‘Adoption’ Has Proven Mutually Beneficial For Education Department, Amidon School

By Peter West — February 21, 1990 5 min read

Washington--David Sobba, a man used to the paperwork of government, admits he was a “little leery” the first time he set out to teach a student at a nearby elementary school the basics of the metric system.

“I hadn’t had extensive math since high school,” says the 24-year-old confidential assistant in the Education Department’s office of intergovernmental and interagency affairs.

But after several months as a volunteer tutor at the Amidon Elementary School here, he feels that both he and his pupil, Dionne Nesby, have benefited from the exchange.

For Mr. Sobba, a native of rural Greely, Kan., population 800, teaching in the urban setting provided a sharp and instructive contrast to his own educational background in a Catholic parochial school.

“It was as much of a learning experience for me as it was for her,” he says.

That kind of interaction, say Education Department officials, is what makes the agency’s relationship with its “adopted” school so important.

More Than Media Coverage

Amidon Elementary, located a few blocks from the department’s Maryland Avenue headquarters, has4been getting a steady stream of media coverage since 1983, when it was first linked with the department under an adopt-a-school program launched by the Reagan Administration.

Such high-profile visitors as former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and his successor Lauro F. Cavazos--not to mention Mr. Reagan himself--have traveled to Amidon for carefully choreographed “media events.”

Elayne Bennett, the former Secretary’s wife, founded a program designed to promote chastity among the school’s female students.

Amidon students also participate in federal events, sometimes by singing or giving recitations.

Just last week, all 400 Amidon students walked to the D.C. Public Library’s Southwest branch to receive free books from Marilyn Quayle, the Vice President’s wife.

But department employees and educators at the school insist that when the cameras shut down, the hidden--and most productive--side of the relationship goes on.

“I’ve had people come back for second and third years,” said Catherine Marston, a 2nd-grade teacher who has been involved with the partnership for five years. “There’s a guy who does lunchroom duty and a woman who does playground duty. Nobody does that if they’re looking for public relations.”

Established by former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, the relationship between Amidon and the ED has, unlike some other similar work-school partnerships, thrived under two administrations and three education secretaries.

“It’s a partnership that’s simple in design, but it’s been highly successful,” says Pauline Hamlette, the school’s principal.

‘A Caring Program’

At its most basic, the Amidon program brings ED employees to the school for two hours a week to tutor students in danger of falling behind their classmates in basic mathematics and reading skills.

In the 1989 school year, between 70 and 80 employees--two-thirds of them women--volunteered as tutors.

“Ms. Hamlette tells us we have helped a bunch of kids who wouldn’t otherwise have been promoted,” says Michelle Easton, the deputy undersecretary for intergovernmental and interagency affairs, who is responsible for organizing the program.

Students also are brought to the department to “shadow” employees, observing what they do in their daily work.

Ms. Marston says that the program makes a “marked difference” in students’ classroom work.

“It’s one more aspect of paperwork and that’s the thing that’s difficult,” admits Claire Raymo, a 2nd-grade teacher. “But, if you’re organized, it runs smoothly, and I’ve found the program to be beneficial in reinforcing skills taught in the classroom.”

For tutors, the personal connections made with students can often be emotionally involving.

“The whole point of the program is to build a one-on-one relationship,” explains Kathy Hunter, a special assistant to Ms. Easton.

She has tutored for the last two years a 2nd grader named Joseph Matthews. And though their relationship was at first very businesslike, Ms. Hunter recalls, Joseph eventually warmed to her and began discussing his life outside of school.

At the end of her first year of tutoring, she says, “I really missed him over the summer; I’d find myself thinking about him and wondering how he was doing.”

The strength of the relationship caused her to volunteer for a second year. And she hopes, she says, to continue her work with Joseph for as long as he attends Amidon.

According to Ms. Hamlette, the success of the program has been built on these personal connections between tutors and their students, some of whom may have few positive role models outside their homes other than teachers.

“It’s a caring program,” says the principal, “and it doesn’t just stay here. A child is able to call a tutor at home for extra help. And parents have allowed the students to go out on the weekend with the tutors.”

Renewed Commitment

Though participation in the Amidon project has waxed and waned over its seven years, department officials say they are now in a period of renewed commitment.

Credit for the rejuvenation is given largely to Ms. Easton, who has pushed the importance of the program, she says, because of the President’s emphasis on volunteerism.

In her first year as deputy undersecretary, Ms. Easton began trying to expand the department’s partnership role into areas such as teacher training and staff development.

That seemed a natural development, she explains, because “we have a lot of former principals and administrators here.”

Some areas of the program have been less successful than others.

An effort to recruit substitute teachers from among department employees, for example, has apparently stalled because of the amounts of time needed to meet the commitment.

Some employees find that even two hours of teaching each week take too heavy a toll on their regular work, and they drop out of the program. Ms. Easton, in fact, has been one of these.

“I felt terribly guilty,” she says about her decision not to continue her volunteer work this year.

For others, the volunteerism has provided a vista for comprehending the raw subject matter they administer each day.

John Barth, director of interagency affairs and a Bush Administration appointee, says that, while he still believes federal intervention is not the answer to America’s education problems, working at Amidon has chipped away at some preconceptions.

“I’m really impressed with Amidon,” he says. “We almost reflexively fall into a habit of bashing the local school system, but when you’re dealing with the realities, it’s not so easy to come up with pat solutions.”

The frustrations of trying to teach children to read, he adds, have also given him more insight into the nuances of learning.

“There are times when you feel impotent and you become very sympathetic to teachers,” he maintains.

For students, Ms. Hamlette adds, the program has opened a window onto the larger world.

“It has enlightened them about what the real function of the Education Department is,” she says. “They know now that it’s more than just a building up the street where people go to work.”’

Washington Editor Julie A. Miller contributed to this report.

A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 1990 edition of Education Week as ‘Adoption’ Has Proven Mutually Beneficial For Education Department, Amidon School