Older hands plant seeds of literacy

Program encourages retirees as tutors, sees signs of success

Virginia Barber, an Experience Corps tutor, helped Dairine Silveira, 10, with reading at Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School. Virginia Barber, an Experience Corps tutor, helped Dairine Silveira, 10, with reading at Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School. (PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF)
By James Vaznis
Globe Staff / April 8, 2009
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Even when the sidewalks are slick with ice, the retired women make their way to the small brick schoolhouse in Roxbury. A few walk or drive their cars; others take door-to-door van service provided to the elderly and the disabled by the MBTA.

The women are on a mission to ensure the pupils at Ralph Waldo Emerson Elementary School learn how to read, but they also provide some much-needed nurturing for a group of students who often come from some of the city's most troubled neighborhoods.

"They come in snowstorms - Now, that's commitment," said C. Sura O'Mard, the school's principal, who witnesses such scenes unfold from her office window. "We are out there trying to make sure they don't slide on the ice."

Emerson is among 10 elementary schools and four community centers in Boston that have enlisted 300 retirees to tutor students in reading through the national Experience Corps program. The program, which trains adults 55 years and older to tutor children in reading, was first adopted by a few Boston schools about 10 years ago. Recently, it has seen a resurgence in popularity as the district confronts stagnant reading and English scores for elementary school pupils.

Yesterday, a national study found that students enrolled in programs like these in Boston; New York City; and Port Arthur, Texas; made 60 percent more progress in word deciphering and reading comprehension on standardized tests than peers who were not enrolled in the program.

But the study found that students in special education made less improvement than other pupils enrolled in Experience Corps and suggested that the program review its approaches with special education students.

Most of the roughly 900 first-, second-, and third-graders involved in the study were African-American or Hispanic, while about a quarter of students were not native speakers of English.

The $2 million study, which was paid for by The Atlantic Philanthropies and conducted by the Center for Social Development at Washington University in St. Louis, also found positive benefits for the senior volunteers. By providing them with an opportunity to get out of their homes and join a social network, the experience helped boost their mental health and reduce their everyday aches and pains, the surveyed volunteers said.

In Massachusetts, the program is administered by Generations Inc., a nonprofit organization that recruited 300 volunteers this year. For the first time, the program expanded outside Boston this year, adding three schools in Revere.

One morning last week, about eight volunteers sat at the squat cafeteria tables in the basement of Emerson Elementary while their students read books aloud. The volunteers worked one on one with the pupils, coaxing them through the pronunciation of words when students stumbled.

"I like volunteering because this school has some of the cutest faces," Marcia Ridley, a retired schoolteacher, said as she tutored a 9-year-old girl with expressive brown eyes and dark braided hair. "I've never seen a school with so many cute, cute faces."

On the other side of the cafeteria, 81-year-old Dorothy Seaborn smiled as second-grader Latavia Anderson read "A Froggy Tale."

"I like working with her," the girl said. "She's nice and a good teacher."

Seaborn, a retired activities director and seamstress who has been volunteering for three years, said she enjoys watching the students' progress throughout the year.

"When they first come in, they can't read well and then suddenly they blossom," said Seaborn, who gets a chuckle from students when she bumps into them on the street or at the grocery store.

"They are sweet little children. They'll run up to you and give you a hug," Seaborn said. "They don't always remember your name. Sometimes, they just call you the 'generation lady.' "

Such connections could become rarer in Boston next year, as Generations Inc. grapples with a decrease in charitable giving that probably will cause it to scale back the number of schools it serves. The program has a budget of about $2 million, which covers such things as training programs and $185 monthly stipends that about a third of the volunteers receive.

"If we could find the resources we need, I'd go back to every single school in a heart beat," said Mary Gunn, executive director of Generations. "But I'd rather do a five-star job in fewer schools than a three-star job at all the schools. We're very proud of the quality of work we do. And kids deserve a five-star literacy program, and volunteers need a five-star program, too. We want to do our best to provide the best for both generations."

Leaders for Experience Corps are lining up for additional funding that will become available with the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, named for the senator, which encourages volunteerism from schoolchildren to senior citizens. The joint legislation by Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, passed Congress last month and is expected to be signed by President Obama.

Back at Emerson Elementary, one boy slouched in a chair with a big frown on his face when a teacher told him he would not be able to meet with his senior volunteer that day because he had to do MCAS testing instead.

"The program has been quite a blessing for us," said O'Mard, the principal. "It's not just an outside group coming in. The women become part of the fabric of the school. I see them at literacy nights and the Christmas party. . . . And the expectations they have for children in reading are just as high as those set by teachers."