WASHINGTON — Washington.-- There's a man loose here who says that in a very few years, "the District of Columbia will have the finest elementary school system in the country." He is neither a mental patient nor a politician.
No subject on the American agenda produces more pessimism than public schools, and nowhere are the schools regarded more dismally than in the nation's capital. Politicians and educators discuss the situation endlessly. They agree repeatedly that it is entangled with broken homes, drugs and teen-age pregnancy, that the whole thing is an interlocking puzzle and therefore hopeless.
Looked at as a whole, it may be. Even if the White House were willing to spend money on them, the problems together are so big that no government program could solve them at once. But sometimes movement begins when an individual says let's ignore the big picture -- let's stop wringing our hands and start somewhere.
Since the problem is education, it makes sense to start with literacy. Since the government is stingy with money, it makes sense to find private money. Since the overall challenge is so complex it cannot be quantified, it makes sense to slice off part and put it into numbers everyone can understand.
Norman Manasa has been trying it that way for more than 20 years. His program is the Washington Education Project, in which college undergraduates win course credits for tutoring students with reading, writing and basic arithmetic. He has started demonstration projects in six states from New York to California in the past six years, and they have been consistently cheered.
But the small and stubborn Mr. Manasa has never, until now, dealt with anything as big and stubborn as the whole District of Columbia school system. Those who don't know how dedicated he is would surely laugh when he says that what he plans "will transform the entire school system, and on the test scores alone, make the elementary schools of Washington the light of the nation."
His plan is to involve the capital's 10 colleges in providing 63,000 hours of tutoring here during three school years starting this coming September (10 colleges, 105 undergraduates each, tutoring 60 hours each). Tutors work with two children at a time, and each child may get anywhere from 10 to 60 hours. Thus the total number helped will run in the thousands.
The cost of all this will be a mere $300,000, which would hardly fund another TV discussion of the problem. Mr. Manasa intends to raise it from private and corporate donors. His appeal to the corporate community is that "in this technological age, companies must have literate help to create corporate wealth and profits." Of course, helping such a program is "a profound social good in itself, but there are good business reasons, too." The first contribution came from a Washington law firm.
But ambitious as it is, won't 63,000 hours of tutoring spread over three years and thousands of students be just a token gesture toward solving Washington's situation? Mr. Manasa thinks not; he survives by expecting the rest of the world to be just as enthusiastic as he is.
Teachers who might think bringing in tutors reflects on their own ability have been receptive instead; they are realistic enough to take all the help they can get. They decide which children are tutored. They send letters praising the undergraduates. So do parents.
Once a program gets started, there is no trouble recruiting undergraduate tutors. "They're amazed at their ability to teach children to read," says Mr. Manasa. "They can't get over this secret power they didn't know they had. It's very heady stuff. They go back to their classes and dorms and talk about it."
If 63,000 hours is not enough to change things, he says, "we'll just double it. What we're going to do is make this city dream dreams. A lot of people here are heartsick about the schools but don't know what to do. If they're shown what will work, they'll step forward."
Washington's Mayor Sharon Pratt Dixon, impressed by the programs Mr. Manasa initiated at a dozen colleges elsewhere, has written that business support should be forthcoming, "since corporations well understand the need they have for a literate work force." The city is currently looking for a new superintendent of schools; former superintendent Vincent Reed is on the board of Mr. Manasa's group.
While President Bush is not involved in this, when he took office he spoke of community agencies as "a thousand points of light," doing good without costing federal money. Imagine what a thousand lighthouses like Norman Manasa could do in towns across the nation.
Ernest B. Furgurson is associate editor of The Sun.