Students Benefit from Experience Corps Volunteers
Decades ago when Irv Wilson attended grammar school in Virginia, reading trumped other lessons. While arithmetic also took a lead, reading stood out as essential in communicating thoughts and ideas and learning about the world.
"We didn't work on phonics and vowels and things like that," said the 71-year-old retired Department of Treasury employee. "We learned by sight mostly, [remembering] what we saw."
But now that Wilson has spent the past 10 years working off and on with elementary-age children in the local public school system – the latest being Orr Elementary School in Southeast – he realizes that his decision to return to the classroom had as much to do with his love of children as with his belief that it's important that they develop an appreciation for reading. Particularly after realizing that reading tends to be the one core area in which many black children are struggling.
Wilson, who lives in Northeast, counts among a volunteer group of tutors and mentors ages 50 and over, who visit city classrooms two or three times a week to assist students with phonetics – sounding out words – and reading comprehension.
The program Wilson works under, the District of Columbia-based Experience Corps, is an initiative of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). The program lists some 2,000 members engaged in helping students in kindergarten to 3rd grade in 170 schools in nearly 20 cities across the country – including Baltimore.
Tutors, who are well-trained to help students acquire the skills needed for academic success and improved behavior, visit schools for a few hours each week, either one-on-one or with small groups of children. More than 80 percent of their young protégés come from low-income families.
Students who spend at least one year in the program have more than 60 percent greater gains in critical literary skills compared to other students.
Team leader Dianne Jones, 57, who has been with the program since 2002, supervises volunteers [also referred to as members] at Neville Thomas and Kenilworth Elementary schools in Northeast. Jones said it's not uncommon for students and tutors to become attached. "Because some of the tutors work with students on a daily basis, they feel close, seeing them as grandparent figures," she explained.
"Most members meet with their students at least three days a week, so the students are looking for that comfort coming from an older person in helping them to read."
Wilson explained that he first became interested in Experience Corps in October 2002 when he was assigned to Ruth K. Webb Elementary in Northeast, which has since merged with Wheatley Elementary School.
"A friend of my wife's found out that I love reading and math, and she called to recruit me," Wilson said. "I started out as a tutor in the afternoon two days a week, and at the time, I planned just to tutor. But after about a year, [the school's administration] decided they wanted me to go into the classroom as an assistant teacher," he recalled. "I considered it and ended up with a stipend to work full-time from 2003 until 2005, when I decided to take a break."
Following a one-year sabbatical, Wilson returned to Webb for two more years. He stayed until being asked again in 2009 to take on assistant teacher duties. Wilson stayed another year, moving on to Whittier Educational Campus in Northwest, before he was asked last summer to tutor in the Experience Corps program at Orr.
Deborah Stiller, program director, said Experience Corps is a great concept and without volunteers, it wouldn't exist. "They are Experience Corps and they come with life experience, with skills and with the time to commit to students who are in need," said Stiller, 61.
"For me, it's the best of intergenerational programming – the marriage of older adults with time on their hands, and children who are in need."
Experience Corps is currently recruiting volunteers. For further information contact Sharvell Becton at 202-434-6445.