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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    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.
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    VOLUNTEER LEADER: Experience Corps volunteer Bill Wolff reads with Yalitza Sepulveda, a student at Blackstone Elementary School in Boston. Experience Corps volunteers tutor about 60 children at Blackstone.
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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.

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.

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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.

"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."

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.

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