Students who don't learn to read by the time they reach fourth grade are four times more likely to drop out of high school, research shows. In Chicago, a city with a chronically high dropout rate, an AARP program aims to stem that tide.
AARP Experience Corps is recruiting 500 to 600 volunteers 50 and older to work with teachers in 25 public schools to improve the reading skills of students from kindergarten through third grade beginning in September. They will join 2,000 other Experience Corps volunteers working in 19 cities around the country.
One-on-one help pays off
"One-on-one support is absolutely one of the most effective ways to support very young students in improving their reading abilities," said Anne Gillespie, principal at Chicago's Academy for Global Citizenship, a public charter school.
Steve Zrike, Chicago Public Schools' chief of schools for the Pilsen-Little Village network of 26 elementary schools, also knows that firsthand because he worked with Experience Corps when he was with the Boston school system.
"What Experience Corps certainly tries to do is provide that consistency multiple times a week throughout the year with the same person [so] there is a relationship with the child," Zrike said.
His Boston experience makes Zrike bullish on the benefits Experience Corps can provide for Pilsen and Little Village schools, where English is not the predominant language spoken at home for 41 percent of the students.
Helping a child learn to read is a thrill, "especially at the end of the year when you've seen the light go on with some of them," said a California volunteer whose reaction is typical of the Experience Corps participants.
Chicago volunteers for the 2013-14 school year will receive 25 hours of training in the summer and continuing throughout the year.
Volunteers must have at least a high school education and be fluent in English. They will undergo a background check, including fingerprinting.
They are asked to commit to spending four to 12 hours a week in the classroom during school hours and are asked to commit to staying with the program for at least one full school year.
Experience Corps will recruit volunteers citywide. But the program will especially reach out to older people who live in the same neighborhoods the programs' organizers hope to help.
Powerful role models
It's important for children from low-income, disadvantaged communities to see people who grew up in similar circumstances and who are successful, Zrike said.
"Having that kind of role modeling for our students is really critical."
Though all of AARP Experience Corps' efforts are aimed at improving proficiency in reading English, the ability to speak Spanish will be an asset for volunteers working in largely Latino neighborhoods.
The children will be taught to read English, but "oftentimes the parents only speak Spanish. So we'd like some volunteers who [can] speak to the parents," said Gerry Kellman, AARP Illinois associate director for outreach.
But the overriding criterion is that "people have to care about children, and really want to support children," said Lester Strong, vice president and chief executive of AARP Experience Corps.
"You must love children in order to be part of this program," he said.
Bob Benenson is a writer living in Chicago.