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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
March 1, 2005
Vol. 62
No. 6

The Value of Experience

Older volunteers help urban students develop the confidence and skills to succeed.

The Value of Experience- thumbnail
Veteran principal Francine Deal has had a lot of experience with good intentions. So when representatives of Experience Corps asked whether she'd like to have a team of older adults in her school working as intensive tutors for students with reading challenges, she said no.
“I'd had enough of volunteer programs that didn't work the way they'd been promised to,” she explains. “People didn't show up when they said they would. They didn't have adequate training. They didn't work well with the children or the teachers. I had to intervene too many times. To be honest, I didn't want Experience Corps in my school.”
That was three years ago. Today, Experience Corps is a fixture at Deal's Pennypacker Elementary School in northwest Philadelphia. The school's team of 14 older adults provides thousands of hours of academic and social support to its 560 students, nearly all of whom come from low-income families. Deal, who was persuaded by other principals to give the older volunteers a one-year trial, is now committed to the program for the long haul.
What caused the turnaround? How did Experience Corps succeed in a school where other school-based volunteer programs had failed?

The Right Idea at the Right Time

In 1988, John Gardner, founder of Common Cause and former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare, developed a three-page concept paper titled “The Experience Corps.” Gardner proposed a new institution that would unleash the time, talent, and know-how of older adults to revitalize civil society. He wrote,We believe, without being immodest, that the large numbers of us over age 65 constitute a rich reservoir of talent, experience and commitment potentially available to society.... We know the conventional view is that society owes its older citizens something, and we would be foolish to quarrel with that. But we owe something, too, and this is in one sense our “operation give-back.” (p. 1)
As Gardner pointed out, the aging of our society doesn't have to be seen only as an economic and societal problem: It can also be seen as a solution. After all, today's older adults constitute the healthiest, wealthiest, and best-educated generation ever—and their numbers are growing. There are 60 million people in the United States today who are over age 55, and given the size of the Baby Boom, that number is expected to double by 2030. Why not “match this largely untapped resource to some of the most urgent unmet needs of society” (Freedman, 2002, p. 16)? And what bigger unmet need is there than the goal of closing the achievement gap in early childhood literacy?
The idea attracted interest from well-respected leaders in the fields of aging, education, and service. In 1995, Experience Corps was launched as a pilot project in five cities, engaging older adults as tutors for K–3 students in public schools. Today, 1,500 Experience Corps members in 13 cities—including New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., Cleveland, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and San Francisco—tutor and mentor elementary school students who are struggling to learn to read. Last year, Experience Corps members spent a total of 290,000 hours helping 14,250 students in 119 schools. This year, the numbers will be significantly higher.
Boston Experience Corps member Ellen Kelley, a retired nurse, sees the impact she's having on students' academic achievement and on their view of themselves and their world:This is going to be one of the first generations of children to have the opportunity to work with people in the seventh and eighth decades of life and really to know and understand them. In my generation, older people were always sedentary, the buxom type of grandmother with the glasses and the graying hair, who always coughed. It's a different thing children are seeing nowadays. And perhaps that will inspire them in their young lives to look ahead in a different way.

Careful Design and Implementation

During its initial planning phase and in the subsequent years of implementation, Experience Corps has consulted research and carefully considered program design. As a result, the program has developed a series of principles that set it apart.
Community connections. Experience Corps projects are operated by local community groups (usually with one agency taking the lead), thus shoring up ties to the community and saving on infrastructure costs. For example, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana runs Experience Corps Indianapolis; the Sunset Neighborhood Beacon Center runs Experience Corps San Francisco; and the Volunteer Center of Southern Arizona runs Experience Corps Tucson. The Experience Corps national office provides all projects with assistance in developing high-quality programming, training, volunteer management, evaluation, communications, and fund-raising.
In addition, most Experience Corps members live in or near the school community where they serve, providing role models within the neighborhood. For instance, in Washington, D.C., local Freemasons have recruited enough members to form an Experience Corps after-school mentoring team for 5th and 6th grade boys at Birney Elementary. The men, mostly African American retired public employees, know the neighborhood, often run into their mentees in the grocery store or on local playgrounds, and go beyond the call of duty to provide such extras as holiday food baskets and winter coats.
Intensive service. About half of Experience Corps members work with students 15 hours each week and receive a small monthly stipend of about $200 to cover the costs associated with volunteering. The remaining half work fewer hours, but they too make a commitment to show up on a regular schedule each week during the school year. This allows students to meet with their tutors at least twice a week. Principal Francine Deal says the reliability of the older volunteers is a significant plus. “They're almost like the mail,” she says. “They must get through.”
Preparation. Potential Experience Corps members are screened through interviews and written applications and are then extensively trained before they work with students. They spend an average of 20 hours in preservice training on topics ranging from phonics to children's linguistic development, and then meet monthly for additional inservice training.
Teamwork and critical mass. Experience Corps members work in teams ranging in size from 10 to 20 members, learning from one another and becoming friends. This “critical mass” is large enough to affect an entire school's culture. For instance, at Malcolm X Academy in San Francisco, at least a dozen Experience Corps members show up every day—a force equal in size to the entire teaching staff.
Ties to the local school system. Experience Corps has no national curriculum. Instead, local Experience Corps project staff members work closely with school employees and reading specialists to match tutoring protocols with literacy goals. In New York City, for instance, Corps members deliver the Book Buddies program developed at the University of Virginia. In Boston, the tutoring curriculum is Reading Coaches, developed at the University of Kentucky.
Effective management. To minimize the administrative burden on school staff, Experience Corps takes a rigorous approach to managing its projects. Corps members serve as volunteer team leaders. Projects hire site coordinators to schedule participants and to closely supervise all activity. Site coordinators regularly check in with teachers and principals, heading off any small problems before they become big ones, conferring with teachers about student progress, and submitting regular updates.
A meaningful volunteer experience. Experience Corps members report high levels of satisfaction with the program, resulting in an average retention rate of 80 percent from year to year. This high retention rate means continuity for kids, more highly trained and experienced tutors, and a level of familiarity that benefits all. As Harold Allen, a 74-year-old entering his eighth year as an Experience Corps member, says,This is about rejuvenation—a rebirth of activism, a return to the community. This is about the older generation coming back to help the children who need it most. It's fulfilling. It gives us a sense of purpose.

