They are reliable and passionate, and they bring learning and love to urban classrooms. They are Experience Corps volunteers -- retirees recruited and trained to tutor students and assist teachers. Volunteers and educators alike have nothing but praise for the program. Included: Descriptions of how Experience Corps volunteers help in schools.
They can't move through a school without attracting embraces, the way a beloved relative draws family members when entering a room. Children call them "mom" or "grandma" and ask to come home with them. They do a lot of talking -- and a lot of listening too -- to kids who might not have a sympathetic adult ear at home.
Besides doing all that, they teach children to read or to read better, tutor students in mathematics, assist in classrooms or in after school programs, and teach mini-courses.
They are the people who make up Experience Corps, an army of volunteer retirees helping out in urban schools.
The teaming of senior citizens and children is proving to be a natural and effective combination. Schools get free, reliable, dedicated assistance at a time when pressure to boost low-achieving students' performance is growing, and shrinking budgets are resulting in fewer classroom aides. And the volunteers dispense grandparent-levels of love that many of the children crave.
"This program is like an octopus; [it reaches out] and helps a lot of things, such as tutoring and children's self-esteem," said Francine Deal, principal of Samuel W. Pennypacker Elementary School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "The kids are getting a whole cadre of assistance -- they love it. And the volunteers just keep trying -- they are almost like the mail; they must get through. And they always have a smile."
Volunteers talk about a sense of satisfaction like they've never had before. "I started law school at 47, finished at 50, and passed the bar the first time," said Alice Kirk, who is in her second year volunteering at Pennypacker. "This is more rewarding than that. This is my opportunity to give back. I don't know how I could quit."
SEARCHING OUT THE GREATEST NEED
Founded in 1995, Experience Corps volunteers now "work" in 12 cities in the United States, according to Stefanie Weiss, a spokesperson for the program. Federal funding paid for five pilot sites, and now the program is funded through AmeriCorps; private foundations; state and local public and private funds; and donations. Schools incur no costs for the program. In some cases, volunteers receive small stipends to pay for carfare and lunch.
"We're tapping into America's greatest natural resource -- older adults," Weiss told Education World. "A lot of people see the aging of America as a problem -- we see it as a chance to address serious social problems, beginning with literacy. The demographics are with us. The population is aging and more people are committed to working less."
The average age of a volunteer is 65, and they come from all areas of American life. No prior teaching experience is required. "We are looking for people who work well with children, and have an interest in building relationships with teachers and communities," said Weiss. "We look at life experience."
Many of the local programs, including those in Philadelphia and New York City, provide volunteers with several weeks of training in instructional methods and school policies before they enter a school. Most volunteers "work" between ten and 15 hours per week, either tutoring children or helping in classrooms or after school programs. "We work very hard not to duplicate what people in paid positions do," according to Weiss. "But people who work in urban education realize that the work is endless."
The best recruiting tool has been the volunteers themselves; people often bring friends into the program. Some principals initially were reluctant to participate, citing disappointing experiences with past volunteer programs. But most are quickly convinced by the Experience Corps' volunteers' reliability record.
Many schools now depend on Experience Corps volunteers for the academic and emotional support they provide students.
"The work they do is fantastic. Some put in extra time because they see what the needs are," John Ferraro, principal of James John School in Portland, Oregon, said about his six volunteers. About 75 percent of Ferraro's students receive free or reduced-price lunches, and about one-third speak English as a second language. "The kids get one-on-one attention. It's a great program with very positive, very dedicated people. It would be really tough to meet these kids' needs without them.
"These are high-needs children who are not getting positive adult interaction," Ferraro added.
In one San Francisco, California, school, volunteers fill the staffing voids left by budget cuts. "We are short of funds; we used to have five paraprofessionals for general education, now we have one," said David Wong, principal of Francis Scott Key Elementary, a K-5 school. "They [volunteers] are a big help. It's nice to have them fill the gap; they work well with kids and teachers."
Many of the 12 volunteers also work closely with teachers to prepare lessons or units. "We are so used to having volunteers that teachers prepare things for them to do," Wong said. "The kids look forward to seeing them. They have such a good rapport with the kids."
