As a boy in segregated South Carolina, George Thomas shared a teacher with six grades in one room. His mother sacrificed to send him to a private high school, where he fell in love with Shakespeare and won the award for greatest progress in English.
Thomas wanted to instill the same love of learning—and success—in Montgomery County children. Now retired as a business teacher, principal, and administrator in county schools, as president of Voorhees College, and as a federal program administrator, he looked at the achievement gap of African-American students and started a Saturday-morning tutoring/mentoring program to help.
In 1986, with 21 students and 19 volunteers, the George B. Thomas Sr. Learning Academy opened in a daycare center. Thomas won the use of county school space and materials as well as parents’ and students’ promises of regular attendance. When student scores began to rise, school leaders asked him to expand the academy. This year it expects almost 4,000 students.
Though targeting minority and at-risk youth in grades 1 through 12, the program is open to all for $20 a year. Two years ago, the County Council authorized an afterschool component that links sports with academics. Both programs are aligned with county curricula and run in part on county funds.
The payoff: Among first-graders, 7 percent met reading benchmarks in fall 2007; by spring 2008, that was 73 percent. Although just 22 Saturday sessions are possible in a year, one-quarter of third-through-eighth-graders climbed a full letter grade in both reading and math.
Now 79, Thomas works seven days a week recruiting, overseeing programs, and raising funds. He started workshops for parents and a scholarship program.
Students give Saturday School top grades. “I raised my E to a B and I was happy,” one youngster wrote. “It helped me to figure out how to study in college,” says an alumna.
“They could be sleeping in,” Thomas says of his thousands of students, “but they exude enthusiasm here.”
See all of the 2008 Washingtonians of the Year.