A Relentless Focus on Outcomes

Nearly two decades of research confirm the commonsense propositions that one-on-one tutoring and mentoring can improve academic and social outcomes for children (see Elbaum, Vaughn, Tejero Hughes, & Watson Moody, 2000; U.S. Department of Education, 2001) and that purposeful activity benefits older adults (Adler, 2004; Fried et al., 2004). Research also shows that the impact on both groups is greater when tutoring and service programs include adequate training and support, careful collaboration with the school or other host agency, multiple tutoring sessions each week, and a coherent program design (Abt Associates, 2001; Glass et al., 2004). Experience Corps was developed with explicit attention to this research and to achieving positive, measurable outcomes for students, schools, and the older adults themselves. Here's a sampling of the research collected so far.
Two researchers from the University of Virginia's Center for the Improvement of Early Reading Achievement compared the reading achievement of 1st graders paired with Experience Corps tutors in the South Bronx with a control group of 1st graders without tutors. The tutored students were “significantly stronger” in beginning reading skills than the nontutored students, reading almost twice as many words accurately per minute, on average, at the end of the school year (Meier & Invernizzi, 2001).
In Boston, during the 2003–2004 school year, students who worked one-on-one with Experience Corps tutors showed three times the improvement that typical struggling students without tutors did, as measured by pre-testing and post-testing using the Basic Reading Inventory (Generations Incorporated, 2004).
In a survey of school principals across the United States who had Experience Corps teams in their schools, 90 percent of the respondents reported that the presence of Experience Corps substantially improved students' academic performance, readiness to learn, self-confidence, and attitudes toward school (Policy Studies Associates, 2004).
In a study of the individual progress of more than 1,500 students who were assigned to Experience Corps tutors during the 2003–2004 school year, teachers who returned surveys noted that 81 percent of the students evaluated made “significant,” “very significant,” or “extremely significant” academic progress during the school year. Overall, 9 of 10 teachers reported that tutored students improved their attitudes toward reading, their readiness to learn, their self-confidence, their behavior, and their respect for adults (Experience Corps, 2004).
Researchers from the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions documented the effect of Experience Corps teams on schoolwide student behavior. In a control group study, they found that office referrals for classroom misbehavior decreased by 50 percent in schools with Experience Corps teams but remained the same in schools without the teams (Rebok et al., 2004).
The same Johns Hopkins researchers found that participating in Experience Corps significantly improved the health and well-being of the older adults themselves. Compared with a control group, Experience Corps members saw meaningful improvements in their own mental and physical health and quality of life. For example, 44 percent of Experience Corps participants reported feeling stronger, compared with 18 percent of controls (Fried et al., 2004). And 90 percent of Experience Corps members nationally reported an increased sense of usefulness and social connectedness since they joined the program (Experience Corps, 2003).

