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House Page Board Beefs Up Scrutiny

All Applicants to Be Interviewed

High school students seeking to enroll in the House Page Program this fall will face stricter scrutiny than in years past, including mandatory interviews with a newly created admissions board.

That change is among a handful of adjustments — which also include nomination requirements and reductions in the length of time most pages will serve — recently approved by the three-member House Page Board. The new system is intended to more closely screen candidates and eliminate any potential disciplinary problems before they arise.

“The responsibility we have here in Washington to protect and have a good program for these kids is a huge responsibility,” said Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.), the board’s chairman. “You have high school kids … that are not only working for us but that we have to care for, feed and monitor and protect. So we have to get a better handle on it.”

In recent years, the House program has expelled a handful of pages for violating program rules. Earlier this year, seven students were sent home for allegedly abusing household cleaners, and in May 2002, a group of 10 Republican-sponsored pages were removed from the program for allegedly using marijuana.

The admissions panel, perhaps the most significant new initiative, will comprise the Page Board members, the Clerk of the House, staff from both the Page School and its dormitory, and floor staff representing both parties.

“These [are] adults who have dealt with kids for numerous years, understand their needs, their desires, their wants and possible problems,” Shimkus said of the new interviewing team. “By them being part of the admissions board they will be able to look at the applications for signs of possible problems even before they’re asked to join us.”

In addition to creating the admissions board, which will screen students applying for the fall 2004 semester, the Page Board has set new requirements for Members nominating students. Lawmakers must now sign a certification form stating that applicants meet academic requirements, provided letters of recommendation and submitted an essay. That certification process will also verify the student’s home state and confirm if he or she is not a member of the lawmaker’s family.

Under the previous guidelines, no interview requirement existed for potential pages. Members nominating pages — each political party has its own process for selecting which lawmakers participate in the program — were not mandated to interview applicants, though some lawmakers may have elected to do so and may continue to interview them in the future.

“There will be an attempt to really work with Members, probably closer than we have before, to address the importance of this,” Shimkus said. While the admissions board will review each applicant, and potentially eliminate some candidates, the Republican and Democratic leadership will maintain final approval of all students to the program.

Beginning this fall, the Page Board will also restrict the majority of pages — all of whom are high school juniors — to one semester of service, rather than the full academic year.

“When we’ve had problems, a lot of them would occur in the spring. As in any school … kids get pretty comfortable after a year,” said Shimkus, a former high school teacher.

Restricting students to one semester preserves “a lot of newness,” Shimkus said.

“We think that will be helpful in keeping the kids focused on their responsibilities,” he added.

Under the current guidelines, Republican lawmakers typically appoint pages for a full academic year while Democrats tend to place students on a per-semester basis.

Program administrators will likely select a “handful” of students to serve a second semester, however, in an attempt to create some consistency within the program.

“The high performers will be asked to stay over,” Shimkus said.

The Page Program also offers two summer sessions, which are significantly shorter and do not include an academic component.

In conjunction with the semester restrictions, the Page Program will also admit fewer students per semester. During the 2003-04 school year, the program enrolled 72 students, but only 66 will be admitted for the first half of the upcoming academic year. Appointments are divided between the two parties, with Republicans receiving about two-thirds.

Earlier this year, board member Rep. Dale Kildee (D-Mich.) noted that even with a slight reduction in admissions, the number of students participating in the program would actually increase because of the one-semester restriction.

The Page Board also issued a clarifying guideline requiring Members to draw applicants from their home states, a rule Shimkus said did not previously exist. Leadership in either party will be allowed to select applicants from across the nation.

“It was just accepted that a Member can appoint pages, so that was the only standard,” he noted.

One requirement the board considered but later rejected would have raised the academic standards students are required to meet to qualify for the program.

The board weighed raising the minimum grade-point-average to 3.5, approximately a B-plus, from the current 3.0.

“We want to make sure they’re academically proficient,” Kildee last week. But the academic requirements, he added, shouldn’t be “so narrow that we exclude students that would be good pages.”

The admissions changes represent the first significant alterations to the program — which dates back to the 1800s — 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.

The addition of an admission board has drawn praise from at least one page alumnus, Matthew Loraditch, who graduated from the program in 2002.

“There were Members who did not know their pages, and I think it would have helped. You need to know who you’re submitting,” said Loraditch, who serves as site administrator of the U.S. House Page Alumni Association Web site.

But Loraditch, appointed by then-Rep. and now Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich (R), questioned the effects of limiting students to one semester, suggesting it could create logistic difficulties, notably for full-year courses such as physics or mathematics.

“If I was working in a guidance department … that’s a whole logistic thing I wouldn’t want to deal with,” he said.

In addition to academics, serving a full year also allows pages to follow the budget and appropriations processes in their entirety, Loraditch noted.

“You really see how Congress works,” he said. “You basically are going to see everything thing if you’re there the whole nine months.”

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