Passing on a Love of Reading to the Young

AARP’s Experience Corps harnesses the skills of retired professionals who want a chance to give back.

A volunteer with the AARP program, Experience Corps, reads to a young elementary school student.
National Journal
June 25, 2015, 5 a.m.

When Pa­tri­cia Lev­ine re­tired five years ago from her job as a top-level bur­eau­crat with the So­cial Se­cur­ity Ad­min­is­tra­tion, she wanted to find a pro­duct­ive way to fill her days. And so, like many older adults, she turned to vo­lun­teer­ing.

Now, the 67-year-old spends six hours a week at an ele­ment­ary school in a poor, pre­pon­der­antly Afric­an-Amer­ic­an neigh­bor­hood in Chica­go, where she works with small groups of first graders to im­prove their lit­er­acy. “I try to es­tab­lish a love of read­ing,” she says. “Some­times, I just give them a grand­moth­erly hug. “¦ That child, for that mo­ment, has some joy and sup­port. It just makes my heart swell.”

Lev­ine vo­lun­teers twice a week at the in­ner-city pub­lic school as part of an AARP pro­gram called Ex­per­i­ence Corps. Foun­ded in 1995, Ex­per­i­ence Corps re­cruits vo­lun­teers ages 50 and older and gives them 18 to 25 hours of train­ing in child de­vel­op­ment and lit­er­acy, plus ex­tra train­ing every month. They are as­signed to a pub­lic school for a year, to spend six to 15 hours a week help­ing chil­dren in kinder­garten through third grade learn to read.

The goal of the pro­gram is two­fold. On the giv­ing end, Ex­per­i­ence Corps har­nesses the skills and en­ergy of re­tired pro­fes­sion­als for a so­cial good. “For this pop­u­la­tion to simply with­draw from so­ci­ety, go to Sun City, and play golf would leave an enorm­ous void,” says Lester Strong, the AARP’s vice pres­id­ent of Ex­per­i­ence Corps and ex­tern­al af­fairs. “You have some of the greatest ex­per­i­ences and in­sights over the age of 65. What a shame to not tap that.”

On the re­ceiv­ing end, the pro­gram is built on the premise that in­ter­ven­ing early and of­ten in chil­dren’s lives—in par­tic­u­lar, mak­ing sure they can read—is one of the best ways to keep their edu­ca­tion, and their lives, on track. AARP cites data to back this up: If chil­dren aren’t read­ing as well as their peers by the end of third grade, then the prob­ab­il­ity that they will gradu­ate from high school is just one in four, Strong says. “That’s why our fo­cus is there.”

Ex­per­i­ence Corps now boasts 2,200 par­ti­cipants who work with roughly 32,000 chil­dren in 20 cit­ies around the coun­try, from Bal­timore to Min­neapol­is to Oak­land to Port Ar­thur, Texas. Fund­ing comes from school dis­tricts, found­a­tions, and com­pan­ies such as Met­Life and Tar­get Corp.; the AARP Found­a­tion helps out with re­cruit­ment. Lev­ine, for one, found out about the pro­gram while leaf­ing through AARP’s bi­monthly magazine.

Like Lev­ine, 72-year-old Bern­ard Coach­man learned about Ex­per­i­ence Corps through an ad­vert­ise­ment—on­line, while surf­ing the In­ter­net. Hav­ing re­tired five years ago as a shoe sales­man, he de­cided he wanted to give back to so­ci­ety. He liked that Ex­per­i­ence Corps offered train­ing and the op­por­tun­ity to tu­tor young­sters.

Be­fore he even entered the classroom in in­ner-city Chica­go, he at­ten­ded in­tense, all-day sem­inars on the nitty-gritty of lit­er­acy tu­tor­ing and on ways to work with young people. Oth­er vo­lun­teers at­ten­ded ses­sions with child psy­cho­lo­gists, ex­per­i­enced edu­cat­ors, a stat­ist­i­cian (on the re­la­tion­ship between poverty and lit­er­acy), and ex­perts on the de­vel­op­ment of young brains. For vo­lun­teers who’d nev­er taught chil­dren be­fore, “our job was to try to bump up their read­ing by one grade level,” Coach­man says. “That is quite a re­spons­ib­il­ity.”

In­side the classroom, the vo­lun­teers work with stu­dents, in­di­vidu­ally or in small groups, on all as­pects of read­ing, in­clud­ing phonics, pro­nun­ci­ation, vocab­u­lary, and read­ing com­pre­hen­sion. Some of the stu­dents aren’t nat­ive Eng­lish speak­ers; oth­ers who en­dure the pres­sures of poverty have fallen way be­hind in read­ing. Lev­ine re­calls a first-grade stu­dent who was home­less and oth­ers who seemed to have suffered phys­ic­al or emo­tion­al ab­use.

In situ­ations such as these, a pivotal part of the vo­lun­teer’s role is simply to of­fer en­cour­age­ment and sup­port. Coach­man star­ted to tu­tor second-graders in the fall of 2013 and was thrilled to watch them pro­gress. After he worked with one girl who he says was something of a drama queen, she re­gistered per­fect at­tend­ance in the fol­low­ing quarter. A few oth­ers of his stu­dents went on to make the hon­or roll.

AARP closely tracks the pro­gress of the stu­dents who par­ti­cip­ate in Ex­per­i­ence Corps. In the 2013-14 school year, for in­stance, just 25 per­cent of Chica­go ele­ment­ary stu­dents read at grade level. But after be­ing tutored by Ex­per­i­ence Corps vo­lun­teers, 42 per­cent of the stu­dents read at grade-level by the end of that aca­dem­ic year. The Amer­ic­an In­sti­tutes for Re­search tracks such data for AARP in every city the Ex­per­i­ence Corps serves.

Test­a­ments of suc­cess also come from school prin­cipals who have wel­comed Ex­per­i­ence Corps in­to their classrooms. At the J. Hamp­ton Moore School in Phil­adelphia, Tim Glynn is en­thu­si­ast­ic. “There are over 40 dif­fer­ent spoken lan­guages in our school. A lot of our kids are of­ten new to this coun­try and have read­ing is­sues,” he says. “To have an­oth­er set of hands on in­di­vidu­al­ized read­ing plans makes a huge dif­fer­ence.”

The tu­tors be­ne­fit, too. Coach­man helps young­sters in the same part of Chica­go where he grew up. Watch­ing his second-graders get bet­ter at read­ing, he says, “has meant a tre­mend­ous amount to me.” Not that he al­ways finds it easy. “They are cute,” he adds with a laugh, “but they are chal­len­ging.”


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