On a day most kids are enjoying a break from school, 3,000 Montgomery County students are opting to wake up early and spend a few extra hours in the classroom during Saturday School.

The tutoring and mentoring program sponsored by The George B. Thomas, Sr. Learning Academy, Inc., recently was awarded $10,000 by The Washington Post Charities fund. This school year, the grant money has been used to pay certified teachers to spend a sixth day each week at school, helping students like John Calle, 9, catch up and get ahead in math, reading, and language arts.

Calle, a fourth-grader, is learning more so he can make money and go to college, he said. Stephen Ruiz, also 9, said he comes in on Saturday to prep for a busy week ahead so he won’t feel lost when the teacher calls on him in school on Monday.

“If I never came here, I wouldn’t understand the questions,” he said.

For 25 years, Saturday School has offered students in grades 1 through 12 the opportunity to get extra academic help on the weekends. Not only are struggling students brought up to speed at Saturday school, high-achieving students also come in to get tutoring in college-level science courses they are taking in high schools, such as Advanced Placement Biology.

Saturday School president and founder George B. Thomas Sr., who was the first African-American superintendent in the Montgomery County Public School system, founded Saturday School in 1986 to close the academic achievement gap between minority and white and Asian students.

“We have helped close that gap,” Thomas said.

Saturday school is hosted at 12 high schools that are close to the District border and in the center of the county, where many students qualify for free or subsidized school meals and are learning English as their second language.

Samikia East teaches reading to first-graders at the Saturday School’s Wheaton High School site. Many of her students are native Spanish or Amharik speakers and only hear or speak English in school, said East.

That sixth day in the classroom, she said, makes all the difference in their academic performance.

In spring 2010, almost 62 percent of first- and second-graders who participated in Saturday School reached their grade-level performance goals, called benchmarks. The previous fall, only 11 percent achieved such objectives.

And more than 27 percent of students in third through eighth grade also saw improvements to their report card in English and math in 2010.

Thomas attributes much of this academic achievement to Saturday School’s low teacher -student ratios.

“The rigor gets better as the ratio gets smaller,” Thomas said. Currently, for every paid certified teacher working in the program, there are 18 students. The ratio used to be 1 to 10, but over the last four years the program experienced a 40 percent budget reduction, said its marketing and fundraising specialist, Jan Chapman. Consequently, the program was not able to pay as many certified teachers and a half hour was shaved off their weekly tutoring.

About 400 volunteer tutors, including parents and high school or college students from Bowie State University and Montgomery County Community College, help keep the student/tutor ratio small, but there is still a need for more teachers as enrollment continues to grow, Chapman said. By December, Chapman said, the program will hire three to six new certified teachers with The Washington Post Charities grant money. This will allow an additional 100 students to sign up for the program.

Investing in enthusiastic staff is important, said Michael Thomas, executive director of the learning academy. Teachers like East don’t have to come in on Saturdays, said Hill. “They want to be here,” she said.

“I just love teaching,” said East who has taught at Saturday School for seven years in addition to teaching pre-kindergarten through 2nd grade at Takoma Park Elementary School during the week. So coming in on Saturdays is not a chore, she said.

“It’s more a joy.”

Washington Post Charities is a McCormick Foundation Fund which aims to support D.C.-area nonprofit organizations with programs focused on increasing educational opportunities for disadvantaged children. For more information, visit washingtonpostcharities.com.