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.
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"The design of the program intentionally takes a lot of the stress and strain off both the school system and the classroom teacher," says Lester Strong, chief executive officer of Experience Corps. "We've worked very hard to create a model we know to be effective."Skip to next paragraph
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The national program works through local affiliates. Generations Incorporated in Boston runs one of its largest tutoring efforts in the US, working in 17 area schools, including Blackstone.
"Reading Coaches is our core program," says Mary Gunn, Generations' executive director, "but we are about mentoring, helping a child have a caring relationship with an adult that gets them more interested in school and helps them eventually have better self-esteem and better academics."
The national office has produced a structured curriculum, which can be modified to fit local needs. Generations Inc. provides hundreds of books for each school, and volunteer tutors – most often retired people – are given instructions with each book on challenging words and "conversation starters" to encourage comprehension.
Reading Coaches, which is helping 60 Blackstone students this year, pulls kids out of class for a 40-minute, one-on-one session twice a week. "We also have a special lunchtime mentoring program, where the volunteer works with kids on a literacy-based project," says Bill Wolff, a former marketing consultant who serves as volunteer coordinator. Mr. Wolff began tutoring at Blackstone because it was a neighborhood school and now spends four days a week supervising the effort.
The impact of the interactions extends beyond improved reading skills. The tutors "provide a role model for children in setting expectations about the importance of learning ... and they bond with the children, stimulating them to do their best in [many areas] of the school community," says Ms. Ruiz-Allen.
Schools see a change in disruptive behaviors. Studies show that classrooms with EC students have had a 50 percent reduction in the number of children referred to the principal's office.
It's clear from the atmosphere during Blackstone tutoring sessions that volunteers and students enjoy their tasks.
"It's probably one of the most exciting things I've done in my life. You see kids who don't have a chance, and you can help them," says Ms. Patricelli, who retired from a marketing job at the Sheraton Corporation.
Brenda Burke has been tutoring for five years and does it almost full time now. "I like to see the kids progress. Some come in and can't read a lick, or they fidget all over the place," she says. "But usually, by the end of the year the evaluation shows they are doing well. It means I might keep some child from going to jail or being a mother on welfare because they can't read, and it makes me feel really good."
Indeed, studies by Johns Hopkins and Washington universities have shown that Experience Corps tutors themselves benefit from their work: They experience better physical and mental health and develop larger social networks and higher self-esteem as a result of their participation.
About 10 percent of funding in the new Serve America Act will be set aside to encourage older adults to engage in national service, and Experience Corps hopes to capture some of those slots. The Act will more than triple the number of Americans of all ages engaging in national service, and create several new volunteer opportunities in clean energy, education, and health corps.
Some in Experience Corps who volunteer many hours a week are already AmeriCorps volunteers, and receive small stipends. The Act gives older participants the option of passing on the AmeriCorps education award to a child.