Class Act

Photographer:  Steve Hay

A whip-smart grad student by day, Nate Tatro spent most nights last fall acting dim-witted. As Ellard Simms in the play, "The Foreigner," Tatro comically misunderstands basic instructions, teaches a British person how to speak English and at one point wears a drinking glass on his head. 
"I'd never wear this in real life," says Tatro, referring not to the glass but to his character's baggy overalls and plaid shirt. 
In his real life, Tatro often wears a tie as the assessment manager at the AppleTree Institute, an organization that runs three public charter schools in Washington, D.C. He works full time in addition to studying developmental psychology at George Mason University. At AppleTree, Tatro tracks the progress of 600 preschool children, testing their math, reading and language abilities, then analyzing that data to help teachers fine-tune their curriculums. 
Though juggling grad school and a full-time job can be tough, Tatro's employment has perfectly positioned him to collect data for his dissertation on how students' classroom behavior affects their education. Similarly, Tatro's psychology research has given him insight that serves him well as an actor, says Frank Pasqualino, who has directed Tatro in several plays. 
This apparent serendipity is no accident, says Tatro's former supervisor Lydia Carlis. 
"Nate's a really talented individual—he can cook, he can sing, he can act, he can teach," she says. "He's always looking for ways to make connections between his many interests."  
Trombone vs. theater  
As an undergraduate, Tatro's talents won him a triple scholarship in academics, music and theater to Lycoming College in Williamsport, Pa. As a condition of his funding, the school required him to play trombone in the school's band, participate in plays and maintain a B average. The grades weren't a problem, Tatro says, but band and play rehearsals often conflicted. 
"So I went to my adviser, and she said, 'Why don't you just do musical theater and it can count toward both?'" Tatro recalls.  
Freed from some of his scholarship obligations, Tatro aimed to triple major in psychology, physics and creative writing. The latter two, however, fell by the wayside when Tatro discovered the wide world of psychology. He signed up for classes in experimental psychology, developmental psychology, neuroscience and abnormal psychology, to name a few, and ended up taking double the number of classes required to complete a psychology major.  
"I loved it so much, I just took everything under the sun," he says.  
In particular, he became fascinated with the way that early childhood experiences can set children up to succeed later in their lives, he says.  
As a result, psychology graduate school was an easy choice for Tatro, who enrolled at George Mason University's developmental psychology PhD program in 2005. But while he enjoyed the intellectual challenges of the largely theory-based program, Tatro wanted to work directly with children. At the same time, he needed rent money.  
He found a solution to both problems on Craigslist.  
Preschool preparation  
Amid online ads for dubious jobs involving private modeling and making millions working from home, Tatro noticed a position he was perfectly trained for: part-time assessor at AppleTree. For two weeks in 2008, Tatro tested preschoolers on their math, language and reading skills. Using the Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test, for example, Tatro asked children to "point to the baby" or "point to swimming."  
His supervisors were impressed. "He was very fast and efficient with the assessments, but also warm and welcoming with the students," says Carlis. 
When a full-time job opened up at AppleTree, Carlis invited Tatro to apply. Though he wasn't sure how he'd manage a full-time job and course load, Tatro decided to go for it. Now as assessment manager, Tatro oversees temporary workers who test preschool students at the beginning, middle and end of the school year. He analyzes that data to see how students are progressing and pinpoints areas where individual students or entire classes may need help.  
"The goal of AppleTree is to close the achievement gap between kids who are living in under-resourced communities and those who are not," says Tatro. 
After he graduates, Tatro hopes to continue that mission on a larger scale, by advocating for universal access to preschool. Research shows that early literacy education can boost children's cognitive, social and emotional development, says Tatro, and that's something children from every socioeconomic background should have access to. 
Though he's not sure what shape his future will take, Tatro says he'll always make time for theater. That's no small pledge, says Pasqualino, Tatro's director in "The Foreigner," which played for six nights a week in September and required weeks of rehearsals. But theater seems to come naturally to Tatro, says Pasqualino. 
"A lot of actors strive to get the insight that Nate has from his professional training," he says. "Plus, he has an intuitive sense for comedy, and I think that comes from his intelligence." 
As far as Tatro is concerned, however, acting is much more like play than work. 
"It's just good mental hygiene," he says. "Doing theater makes me forget about my other stresses."