San Francisco News

Retirees inspire inner-city kids to thrive

Thursday, May 28, 2009

More federal money could soon be coming to a program that matches up retirees with inner-city schools that need tutoring help.

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The program is looking for more volunteers for positions that offer a small stipend. But satisfaction, not money, is why most people take part.

When 10-year-old Tiyisha Spiller needs help with big words, she turns to volunteer tutor Amanda Prescott, who retired after more than 20 years with the post office and now helps out at Malcolm X Academy in San Francisco.

"I like kids and I want to see them learn," said Prescott.

That's why she volunteers with a group called Experience Corps, a non-profit that puts tutors from all walks of life in some of the toughest public schools in 23 U.S. cities. Nineteen of those schools are in San Francisco, Oakland and Marin.

"Experience Corps engages older adults -- people who are 55 and better -- in meeting the challenges of society in general," said Kaleda Walling from Experience Corps.

But, the specific focus is literacy, making these kids proficient readers and writers, because that opens the door to the world.

"I tell them that their vocabulary will increase. They will learn many things vicariously because we cannot all travel, but we can all read," said tutor Barbara Thomas.

"It's helping me with stuff I need help on, and that can help me in the long run to go to college and stuff," said student Alfred Hollins.

"They help me with math and reading hard words," said student Shi'leya Marie.

"Sometimes I just want to quit, but I don't because they are encouraging me to keep going forward and go to college and follow my dreams," said student Tyisha Spiller.

Experience Corps seeks out volunteers in the communities around qualifying schools, as well as online and by word of mouth. About a third of the tutors get a stipend of up to $250 a month to help pay travel cost and expenses.

Most volunteers are retirees and some have advanced degrees. Program managers say education is important, but not the only qualification.

"Patience, I think, is the number one thing with older adults; they have a lot of that. They have a whole lifetime of experience so I think that's one of the most important," said Kaleda Walling from Experience Corps.

And it seems to be working. A two-year, $2 million study shows that kids who get Experience Corps tutoring improve by 60 percent in reading comprehension and phonics over kids who don't.

"I know they cannot remain children for the rest of their lives, so they need to be academically inclined, they need to study and be successful in life," said Thomas.

Experience Corps hopes to use some of that education money to open programs in four more local schools.

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