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Capitol Pages: Limited Schooling, Unlimited Opportunities

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Washington--About 98 percent of Principal John C. Hoffman's students go on to college, even though they only go to classes from 6:15 A.M. to 10 A.M. each day, hold down full-time jobs that often keep them up (and away from studies) until midnight, take no laboratory courses, and attend a school judged by a number of its former students to be "inferior" in many respects.

Mr. Hoffman is principal of the Capitol Page School--an educational curiosity that functions, like so many entities in this city, as one small piece of the vast machinery of government.

The school was established by the Congress in 1946 to provide for the formal schooling of pages--the young people whose presence in the halls of the Capitol was a time-honored tradition, but whose academic progress had been, at best, informally encouraged.

Since the days of the first Continental Congress, in fact, Senators and Representatives have brought teen-agers with them from their home localities to perform such menial tasks as running errands, making copies of documents, and taking and answering messages.

According to Congressional documents, few of the early pages received the benefit of a formal education while working in Washington. Among them was nine-year-old Grafton Dulaney Hanson, who, under the august sponsorship of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, was appointed the Senate's first official page in the early 1820's. It was a job he kept for 10 years.

Young Grafton's lack of a formal education, however, apparently did not prevent him from moving up in the world. He was decorated for bravery in the Mexican War "while still comparatively young" and later became the Postmaster of the Senate, according to the documents.

Today, there are 101 pages--70 serving the House and 31 serving the Senate. They range in age from 14 to 18, and can serve the Congress for no less than two months but, conceivably, for as long as four years. In the fiscal year 1982, the government spent approximately $1 million for their education and salaries.

Education Starts with Politics

The education of a page begins, rightly enough, with politics: The job of page is a "patronage" position, meaning that the teen-agers get here either by knowing or by favorably impressing the "right" people. The House and Senate each have five-member patronage committees, made up of majority-party members, that are responsible for rationing page appointments. The committees inform members of both parties, who are usually, but not always, high on the seniority list, that they are eligible to make a page appointment for the coming session of Congress. Generally speaking, the most senior Congressmen get to make the appointments, but junior members are given the opportunity to make some appointments as well.

The selection criteria for page appointments vary from legislator to legislator, the pages say. Some, but not all, of them say that they earned their appointments over other applicants for the jobs because they had better grades.

Once the chosen few arrive in Washington, their out-of-school education continues more or less around the clock. Most pages live in small groups without adult supervision, meaning that they have to take responsibility for housekeeping, shopping, and arranging travel to and from home. Depending on the length of their stay here, some pages will "take care of themselves" for a full year or longer, earning a salary of approximately $9,000 annually and budgeting it like any other Congressional employee.

Despite its visibility in the halls of Con-gress, this unusual system has remained one of the legislative branch's more obscure creations, one of those facets of the federal government that everyone knows about but rarely inquires into.

Last summer, however, that situation changed dramatically when a former page surprised the media with sensational accounts of pages buying drugs and procuring prostitutes for Congressional staff members.

A few weeks later, after the "page scandal" had been reported daily in the press and on television, the former page admitted that his allegations were false. But at the height of the press attention, House Speaker Thomas P. O'Neill Jr. established a special commission to re-examine the page system, to determine what was wrong with it, and to suggest how it could be improved.

One of the commission's chief recommendations was that the Congress establish a dormitory-type facility for the 101 pages. Until now, the pages have been responsible for securing their own lodgings. Many of them find rooms or apartments from a list of "approved" establishments that is kept by the Doorkeeper of the House.

Late last year, the Congress appropriated funds to convert an old hotel right behind the Cannon Office Building into a dormitory, and recently about two dozen of the pages moved into the facility. The rest of the pages are scheduled to move there next month.

Perhaps of equal importance, the commission had a lot to say about the formal education of the pages--much of it not very complimentary.

In its final report delivered last Aug. 16, the commission noted "that every witness, including the pages, with whom [it] met, spoke of deficiencies in" the Page School, which is situated on the third floor of the Library of Congress's Jefferson building.

Roger Davidson, a Congressional Research Service specialist who testified be-fore the commission, cited a survey of 34 pages conducted in 1976 by the service for the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education. It found that:

89 percent of the respondents said that the quality of education at the school was inferior to that of their previous school;

97 percent said that school equipment was inferior;

91 percent said that curriculum selection and quality were worse;

73 percent said that student discipline and interest were worse;

More than 75 percent rated counseling opportunities at the school as ''poor."

The commission also noted the difficult educational challenge faced by the principal and the staff of the school. Among other things, its members agreed that:

It is very difficult to provide a solid academic program in a single self-contained school for 100 or so pages who range in age from 14 to 18 and span high-school grades 9 through 12;

It is very difficult to provide a traditional high-school academic program between 6:15 A.M., when classes at the school begin, and an hour or so before the House or Senate convenes, generally about four hours later;

It may not be advisable for a page to spend his entire high-school career at the Page School;

It is questionable whether and to what extent the pages' work in the Capitol is meshed with their educational activities at the school.

Quality of Education

Mr. Hoffman, who had been a teacher and principal in the District of Columbia school system before coming to the Page School 13 years ago, responds that the quality of education at his school "is good, but it's not outstanding."

