How come you know so much, what kind of a doctor are you?

by Divya Wodon, Naina Wodon, and Quentin Wodon

The child who asked this question to (Dr.) Don Messer, a member of the Rotary Club of Washington, DC, is from the Stanton Elementary School in Washington, DC. The school is located in Anacostia, one of the poorest parts of the city. Until recently, few children passed the mathematics and reading tests, but things have improved, in part because of a tutoring program run by Don.


Six years ago, with the help of the school’s principal, teachers, and a half dozen other Rotarians, Don designed the tutoring program in an innovative way. He focused on mathematics and reading, and on the types of questions asked in standardized tests. This was not to “teach to the test”, but to ensure that the children understood those questions well. He decided to tutor students by small groups of three or four to generate interactions and more learning. The groups meet once or twice a week for the entire school year and classes are held during the school day. The goal is not only to help the students learn, but also to help them understand that there is a future for them that often they didn’t know existed. When a child asked Don what kind of Doctor he was, it was because she knew only of medical doctors, and not of all of the other types of doctors that exist. Don believes that he and the other tutors are in a small way opening up a new window to the world for the students. The latest figures show that while only about 20% of non-tutored students are proficient in mathematics, 40% of Rotary-tutored students are proficient.

Over the years, Don and his fellow Rotarian tutors have learned how to connect with the students, how to keep their attention and interact with them, and how to be role models and tutors. At times, the children are noisy, sometimes misbehaving and arguing. But they do value the sessions, and they want to come. There is perhaps no better reward than having a fifth grader tell Don, “You know Dr. Messer, you’re my grandpa”.

Note: This story is reproduced with minor changes from a book published by the authors entitled Membership in Service Clubs: Rotary’s Experience (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

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