, "you're really seeing how it is in D.C. and what needs to be changed. It's hard not to become active in the community, and as a tutor it's a lot easier seeing where the kids are from."
Greenman's service with AmeriCorps is about to end. Initially, she wasn't planning to renew with Heads Up, "but every time I come here and I see these kids, I want to stay."
The program idea came to Pan, 26, when he was president of the Phillips Brooks House Association--an umbrella public service organization that runs several community enrichment programs--while attending Harvard University.
"Being head of that group taught me a lot," said Pan, who realized that getting college students involved in community service "at that stage of their life has a big, long-term impact on what they end up doing with their lives in these fields."
Since graduating from college in 1996, Pan has been working full time researching and then launching Heads Up with seed money from fellowship programs and local foundations, university work-study programs and an AmeriCorps grant from the Corporation for National Service. Pan chose Washington not only for its unfortunate list of urban ills--poverty, child neglect, crime and middle-class flight--but also for its wealth of untapped resources--classrooms, available funding and a lot of university students.
"We're not necessarily reinventing the wheel," said Pan, whose brother, Philip, is a reporter at The Washington Post. "We're coordinating many disparate wheels."
In addition to energizing the collegiate community and forming local partnerships among schools, neighborhoods and universities, the third fundamental approach the organization takes is integrating family members.
Robin Mosby is an educational aide at the Reed Learning Center, mother of a third-grader there and a Heads Up volunteer. Her daughter Lauren spends 25 hours a week being tutored by the organization.
As both a faculty member and a mother, Mosby can attest that "the program is really making a difference in children's learning skills. . . . You see it in their reaction to the work. They're more reactive, it's more hands on for them now, whereas before they would just sit back."
She is also glad to see college students actively involved. It's good, she said, for children who have so much stacked against them to "put their hands on somebody who's at school as opposed to hearing about someone who disappears to this place called college."
In addition to recruiting parents as volunteers and educational field-trip chaperons, the program also hires older siblings to work in summer programs as junior teachers. The mission is being extended to help Heads Up children get through high school and on into college so that, one day, they might come back to their neighborhood and help children like the ones they used to be.
"I'm going to college," said fifth-grade student Brian Rivas who, like 65 percent of the student body at Reed, is Latino. The only bilingual school in the Heads Up partnership, Reed poses an additional challenge in assuring certain students special English tutoring.
Sometimes, "they teach us more than we teach them," joked Funston, who said his conversational Spanish has improved markedly since joining Heads Up.
For now, though, Brian is bettering his own reading skills while taking the initiative to tutor his younger sister at home, perhaps preparing to be a Heads Up volunteer himself some day.
"She's only 5 years old," he said, "but I help her with her homework."
Heads Up employs 10 people full time and relies on 100 volunteers during the school year and 80 AmeriCorps slots year-round. Nearly half of its funding comes from third-party sponsorships such as university work-study funds and education awards. The rest of its money comes from business and individual contributions, foundations and the Corporation for National Service.
"Funding is a huge, huge challenge," said Pan, who spends most of his time seeking new sources of support. "You'd think it would be easier getting people to invest in these kids."
But for now he is pleased with the progress his "university neighborhood initiative" has made.
Pan has been awarded the prestigious Brick Award for community leadership by the national nonprofit Do Something, and Heads Up has won the American University-sponsored 1998 Capital Area Peacemaker Award and the 1997 American University Spirit of Service Award.
He smiled as he watched college students sitting around miniature tables on a recent Thursday, teaching and learning from the children. "Last year this time, none of these kids would have been up here," he said gesturing around the Reed Learning Center's vast open indoor space. "They were running around outside or at home."