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Shared Love of Reading Pairs Senators and Students

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After a morning spent casting a key vote in the Senate Finance Committee, leading confirmation hearings for surgeon general nominee David Satcher, and questioning tobacco-company executives, Sen. James M. Jeffords rushes to make his "power lunch" a few blocks from the Capitol.

But he's not headed to a posh Washington bistro to meet with lobbyists or powerful constituents.

Instead, the Vermont Republican is hurrying off to spend an hour in the library of a nearby elementary school, where he'll be deep in discussion with a 10-year-old girl as they share a school lunch and their love of reading.

Mr. Jeffords and his young partner, Sherryl Grant, a 4th grader at Robert Brent Elementary School here, meet every week--same time, same place. They read books and talk about school and Sherryl's plans for the future. It is one of the most important engagements on his busy calendar, Mr. Jeffords says.

"It was very difficult getting here today," with everything going on in the Senate, the lawmaker conceded. "But this hour is very relaxing for me. This is the most rewarding."

Some 450 other congressional volunteers--about a dozen members of the Senate and the rest congressional staff members--spend an hour each week with a student in the District of Columbia schools as part of the Everybody Wins program. The senators visit with children at the 220-student Brent Elementary, where 180 students take part in the program. Staff volunteers are spread among nine public schools in the city.

In its third year in the Washington system, Everybody Wins pairs federal workers and business professionals with students for mentoring and a chance for the youngsters to read aloud. It also trains parents to reinforce the importance of reading at home.

New York Roots

Mr. Jeffords, the chairman of the Labor and Human Resources Committee, which oversees education, launched the program in Washington in 1995 after hearing about its success in New York City. Arthur Tannenbaum started Everybody Wins there nine years ago when, as a top executive for a New York textiles company, he became concerned about the poor reading performance of public school students in the Big Apple.

He approached the principal of an elementary school close to his business and asked if he and a few colleagues could spend time reading with the children. He chose the lunch hour, the best time for business people to leave the office, because it did not require that students be pulled out of the classroom.

Mr. Tannenbaum took early retirement several years ago to devote his full-time attention to the burgeoning New York program, which has grown to 2,000 volunteers in 25 schools. He is helping organizations in other cities start similar efforts. In both New York and Washington, local businesses that participate help pay for the program's staff, including a paid coordinator for each school.

"What you've got to do is motivate the kids ... show them that reading is interesting and enjoyable," Mr. Tannenbaum said in an interview last week. "A lot of these kids are never read to at home. The kids really look forward to seeing the people, and get really devastated when the people don't come."

But the volunteers do come, many of them religiously. Everybody Wins requires reading partners to commit to a full school year of weekly visits with their assigned pupils. Many of the volunteers share a student with a colleague or staff member to ensure that someone is available each week.

'A Must'

On the same day of Mr. Jeffords' visit to Brent Elementary, other senators spend time there with their young charges.

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., helps his partner, 2nd grader Jasmine Harrison, carefully chart the books she has read this year. He recalls proudly the number of new words each selection has challenged her to learn and boasts of her knack for remembering words after seeing them just once.

"I get more out of reading with Jasmine than she does," Sen. Kennedy said. "I am here every Tuesday. It's a must."

Mr. Kennedy's commitment inspired Sen. Mary L. Landrieu, a freshman member from Louisiana, to get involved, too. Ms. Landrieu, a Democrat, said the time she spends in the school has brought new perspective to her work and its impact beyond Capitol Hill.

"I just didn't think I could do this more than once a month," said Ms. Landrieu, who had tapped a staff member to read with her partner, Kishell Alexander, when she could not attend. "But now I would not miss this hour for all the money in Washington. With some things you do on the Hill you never see the result. But I can come here and see Kishell and see her progress weekly."

Kishell, a 1st grader at the school, is shy when she's asked to talk about herself and why she enjoys reading. She covers her mouth with her hand and fixes an embarrassed grin. But when she reads to Ms. Landrieu from one of her favorite books she exudes excitement and confidence. When she stumbles over a difficult word, she turns to her partner for help, then quickly picks up where she left off. "I love to read," the 6-year-old said. "I especially like to read about girls and boys and animals."

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