Improving Literacy Skills of At-Risk Children

David R. Jones, La Nueva Mayoria / The New Majority

Improving the literacy skills of young children is crucial to their success in life.  Without an adequate level of literacy, they cannot expect to find decent jobs after leaving school.  Most children develop these skills in the primary grades, a crucial time in learning how to read and write and when patterns of learning are established.

When the city’s public schools open next month, ten schools, located in areas of the city where young students – overwhelmingly from black and Latino families - are considered at risk of academic failure, will have special mentors who will focus on building their literacy skills.  These are members of the Community Service Society’s Experience Corps.  

The Experience Corps Literacy Program brings together a diverse cadre of older volunteers (age 55 and over), school children in early grades, and a meticulous approach for improving their literacy.  It is based on the highly successful Book Buddies curriculum.  It also builds on the Community Service Society’s history of developing innovative program models that can be replicated on a national scale.

The program is part of the Retired & Senior Volunteer Program of the Community Service Society.  The volunteers are primarily people of color who are contributing to their communities by bringing the knowledge and experience they’ve accumulated over a lifetime into the classroom.  They are often life-long residents of their communities, possessing a stake in the revitalization of their neighborhoods.  Experience Corps gives them the opportunity to take their practical knowledge and put it to work providing young students with a helping hand.

After their intensive pre-service training, these volunteers work in teams of 10 to 12, helping young students for 16 hours per week during the school year.  They provide individualized tutoring, overall classroom assistance, and conduct small reading groups.  One full-time staff person coordinates all facets of the program within each school.

With the harsh economic conditions that have afflicted the city - primarily in black and Latinos neighborhoods - our public schools, where children spend most of their time outside of the home, have become more impersonal and difficult places.  Class sizes are large; budgets are being cut.  In many schools, music and art classes - even science laboratories and libraries - are now considered expendable. 

Experience Corps volunteers provide an inviting environment for children to learn, helping schools to become more caring and personal places.  In the schools where they provide help, they have established a substantial and visible presence, gaining the respect of teachers and staff and the affection of the children. 

Begun in 1996, the program is active in 19 cities and mobilizes more than 2,000 older adult volunteers.  Here in New York City, a rigorous study of Experience Corps completed by Washington University and Mathematica Policy Research demonstrated that 60 percent of the children who received one-on-one tutoring exhibited increases in two critical literacy skills: sounding out new words and reading comprehension. 

The volunteers influence goes beyond literacy tutoring.  By providing role models and encouraging the growth of self-esteem, they help to mitigate the effects of poverty that many youngsters face.

As the program expands to more schools, its volunteers look forward to helping a new generation of students learn and thrive, in school and beyond.  The program demonstrates the positive effects of people getting involved and making a difference in the lives of the next generation.  It is an example of what can be accomplished by a group of dedicated people when given the opportunity to make a contribution to their community.

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