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A Day With Experience Corps Volunteers

They worked all over New York City, almost all of them in fields other than education. Now they are a team, helping first and second graders at P.S. 154 in Harlem learn to read. Included: Descriptions of an Experience Corps program.

A police officer, a photographer, a dressmaker, and a librarian had little chance of crossing paths in New York City during their working days.

Now retired, they all are "working" together as members of an Experience Corps team at P.S. 154, Harriet Tubman School in Harlem, helping in classrooms and teaching children to read.

"After my husband passed away, I did not want to just sit at home and look at television; I wanted to be useful," said Carrie Cooper of the Bronx, a classroom volunteer and former Madison Avenue dressmaker. "This has been wonderful."

The volunteers are more than useful; they are becoming essential at P.S. 154 and other New York City schools. Experience Corps now has 134 volunteers working with students in 17 New York City schools. "The reason we're here is to mobilize retirees in the community," said Kemba Tamar, project director for Experience Corps in New York City, which is sponsored by the Community Service Society. "We have 40 volunteers just in Harlem."

FILLING A NEED

Although P.S. 154 only has had Experience Corps volunteers since November 2003, Raymond DeJesus, the assistant principal for the K-5 school's lower grades, said he already sees an improvement in student achievement.

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"I can see the progress because they work one-on-one," DeJesus told Education World. "When you work one-on-one, the child feels comfortable with that person. They feel ties to these people [volunteers.] The tutoring corresponds to what they are working on in the classroom, so even though they are being pulled out, the learning fits in."

The need to help the students is even more urgent this year, because New York City schools' chancellor Joel Klein announced that third graders who do not pass the city's reading and mathematics tests will be retained.

"We chose first and second graders [for tutoring] because we want them to be successful by third grade," said Tamar. "Most of the kids [being tutored] are not doing much in the classroom. Most are at the pre-K level in first grade; some have had no experience in school before first grade. Working one-on-one allows us to start at the beginning and move forward."

A RELIABLE RESOURCE

Most of the nine volunteers at P.S. 154 work four hours a day, four days a week, either in classrooms or tutoring individual first and second-grade students in reading skills for 45 minutes at a time. Volunteers range in age from 55 to 80 and are from "all walks of life," said Tamar. Most volunteer at churches, hospitals, or other community organizations besides working with Experience Corps.

At P.S. 154, tutors and students work in a colorful classroom dedicated to Experience Corps. The room is decorated with posters of letters, sounds, and words; a crayon rainbow; and a tutor-student schedule on the chalkboard. During a recent Education World visit to the school, one adult and one child sat at each table; the room was quiet with concentration.

Each child being tutored at P.S. 154 has his or her own box containing information and lessons that the volunteers closely adhere to. "We try to figure out what level they can be tested on," said Tamar. "We have individual lesson plans for each child."

During the tutoring, volunteers review letters, sounds, words, and sentences and read with the youngsters. Prior to working with students, the volunteers participate in two or three weeks of training, which includes instruction in how to teach certain skills as well as on school policies. A program coordinator is at the schools to supervise volunteers and offer assistance.

"Everything is set up so well; I know exactly what to do," said volunteer Jacqueline Buksha, a former senior librarian at the New York City Public Library, who commutes to P.S. 154 by bus -- 40 minutes each way. "This excited me, helping little children learn to read."

Buksha said she wants to pass on to children her own passion for reading. "Once I started to read, I stopped playing with toys," she said. "It's a struggle [with current students]. I keep telling them they can go anywhere with reading; they just have to bear down. I want to broaden their horizons."

Shirley Banton, a retired New York City police officer, added that she enjoys knowing she is building children's basic skills. "I just like the children and like helping them," she told Education World. "It's so real. Education is the way to be successful. If you can't read, you can't do anything."

"After my husband passed away, I did not want to just sit at home and look at television; I wanted to be useful," said classroom volunteer Carrie Cooper.

UNMEASURABLE EXPERIENCE

The volunteers bring so much more to the school than literacy skills, coordinators said, including modeling commitment and dedication to learning. "The retention rate is very high, at least 95 percent," said Tamar. "We only lose them if they become ill or pass away."

"Older adults add a dynamic to the school; they make kids behave better. They are a voice in the community that stays in the schools," said Jeanette DeVita, the Experience Corps project coordinator.

In one case, a volunteer tutor lived in the same neighborhood as one of the second graders being tutored, and the volunteer saw the child out at night, drinking, DeVita said. She told him if he didn't stop, she'd speak to his mother. "The tutors hold them accountable."

Volunteers also give children the "grandparent" level of personal attention that's lacking from many of their lives. "They get attached to you so readily, one calls me 'Mom,'" Buksha said.

"A lot need love," noted Cooper. "If they get love, they can express love."

"They give a lot of themselves," added Beverly Pope, a former auditor for the New York City department of social services. "They want to know all about you, but they'll tell you all about themselves, too."

ENJOYING A NEW "CAREER"

Behind the enthusiasm of many of the volunteers lies a desire to contribute to the community and the city's children.

"I found out about this when Experience Corps showed up at the senior center," said Everard Marius, a former professional photographer, who also worked as the head of a graphic arts department. "The business of education always concerned me; I'm a teacher by nature."

"I just want to give something back," added Pope. "Maybe this will help one or two move on. They [the kids] are just amazing." Both Pope and Banton have recommended Experience Corps to friends.

"I like working with the kids, it's very educational," said volunteer Betty Jones. "And I wanted to give back."

Volunteers also said they are learning in their new "careers." "The children always are optimistic," said Marius. "They are willing and anxious to learn."

"I like being in the classroom; you learn a lot from the children," said Cooper, who noted that she gives out assignments, helps with art projects, and distributes lunches, among other tasks. She also tries to entice children to eat vegetables. "I tell the boys they need them if want to be ball players, and the girls, if they want to be ballerinas."

"This seemed like a good outreach," said Sandra Halsey, who used to work in the advertising and marketing fields. "I'm just so impressed; everyone is so eager to learn, everyone gives 100 percent. Some of my friends think it's unusual that I spend so much time here, but they want to do it, too."

Schools are eager for the seniors' help. More New York City schools are asking for volunteers, and the schools with volunteers want more, said DeVita. P.S. 154's DeJesus said he if he had additional volunteers, he would expand the tutoring to the upper grades.

These seniors have no plans to "retire" soon. "When you see something like this, you know God has a purpose for you," Buksha said.

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