At 2 p.m. on a blazing hot afternoon recently, an unlikely group of federal employees and school children paired up in a third-floor classroom at Drew Elementary School, in a poor neighborhood of Northeast Washington.
In a classroom humming with the sounds of an air conditioner and syllables being puzzled out, Steven Mosby, 8, reached for "Oh John The Rabbit" and read aloud to his partner, Hank Oltmann, a senior program officer at the Corporation for National Service (CNS).
"My sweet tomatoes," Steven began, hesitantly, his eyes locked on the red orbs scattered across the page, rather than the long word at the end of the sentence.
"Sometimes looking at the picture doesn't help so much," Oltmann coached gently, pointing at the final word.
"P-p-p," Steven said, finally breaking triumphantly into, "Potatoes!"
"Yessir," Oltmann praised a beaming Steven.
Another small victory.
Once a week, Oltmann carpools to the school with colleagues from his office downtown as part of a federal initiative that so far this summer has allowed more than 1,000 federal employees from 30 agencies to volunteer as reading tutors, helping more than 1,500 children at 24 D.C. public schools and five other sites. All of the children read below grade level and are in danger of being held back from third grade.
The program allows federal employees to take an hour plus commuting time off once a week to participate, though they must make the time up later.
The federal initiative was conceived by Paul Glastris, a speechwriter at the White House, as a complement to an AmeriCorps program called "D.C. Reads." Since 1997, the program has brought in thousands of college students from local schools to tutor to first, second and third graders.
"The problem is that in the summer [college students] go home," said Karen Hallerman, coordinator of the program at the CNS. "Who could we turn to for help? In New York, it would be business people. Here, it's federal workers."
According to Hallerman, the White House, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Veterans Affairs have produced the most volunteers, while CNS, which oversees AmeriCorps, probably has the highest percentage of workers who volunteer.
At the end of the hour at Drew, as the children and their tutors straggled out of the reading room, Steven stopped to announce proudly, "I read three books today."
Federal employees and others interested in tutoring may contact Karen Hallerman at CNS at 202-606-5000, ext. 485.