One of those volunteers is Tess Manalo-Ventresca, who has given her time to the school for the past three-and-a-half years. Manalo-Ventresca, San Francisco's Experience Corps volunteer of the year last year, also is treasurer of the school's PTA.
The children at Francis Scott Key call her "Noni Tess." Noni, which means "beautiful inside" in the Hawaiian language, is a variation of nana, Manalo-Ventresca explained. "Nanni is what my granddaughter calls me, and she did not want other children to use her special name."
Manalo-Ventresca helps in classes and in after-school programs, and has taught units on origami, geography, and creative story telling. "Learning has to be fun so you remember it," she told Education World. "The teachers are very receptive. I'm always bringing ideas to them. Some call me at home for help with lessons and projects."
Pennypacker School's Deal also marvels at the volunteers' energy. Pennypacker's 13 volunteers work mostly with kindergarten through third graders who need help with reading skills. Most come to the school three days a week from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., but they often stay longer. The volunteers are scheduled to help out from October until May, but some came back to school last June. "They asked if they could come in more days," Deal said.
"Without them, we would have to provide as much support as we could," she continued. "We certainly wouldn't be able to provide as much individual attention. There would be more group instruction. Each year, the program is spreading to other schools, and the more schools that hear about it, the more that want it."
"CAN I CALL YOU GRANDMOM?"
For their part, the volunteers talk about how the program meets their desire to contribute to their communities in meaningful, measurable ways.
Some seem awed by the affection the children show them.
"Last year, a third grader asked if she could call me grandmom, and two girls said they wanted to," said Kirk. "They said if I ever got sick, they would take care of me -- and they meant it."
Kirk said she joined Experience Corps after reading an article saying volunteers were needed to teach children to read. "I decided that was something I would do, because I've been blessed and have been given so much."
The satisfaction comes on many levels. "It's seeing the improvement in reading levels, and having them love us the way they do," Kirk said. "I don't know if I would have loved older people the way these children do. They all want to come to the back of the room and sit with me. When I walk in the room, they all want to hug and kiss me."
Kirk wants other seniors to share her experience. "I brought two of my friends into the program. They love it. One said she always wanted to be a teacher, and now she is."
FROM THE CASINO TO THE CLASSROOM
Other volunteers talked about how quickly they grew into their new "jobs." Pierre Vireday, the former executive chef at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada, was recruited for Experience Corps by his wife, Claire, after they retired to Oregon. Now they both volunteer at Portland's James John School, working on the same floor, but with different teachers.
"I love it," Pierre Vireday told Education World. "Some children have hard lives, and that reflects on their ability to learn. We're supposed to tutor, but we do a lot of mentoring."
The Viredays are at James John from 8:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., four days a week, helping third and fourth graders with their reading and math skills.
"I just wanted to get my husband off the couch," Claire Vireday said, "and he took to it like a duck to water. Our three children tease him; they can't believe he has all this patience.
"We just like working with kids who have had a hard time," she continued. "I see them in the lunch room and ask how they are. They all want to hug youthe teachers are in such a bind; there are so many kids and they have so little time. The teachers are working hard. You can't blame the teachers if the kids don't get up to speed. The teachers don't have time."
Claire Vireday said she is pleased when she sees a child's performance improve, and she keeps a book about all the children she tutors, and what they have accomplished.
The Viredays, who originally are from Switzerland, also have become mentors to some of the children's parents, many of whom are recent immigrants from India, Africa, and Latin American and Asian countries.
"We can help, because we know what it is like to be immigrants," Pierre Vireday said. "We speak French, German, and Italian. There are some kids from India and Africa, and some of them speak French. We also are used to working with people from different backgrounds."
He said he would urge other retirees to sign up. "We all need something to challenge us, to help us stay awake. This just makes you feel so good."
The program serves so many needs and generates so much good feeling that Deal would like to see the concept grow. "There should be more programs like this," she told Education World. "Most countries honor their senior citizens. The United States doesn't. Here are people who are willing to help their communities. Here are people with a wealth of experience to pass on to children. And they are so excited about 'their' children."