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This college reunion takes place every week in an inner-city school

While many US colleges are organizing an annual day of community service for alumni, some graduates of Smith College have committed to volunteer work year-round.

In Washington, D.C., 30 alumnae of the women's college have adopted an inner-city elementary school, Martin Luther King Jr., where they give weekly tutoring sessions, read to the students, or organize field trips. (Related story, page 19.) "The idea is to keep it small, but to stick to it," says Margaret Greene, a 1958 Smith graduate who leads the program. "It's so rewarding that anyone who has done it continues."

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Some of them have been volunteering for more than a decade. The program started 13 years ago because of the ideas of the then-president of Smith, who wanted to encourage more qualified minority applicants to come to the college. The Smith Club in Washington responded by organizing tutors for a local school.

Most of the weekly tutors are retired. Those still working come to the school to read for an hour once or twice a month or to help arrange activities.

A Smith graduate who is head of education for the local symphony sends docents to the school and has arranged for free family concerts. One tutor who became close to a group of girls continued their relationship when the students graduated from sixth grade, meeting for a book group at a public library and taking them on outings. After she took the group to visit a charter school, four of them enrolled.

Tutoring efforts, which focus on reading, target second-graders. Barbara Harper, who belongs to the Class of 1951, joined the program after a professional career tutoring more-advantaged children. "Their experience is so limited," she says of her second-graders. "You read a story about an elephant, but they have never seen an elephant because they haven't been to the zoo. You need to do a lot of background work for them to get perspective."

Inspired by the D.C. group - which welcomes graduates of any college - Smith alumnae in New York and Chicago are duplicating the effort. "There's a bond," Ms. Harper says of the alumnae and students. "So even if I didn't teach them anything, I showed them that someone cared."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor