Turning A New Page

Change Afoot in Student Selection

Posted March 19, 2004 at 5:12pm

The House Page Board is preparing to institute a slate of changes to the high school program it oversees, ranging from revamping admissions policies to cutting the number of students enrolled.

“Everything is always under evaluation,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), the board’s chairman. “There may be better ways we can operate the Page Program.”

The proposals, discussed by the board in a meeting Wednesday, will be presented to House leadership for approval before any changes are implemented.

While the board’s proposals would represent the first significant changes to the program since 1998 — when a four-month review by Andersen Consulting Inc. resulted in a switch to longer school days and increased supervision, among other modifications — Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) noted that “no drastic changes” are included among the new plans, which focus, in part, on the admissions process.

“We might have an additional screening step,” Kildee said, noting that a required personal interview could be added to the application process.

Under current guidelines, students apply to the program through their hometown Members’ offices. Potential pages must meet academic requirements, provide letters of recommendation and write an essay. Lawmakers are not required to actually interview the applicants (although some may choose to do so).

It is not clear if the interviews would be conducted by Members, their staffs, or the House Clerk’s office, which administers the page program.

A spokesman for the House Administration Committee, which oversees the Clerk’s office, declined to comment on any of the proposals, pending the approval of leadership.

Other changes could include limiting students — all of whom are high school juniors — to one semester of service, rather than a full academic year.

According to House Page School administrators, under the current guidelines, Republican lawmakers typically appoint pages for a full academic year while Democrats do so on a per-semester basis, occasionally reappointing students for a second semester.

(The page program also offers two summer sessions, which are significantly shorter and do not include an academic component.)

In conjunction with the proposed one-semester limit, Kildee noted, the program may also reduce the number of students accepted into the program.

“If we go to a semester rather than a year, we’re already doubling the number of potential candidates,” Kildee said. The program now enrolls 72 students during the academic year and 78 students during its summer sessions; appointments are divided among the two parties, with Republicans receiving about two-thirds.

The board’s proposals come several months after seven students were expelled from the House Page School for allegedly abusing household cleaners. Nearly two years ago, in May 2002, a group of 10 Republican-sponsored House pages were removed from the program for allegedly using marijuana.

Although the practice of hiring pages dates back to the 1800s, House officials established the program’s current structure in 1982.

The program’s most recent restructuring was spurred in part by an investigation into published accounts of sexual misconduct and drug use by House Members and pages.

The investigation found the allegations of drug use baseless, but did lead the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct to censure then-Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Mass.) and former Rep. Daniel Crane (R-Ill.) for having sexual relations with pages.

In response, the House created its own Page School — until 1983, the Capitol Page School served both chambers — and its first-ever dormitory. Additionally, lawmakers established a minimum-age requirement, hired on-site counselors, set curfews and mandated other checks to ensure the safety of the students.

More recent program changes, made following the 1998 review under then-Rep. Tillie Fowler (R-Fla.), included academic improvements, as well as restricting pages’ schedules to 40-hour weeks and enforcing stricter limits on pages leaving the Capitol campus.

In fall 2001, the House program moved out of the O’Neill House Office Building and into a new First Street Southeast dormitory, a former nurses dorm for St. Providence Hospital that had been used as office space after it was acquired by the Architect of the Capitol in 1984.

Both Clerk of the House Jeff Trandahl and Residence Hall director Jenelle Pulis stressed the central role the dormitory plays in the “community” environment administrators seek to create for the students.

That atmosphere was virtually nonexistent prior to the 1982 overhaul, when many students lived in boarding homes or private apartments and didn’t necessarily socialize with one another.

“This is a community-home environment,” Pulis said. In addition to the students, who are required to live in the facility, six full-time staff members live in the page dormitory and four proctors are on the grounds part-time.

The two-story building contains several large recreation areas for students, one featuring a jumbo television and another a pool table for students’ use, as well as a laundry room, small kitchen and breakfast area, workout facility, and music rooms.

Despite the home environment that administrators work to craft, the building is not without the security measures that protect other facilities on the Capitol campus. A Capitol Police officer mans the building’s entrance, and monitors a magnetometer and X-ray machine.

In addition to programs that encourage the students to interact with each other — on a January visit to the dormitory, fliers promoting candidates for the school’s version of a student council dotted the walls — school officials note a recently added community service program that aims, in part, to enhance the experience of living in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

While some students volunteer with the local mentoring organization Horton’s Kids, others take part in the cleanup of a park near the residence hall.

“Our kids really benefit from it,” Pulis said.

It is notable that in much the same way pages take part in a carefully scripted school day — they must be seated in the school’s auditorium in the Library of Congress Jefferson Building for an assembly at 6:45 a.m. every day— their free time is also governed by a latticework of rules that cover everything from basic curfews to not leaving the residence halls without a buddy.