But he is quick to insist that the school accomplishes its mission successfully under difficult circumstances. And he adds that the school's problems are "totally a result of the conditions imposed upon us by Congress."

"There's an old Army adage: Situation and terrain determine your course of action," Mr. Hoffman says. "That holds true for us here."

The special commission investigating the system recognized the problem Mr. Hoffman and his staff of six teachers face in trying to reconcile the pages' need for a sound secondary-level education with the demands that Congress imposes upon them.

Those demands play havoc with the school's schedule on almost a daily basis.

During the 1981-82 school year, for example, the Congress convened before 10 A.M. on 82 days, cutting short the classes of many students. In addition, legislators worked past 10 P.M. on 22 days, meaning that many students were excused from completing homework assignments and from attending classes the following day.

Mr. Hoffman points to other problems as well. Fire codes, for example, prevent the school from offering laboratory courses in physics and chemistry.

Furthermore, because the pages have only a short time to study at night, the school must limit its offerings severely, he adds. Elective courses and extracurricular activities available in most high schools are a luxury that the pages simply can't afford.

"I tell every student who comes here that their mission is to serve Congress first, and that the Congress has been gracious enough to afford them an education while they are here," says Mr. Hoffman. "The school exists to serve the pages, and the pages exist to serve the Congress, in that order. That's a fact of life here that definitely inhibits a superior education."

Despite these obstacles, Mr. Hoffman proudly points out that virtually all of the school's students go on to college. And at least three alumni eventually worked their way back to the Capitol--Representative John D. Dingell, Democrat of Michigan; Representative William Emerson, Republican of Missouri; and Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut.

The pages seem to accept the school's shortcomings with few misgivings. "Page School is what you make it," says Leon Kalamaris, a 17-year-old from Bethesda, Md. "You have to make yourself do what is required. I figure anyone who works is going to be tired. Any homework you're going to get you won't want to do. But I want to get ahead, so I know I have to do it. If I don't, I won't get anywhere."

Tyrin M. Brickner, a 17-year-old from Spokane, Wash., says he came to Washington "not knowing exactly what was in store" for him, but adds quickly that he "hasn't been disappointed with anything."

"My studies have gone down. I know I'm not doing as well as I could," he says. "But here you're an employee. What goes on across the street," he continues, nodding in the direction of the Capitol building, "comes first."

"What goes on across the street" is, as their principal suggests and they agree, the pages' most important education--an unparalleled opportunity to observe the federal government in action.

Kelly Carter recognizes that she is an atypical teen-ager. A native of Los Angeles, Kelly shares a townhouse here with another teen-age girl. She has been a page for two years and has her heart set on attending the University of Notre Dame next fall.

Kelly says she knows more about the arcana of the federal government than most people will ever know. And she says she has benefited from having to balance the demands and conflicting pressures of a full-time job and her education.

Dedication and Responsibility

"This is one job that hardly anybody can do," she says. "It takes a lot of dedication, a lot of responsibility. If you're lazy or a pessimist, forget it. I've known a few people who came here for a week, realized what they were getting into, and headed straight back for home."

"Sometimes when I'm trying to get my homework done late at night, I wish was back home," admits Bill Lanham, a 17-year-old from Charleston, W. Va., and the president of the school's student council. "But when I look back at the experience that I've had, I know that I'll be ready for college because this is the way things are there.

"All in all," he continues, "being a page has been a fantastic experience. There aren't too many people my age who know as much about the way the government works as a page does."

That's an observation that the members of the Speaker's commission on pages appeared to agree with. In their final report, the commissioners remarked that the page system "is essential to the efficient functioning of Congress, and that service as a page is a uniquely valuable experience to those selected."

"The commission finds that the pages have performed this service admirably, but under conditions which need improvement," the report continued.

The commission said that the system could be improved, in part, by limiting page appointments to a student's junior year, and by converting the school's educational program "to provide an innovative, alternative curriculum in American studies" that "would incorporate the pages' work experience and the unique resources available in the capital area."

The fate of those recommendations remains in doubt, however. The commissioners urged that the changes be made by the beginning of the current academic term, but the Congress has taken no action on the proposals.

Skeptical About Recommendations

Mr. Hoffman says that he has been somewhat skeptical from the start about the special commission's recommendations regarding the proposed ''enrichment" of the school's curriculum.

"Our mission has always been to provide the pages with a traditional college-prep curriculum, and if you look at our placement record you can see that we've done a pretty good job," he explains. "But now they're talking about our adding courses like 'Congress and the Legislative Process' or 'Congressional Budgeting and Managing.' That sounds fine, but we already have so little time to do what we're doing now." Any additions to the school's curriculum, he says, would make its mission "that much more difficult to achieve."

That mission, he adds, has already been made difficult enough as a result of negative publicity generated by the scandal. Many pages report that they still receive "funny stares" from people when they tell them what their job is, and at least one says that even now she occasionally receives calls at home from reporters wanting to know "the inside story about the scandal."

Mr. Hoffman says that he is still "heartsick" about the scandal's fallout, "not only for those who were allegedly involved but for those people in the Congress and the pages who have worked to make this a successful program."

"I've come to know at least 1,300 pages while I've been here, and I've known fewer than a dozen who have ever been in any sort of trouble," he says. "At any other school in the country, that would be quite a record."

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