I tried to be patient.

But after more than four months of waiting for Prince George's County school officials to call me back with directions on how to become part of the system's new mentoring program, I hadn't heard anything. So I called last week to check on the status.

Back in September, I first submitted my name as a potential volunteer and wrote a column urging other concerned residents to do the same. It was my small way of assisting Superintendent Iris T. Metts in her attempts to generate 10,000 mentors willing to go inside the county's schools and work with students.

One reader said she saw the column, called the system's mentoring office and left her name, address and a message--but no one ever called her back. She called again three weeks later and gave the information a second time to an employee, who told her that letters would go out soon to potential mentors.

By last week, the same would-be volunteer still had heard nothing. Frustrated, she wrote me to inquire about the program.

"Is this a great idea that's become bogged down in the administration of it," she asked, "or is it truly going nowhere?"

Her message and my own waning patience prompted my telephone call last week to Sarah Johnson, the new coordinator of the system's mentoring program.

The good news is the program is about ready to take off. School officials are planning a press conference in upcoming weeks to introduce the new mentoring council, a group of community leaders who will meet monthly with Metts to advise her on mentoring.

The members of the advisory council are representatives of organizations that already provide mentoring in the county's schools. Through those groups, the system has a base of 2,500 to 3,000 volunteers.

"We've gotten a lot of folks who've signed up with us," Johnson said. "If there are people who have signed up and have not heard from us, we need to hear from them again. It's moving. It's just that it's probably not moving as quickly as some would like to see."

Using a model developed by a Dallas-based organization called HOSTS (Help One Student To Succeed), the school system has selected 10 elementary schools--two from each of the system's five regions--to participate. The schools were chosen by their regional directors, and on Feb. 3 and 4, four staff members at each school will be trained to keep the program flowing smoothly.

Here is how it will work:

The schools will identify students struggling in reading, assess the students' reading needs, then feed the information into a computer database that will generate a prescription for each child. Based on that prescription, a teacher will develop individual lesson plans for the children. The students will work on the prepared reading lessons with assigned mentors for 30 minutes a day three times a week.

Some children may be assigned more than one mentor because some volunteers may not be able to commit to three sessions a week.

This is a promising idea.

The goal of the mentoring program is to boost student performance on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP), which measures the ability of students to perform academic tasks and solve problems. If students can't read well, they are doomed before they even sit down to take the tests.

When MSPAP scores were released in December, Prince George's officials learned that the system's scores had dropped, with only 31.1 percent of students scoring satisfactory. Although the state's other large school districts also saw their scores decline, Prince George's remains ranked second from the bottom of the state's 24 school districts.

That should concern all of us who live in the county, regardless of whether our children attend the public schools. In countless ways, the quality of the public schools determine the quality of life in the county.

The mentoring program, at least, offers us a tangible way to help.

That's why it troubles me that no one bothered to call me back after I offered in September to do my part. Taking the time to respond to a volunteer's offer of help is not just about adding names to a list. It is about building public confidence that together, we can make the system better.

What message does it send when an eager volunteer responds to the superintendent's call for 10,000 mentors and no one even bothers to call her back?

Johnson said she did not know that potential mentors had gotten lost in the system. "I don't want to lose people," she said. "That is the fear. We've been out there saying we need mentors."

She seems eager to make up for lost time, and I am still eager to do my part. If you are interested in becoming a mentor, please call Johnson at 301-883-5304.

To comment or suggest a story idea, feel free to write me at 14402 Old Mill Road, Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md., 20772; send me an e-mail at frazierL@washpost.com; or call me at 301-952-2083.

MENTOR ASSIGNMENTS

Mentors will be assigned to the following elementary schools:

REGION ONE

Princeton

Apple Grove

REGION TWO

Seabrook

Cooper Lane

REGION THREE

William Beanes

Doswell E. Brooks

REGION FOUR

Francis T. Evans

James Ryder Randall

REGION FIVE

Mount Rainier

Thomas S. Stone