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Lequetta Diggs, an AARP Experience Corps volunteer, works with students at Maxfield Elementry school in St. Paul to help develop their reading skills. Photo by John Haynes

By Pamela Schmid

Lequetta Diggs sat at a table in the corner of Caitlin Reid’s first-grade class and held up a flash card with the word “BRING” in bright green letters.

“Big,” suggested a little boy sitting across from her. Diggs responded patiently: “Look at the card.”

The boy read the word correctly this time, and Diggs nodded and handed him the card.

Soon, two more students wandered over to play the flash card game and began calling out the words they saw.

Diggs, 73, spends four mornings a week as an AARP Experience Corps volunteer at Maxfield Magnet Elementary in St. Paul. The retired nurse is one of 70 Experience Corps members helping to boost students’ reading skills in 11 schools in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

“You get an awful lot of love from the kids,” said Diggs, of St. Paul, who began volunteering with Experience Corps in 2010. “You also get a lot of love and respect from the faculty and staff because you’re there.”

Experience Corps has been hosted by the Volunteers of America in Minnesota since 1995 and became affiliated with AARP in 2012. Older adults work with students in kindergarten through third grade to improve literacy, working one-on-one or in small groups under a classroom teacher’s supervision.

“Our goal is to go deeper in all of the communities we’re in,” said Barb Quaintance, AARP senior vice president of volunteer and civic engagement. “That can mean more classrooms, but more likely, more schools.”

Turning schools around

Two-thirds of U.S. fourth-graders are unable to read at grade level and are four times as likely to leave school without a diploma than those who read proficiently, according to studies by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

With the help of AARP Experience Corps tutors, progress is being made in the Twin Cities. Between fall and spring of the 2011-12 school year, 80 percent of the 542 targeted students made one or more year’s progress in reading.

“Once the light bulb goes on, reading progress moves much more quickly,” said Janet Triplett, who managed the Twin Cities program for more than a decade before retiring in April. “It’s really important to work in those lower grades so that can happen.”

After Maxfield ranked in the bottom 5 percent of Minnesota schools in 2010, Experience Corps became part of the school’s turnaround strategy, according to principal Nancy Stachel.

Only 18.5 percent of third-graders at Maxfield were proficient in reading in 2010, according to the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment. Two years later, that number had climbed to nearly 41 percent.

“Experience Corps is a piece of that,” said Stachel who came to Maxfield in 2010. The program’s success, she added, hinges on the way older people become fixtures in the classrooms in which they work.

At Maxfield, each AARP Experience Corps tutor, who sign up for the academic year,  spends between 10 and 15 hours a week working with students who have tested below grade level in reading. To keep things fun, they use a range of motivational aids, including flash cards and games.

A rewarding activity

Diggs, who retired in 2006,  said Experience Corps has given her a new sense of purpose and energy.

“I don’t think there’s anything more gratifying than working with little kids,” she said. “I get that connection that’s often lacking in the lives of older people who are retired.”

Diggs recalled one first-grader who had not been motivated to read until a book by author Mo Willems caused Diggs to laugh out loud. When the girl asked Diggs why she was laughing, “I explained that it’s really philosophical.” Diggs said. “She started laughing, too. … She caught on that reading it was fun.

Volunteers offer students an adult they can count on, said Noreen Huntington, the program’s St. Paul field coordinator. “The tutor plays an extremely valuable role in the influence on that child’s life,” she said.

“I kind of refer to Experience Corps as our ‘grandparent cloud,’ ” Stachel said. “It’s important for our kids who may not have grandparents around to have elders.”

Volunteers must be 50 or older, have a high school or equivalency degree, be fluent in English, and undergo a background check.

Volunteers come from varied backgrounds including nursing, teaching, business and firefighting. The Twin Cities program has only 10 men this year and is eager to recruit more to serve as role models for the boys
Volunteers receive a small stipend for their service, as well as an award of up to $1,415 for educational purposes.

Interviews for the 2013-14 school year begin in early August; those interested in applying are advised to call immediately. For information call 612-202-7209 or email paul.simone@voamn.org, or visit aarp.org/experience-corps.

Pamela Schmid is a writer living in St. Paul, Minn.

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