ANNAPOLIS -- Three years ago, Joseph D. Speller, a black Montgomery County lawyer, was stewing over the influence one wise guy in flashy clothes could have over his son and others like him.
Yesterday, Mr. Speller shook the hand of the president of the United States as he was honored for his answer to the problem -- a program that encourages excellence in math and science among young blacks by pairing them with U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen who act as tutors.
"We need millions more like you," President Bush told Mr. Speller during a sun-drenched ceremony on the academy grounds. "People concerned about the condition of their communities, and moved not just to complain about it, but to do something about it."
The program, known as the United States Naval Academy/Benjamin Banneker Honors Mathematics and Science Partnership, became another of the president's "Daily Points of Light," an award honoring community service organizations.
"You're helping kids learn math and science," Mr. Bush told the 70 mids who volunteer as tutors and mentors. "But more important, they get to see firsthand your discipline, dignity and determination -- the kind of example they need to succeed."
It is that sort of role model Mr. Speller said he was looking for when the idea for the honor society began percolating in his mind. He was upset about the new student at Benjamin Banneker Middle School that his son, Chris, said "was strutting around like he was God Almighty" and was pressuring him to use drugs. "I felt, why let one bad apple spoil a whole orchard full of beautiful apples if I could make a difference," he recalled.
The society started in the Montgomery County school cafeteria with about a dozenstudents and their parents offering help in science and math and motivational talks. Now, about 150 students from elementary through high school age ride buses to Annapolis every other Saturday morning to study with academy professors and midshipmen in the laboratories in Michelson Hall.
"They help us if we're behind in our schoolwork," said Erick Mitchell, a seventh-grader at Cabin John Middle School. "And it's a good opportunity for us to excel in something."
Sonya Daniels, a senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School who is planning toenter Spelman College in Atlanta in the fall, gets tutored regularly in calculus and, she says, she "gets a lot of advice" from the midshipmen. And the mids say they gain from the program.
Lionel Hines, a plebe who gave a motivational talk to many of these youngsters when he was a senior at Paint Branch High School, said helping them makes him feel he's "not so much of a nobody," after a week of kowtowing to upperclassmen.
"It helps you get through the next week," said Errochia Herring, a plebe from Joliet, Ill. "I remember when I was younger, someone encouraged me and helped me. Now, this is a way to give something of myself to encourage others."
Before the ceremony, Mr. Bush, a confessed science illiterate who dropped his physics course at Yale after one class, worked his way around four tables in a basement lab where about 20 students had set up experiments.
Catherine Johns, a fifth-grader at Woodacres Elementary School, wasso nervous that she referred to a crib sheet as she explained how she and her partner, Akila Jones, of Bells Mill Elementary, were separating water into its two components, hydrogen and oxygen. The president didn't notice the crib sheet, Catherine confided later.
Mr. Bush looked almost stupefied as Reggie McKoy, from Stone Gate Elementary, explained to him the inner workings of a battery. Then the president quickly whipped out a fountain pen to sign autographs for Ulysses Bofah, who was using copper and zinc rods to set off a flashbulb, and the others.
Mr. Bush sat down in front of a computer screen to learn about graphics from John Porter, an eighth-grader at Cabin John Middle School.
"He did very well," John reported later. "I think he already knew how to do some things on the computer."