Making Connections

In addition to the quantitative research, many stories illustrate the high quality of the relationships that Experience Corps members develop with students, the benefits of hundreds of hours of one-on-one attention, and the ways experienced tutors can facilitate learning.
Ellen Kelley of the Boston Experience Corps describes Herbie, a 1st grader who initially resisted tutoring:He was literally on the floor, screaming, “No, no, they think I'm stupid. I don't want to come.” I finally got him to join me, and Herbie turned out to be wonderful. He accomplished a great deal, and he developed a sense of self that was just marvelous. He did well in school, and they tell me that he did well in many other subjects, not only his reading.
Val Jackson, a retired electronics engineer and 10-year Experience Corps member in Minneapolis, has worked in a classroom for students with behavioral or speech problems during the past several years. He recalls the day when a teacher asked him to help resolve a disturbance caused by one boy while she kept the rest of the class on task:I took Marcus aside, and asked him why he seemed so upset. He said the other boys were teasing him. He stammered and hesitated, but then he told me that his grandmother had died that week, and he burst into tears. I took him outside for a walk around the school. We talked about his grandma, all the good memories he had, and all the ways he can remember her. When he was all walked and talked out, I asked him if he was ready to go back to class and do some work. He said he was—and he did.
The trusting, special connection between Val and Marcus is an uncommon one at too many crowded urban schools—so uncommon that last fall, a group of prominent leaders in the education and public health fields decried what they called a “culture of detachment” affecting up to 60 percent of students who are “chronically disengaged” from school (Blum & Libbey, 2004). To address the problem, Robert Blum, a family health sciences professor at Johns Hopkins University, and the other Johns Hopkins researchers called on schools to ensure that every student feels close to at least one supportive adult at school. “We're talking about bringing the soul back to the schools, a sense of community,” Blum said:When you're a community, things happen. You start to see concern for every child. You start to hear things like, “We expect you to do really well—and if you miss, we'll help you succeed.” (Raspberry, 2004, p. A21)
Underfunded and understaffed urban schools will need help meeting this mandate, not only from the government but also from parents and volunteers of all ages. Older adults, with their life experience and strong commitment to social service, can make a special contribution to the task of connecting urban students to the school community and helping them reach their full potential.

Abt Associates. (2001). AmeriCorps tutoring outcomes study. Cambridge, MA: Author. Available: www.abtassociates.com/reports/tutoring_0201.pdf

Adler, R. (2004). The volunteer factor: What studies say about the benefits. Aging Today, 25(4), 10.

Blum, R. W., & Libbey, H. P. (2004). School connectedness: Strengthening health and education outcomes for teenagers. Journal of School Health, 74(7), 231–234.

Elbaum, B., Vaughn, S., Tejero Hughes, M., & Watson Moody, S. (2000). How effective are one-to-one tutoring programs in reading for elementary students at risk for reading failure? Journal of Educational Psychology, 92(4), 605–619.

Experience Corps. (2003). Unpublished survey data in final report from Experience Corps to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

Experience Corps. (2004). Teachers report that Experience Corps tutoring helps students make excellent academic progress [Online]. Available: www.experiencecorps.org/news/releases/2004_9_14_survey.html

Freedman, M. (2002). Prime time: How baby boomers will revolutionize retirement and transform America. New York: Public Affairs Books.

Fried, L. P., Carlson, M. C., Freedman, M., Frick, K. D., Glass, T. A., Hill, J., et al. (2004). A social model for health promotion for an aging population: Initial evidence on the Experience Corps model. Journal of Urban Health, 81(1), 64–78.

Gardner, J. (1988). The Experience Corps. Washington, DC: Experience Corps. Available: www.experiencecorps.org/about_us/gardners_vision.html

Generations Incorporated. (2004, June). Message from Charles Puccia. Experience, 1.

Glass, T. A., Freedman, M., Carlson, M. C., Hill, J., Frick, K. D., Ialongo, N., et al. (2004). Experience Corps: Design of an intergenerational program to boost social capital and promote the health of an aging society. Journal of Urban Health, 81(1), 94–105.

Meier, J. D., & Invernizzi, M. (2001). Book buddies in the Bronx: Testing a model for America Reads. Journal of Education for Students Placed At Risk, 6(4), 319–333.

Policy Studies Associates. (2004). Experience Corps in urban elementary schools: A survey of principals. Washington, DC: Experience Corps.

Raspberry, W. (2004, Sept. 13). Re-engaging our schools. Washington Post, p. A21.

Rebok, G. W., Carlson, M. C., Glass, T. A., McGill, S., Hill, J., Wasik, B. A., et al. (2004). Short-term impact of Experience Corps participation on children and schools. Journal of Urban Health, 81(1), 79–93.

U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Deputy Secretary for Planning and Evaluation Services. (2001). Evidence that tutoring works. Washington, DC: Author. ERIC No. ED 464 343.

End Notes

1 Funding and organizational support for Experience Corps has come from a variety of sources, including the Corporation for National & Community Service, the Atlantic Philanthropies, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Hasbro Children's Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, the Administration on Aging, and the American Association of Retired Persons.

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