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Students in urban schools get big boost from pioneering tutor program

Comprehension and other critical skills improve dramatically with one-on-one help from Experience Corps' volunteers, a new study shows.

By Jane LampmanStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 8, 2009

VALUABLE TIME: Eloise White, an Experience Corps volunteer, works with student Luis Puell in Boston’s Blackstone Elementary School. A new study shows that students taught by Experience Corps volunteers made 60 percent more progress in critical reading skills than similar children not in the program.

Courtesy of Generations Inc.

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Nearly a dozen children bustle into the classroom on a Monday morning, each slipping into a chair next to a waiting older adult, sharing a smile and greetings. The pairs quickly get to work, diving into the texts of their current books.

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Karla Santana reads aloud to her tutor, Pat Patricelli, from "The Schoolyard Mystery." The two have worked together since fall, and the once-struggling fourth- grader now proclaims that she likes to read "because I learn things and it is fun."

Blackstone Elementary School in Boston is in its third year of working with volunteers from Experience Corps (EC), a program that engages adults 55 and over in tutoring children who lag far behind in reading. Founded in 1995, Experience Corps has grown to serve more than 20,000 children in 23 US cities.

A two-year study released today by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis finds that students with Experience Corps tutors make 60 percent more progress in critical reading skills, including comprehension, than similar children not in the program.

Perhaps even more remarkably, the results are the same regardless of gender, ethnicity, grade level, classroom behavior, or English proficiency.

"Given how hard it is to improve reading of low-proficiency students, I was really impressed with the findings," says Nancy Morrow-Howell, independent lead researcher from the university. "The numbers told us that Experience Corps has statistically significant and substantially important effects on reading."

The program is likely to expand further under the Serve America Act – recently passed by Congress and soon to be signed by President Obama – as Experience Corps has proven to be a boon to the children, the volunteers, and the schools involved. A previous study suggested that Experience Corps even improved student behavior.

Involving 800 students from 23 schools in Boston, New York City, and Port Arthur, Texas, the new study demonstrates that Experience Corps serves children who are among the poorest readers and are at risk of academic failure. Yet, along with other reading skills, the tutors were able to significantly improve their comprehension, "one of the toughest skills to affect," according to researchers. Special education children did not benefit as much as others in reading comprehension, however.

Overall, students' improvement was equivalent to the boost they'd get from being assigned to a classroom with 40 percent fewer children, researchers say. At Blackstone – one of the study sites – the extra help is felt throughout the school.

"It's proven extremely valuable to us as a school community because we have such a large population of English-as-a-second-language learners," says Mildred Ruiz-Allen, Blackstone's principal. "The children need a lot more time in the reading process than teachers can often give, and the volunteers give that one-on-one help."

Teachers in participating schools overwhelmingly see Experience Corps as beneficial to the students while being of little or no burden to them, the study reports. The program became so popular with Blackstone teachers that their plan to use four or five tutors expanded quickly to 20 during the first year.