It's win-win for elderly tutors, grade-school kids

In this March 25, 2010 photo, Jennifer Ries, a third grade teacher at Belmont Elementary, works with students in her class in Baltimore. Ries has a tutor from Experience Corps in her classroom, which operates in 22 cities nationwide and trains volunteers over 55 to tutor and mentor elementary school students. In this March 25, 2010 photo, Jennifer Ries, a third grade teacher at Belmont Elementary, works with students in her class in Baltimore. Ries has a tutor from Experience Corps in her classroom, which operates in 22 cities nationwide and trains volunteers over 55 to tutor and mentor elementary school students. (AP Photo/Rob Carr)
By David Crary
AP National Writer / April 5, 2010

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BALTIMORE—For 73-year-old Rosetta Handy, and the second-graders who dote on her, it's a 50/50 proposition, with winners all around.

"They help me as much as I help them," said Handy of her volunteer work as a tutor at Belmont Elementary School in a low-income West Baltimore neighborhood. "They give you energy. You learn psychology all over again."

Recent research indicates that Handy knows of what she speaks -- documenting significant health benefits for the tutors.

Handy, who worked many years for the Social Security Administration, is in her fifth year with the Experience Corps, a program operating in 22 cities nationwide that trains volunteers over 55 to tutor and mentor elementary school students.

Roughly 2,000 volunteers currently work with about 20,000 students, but the Experience Corps -- buoyed by positive feedback and encouraging research -- hopes to double its scope within five years.

The program's concepts have seemed promising ever since it was founded as a pilot project in 1995, but new academic studies have validated the optimism that it's a boon for the volunteers as well as the students.

--A two-year, $2 million study completed in 2009 by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis, involving 881 second- and third-graders in three cities, found that students with Experience Corps tutors made over 60 percent more progress with reading comprehension and sounding out new words than comparable students not in the program.

--Separate studies by Washington University and by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that the tutoring led to measurable improvements for the volunteers -- compared to adults of similar age and demographics -- in physical activity and mental health.

One small-scale study reported in the Journal of Gerontology: Medical Sciences last year -- which included sophisticated neuroimaging of 17 study members over 60 -- including eight Experience Corps volunteers in Baltimore -- suggested that tutoring young children in reading and math could delay or even reverse brain aging.

The lead researcher, professor Michelle Carlson of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is launching a far larger, multiyear study to pursue these preliminary findings. The study focuses on the same population that makes up a majority of the tutors in Baltimore -- predominantly African-American women, with modest incomes and an above-average risk of various health problems.

"Ideally, we'd like to see if this mentoring program reduces the risk for dementia and other costly diseases," said Carlson. "We'll be looking at whether we can recalibrate their rate of aging -- and show that people at the greatest health risk are the ones who can benefit most immediately."

There has been extensive research in recent years suggesting that mental exercises such as crossword puzzles could help elderly people slow the deterioration of their brain. But Carlson said it's possible that tutoring children might be even more effective by integrating cognitive, physical and social activity.

"How many crossword puzzles can you do before you get bored with them?" she asked. "This tutoring gets people engaged in doing what the brain is supposed to do -- the brain is a social organ."

"The message to them is to take all their accumulated wisdom of a lifetime and give it back to help other people," Carlson said. "They get out of bed in the morning, even when they don't feel great, because they have a social contract with the kids at school. They know a child is waiting for them."

Minnie Broady, a 62-year-old volunteer, doesn't need any research findings to know that the tutoring has rejuvenated her. A former teacher at Baltimore City Community College, she was sidelined by a heart attack and deeply depressed at what might lie ahead.

Now, she feels better than she has in years -- mentally and physically.

"This has saved my life -- I'm not going to lie to you," she said, her voice briefly breaking with emotion. "Some of the children are a challenge, but it has been a great help to me."

She's no pushover -- some of the students call her "sarge' and she preaches the need for self-respect and responsibility.

"They need that," she said. "They feel that they can do whatever they want to do, and there's no repercussions."

The Baltimore tutors generally work 15 hours a week, receiving an annual stipend of about $2,800 that helps cover transportation costs, school lunches and occasional treats for the kids.

At Belmont Elementary, where virtually all of the 300-plus students are black, Experience Corps has provided a team leader and 14 tutors -- one assigned to every kindergarten through third grade class, plus Broady who tutors fourth graders.

In the classrooms, the tutors generally work with one or two students at a time, giving them extra practice on math or reading. If a child is acting up, the tutor can take him or her aside for a quiet discussion while the regular teacher proceeds uninterrupted with the other students.

"You can imagine the difference having 15 extra mature adults around the school," said Sylvia McGill, director of Experience Corps' Baltimore operation. "The principals tell us it's more teachable, calmer environment, and a lot of young, first-year teachers say they wouldn't have made it without their volunteer."

One of those rookie teachers, Jennifer Ries, was getting help from Elizabeth Dorsey -- a patient, soft-spoken tutor -- in a bright-colored classroom filled with 17 third-graders.

"The kids love her," said Ries, 22. "They like having another adult around."

Later, with neither teacher nor tutor in earshot, 8-year-old Kayla Smith confirmed that assessment about Dorsey.

"She helps us with things," said Kayla. "We only have to raise our hand -- she'll some over and explain it to us. She's real nice."

Dorsey, 67, retired five years ago after a career as a civil servant in nearby Howard County and was looking for something to do. She'd taught adult literature classes before, but when it came to engaging with children, "I always stayed away."

And now -- after experiencing the Experience Corps?

"I do like them," she said, sounding almost surprised. "It's amazing. Even the ones who you think you're not getting close to, all of a sudden one day they'll jump up and give you a hug."

It's not always jovial. One of the day's lessons entailed discussion of which is more important -- family or money.

"One boy asked me: 'Suppose your family is a mean family?'" Dorsey recounted. "I could tell he was talking about his own family. That was a little sad moment."

Barbara Johnson, who tutors in a kindergarten class, observes children coming to school who -- in behavior and appearance -- appear to be neglected.

"They need some mentoring, some TLC," said Johnson, 70, who moved to Baltimore after a career with the postal service in upstate New York.

"It's the quality of the time that you give then -- the tone of voice," she said. "Children can tell when you really care."

Another Belmont volunteer, Carolyn Scott-Harris, retired in 2008 after 28 years as a corrections officer at the Baltimore city jail. Even in some of the first-graders she tutors, she notices the impact of growing up in a tough environment.

"All the girls are pretty sweet. ... but some of the boys are so out of line, so wild," said Scott-Harris, 64. "Most of them are very smart, all of them are a little street-wise, some are overly street-wise."

Nationally, Experience Corps spends about $23 million on its operations, according to its CEO, Lester Strong. It relies on a mix of funding sources -- including federal funds from AmeriCorps, private donations, and payments from the school districts it serves.

In Baltimore, principals who want the tutors are asked to contribute $20,000 from the own school budgets -- covering about a quarter of the program cost.

Strong hopes the overall budget will grow so the program can multiply in size while maintaining high standards.

"The program is a triple win -- for our tutors, for our children and for the schools," he said. "Everyone benefits."


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