Robert Anderson, a team leader for Experience Corps, tutors a student at Scott Joplin Elementary School. Photo by Tim Klein

By Lisa Bertagnoli

Robert Anderson was barely retired when an Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity brother asked him to volunteer for Experience Corps, the AARP Foundation program that trains and places tutors in Chicago public schools.

“There was a little bit of tugging on the heartstrings,” said Anderson, 69, a former educator who lives in the Roseland neighborhood. “He said, ‘Bob, you’ve done this with youngsters. You know how to do it.’ ”

Anderson had planned a retirement filled with golf and home projects, but last September he also began training for Experience Corps. In January, he joined the tutors at Scott Joplin Elementary School in the city’s Auburn Gresham neighborhood.

Anderson felt at home right away. He had been a substitute teacher at the school and knew its principal, a former student. His nephew, a graphic artist, had designed the logo for the school mascot, and his mother had sewn the draperies for the school stage.

Anderson oversees seven volunteers who tutor 63 students. Witnessing their progress, he said, makes volunteering worthwhile.

“As an educator, any time you see growth in a child, that’s a factor,” Anderson said. One second grader’s skills improved so much that the child was able to participate in the school’s spelling bee.

In 2013, Experience Corps began training older adults in Chicago schools to help students in kindergarten through third grade achieve their grade level in reading. The program began in 10 schools and has grown to 23 schools.

Improvements in Reading Skills

During the 2016-2017 school year, teachers reported that 75 percent of students who were below grade level at the beginning of the year improved their reading and literacy performance by one or more proficiency levels.

The program also emphasizes mentoring, and teacher surveys showed that volunteers were helping students build motivation, concentration and confidence.

This year, 141 volunteers provided an estimated 22,000 hours of tutoring to 1,600 students.

AARP Foundation wants to expand the program to 40 schools —about 10 percent of the city’s elementary schools—in two years. To do so, the program will need at least 300 volunteers, said Gregary Brown, Chicago branch director for Experience Corps.

Volunteers must be 50 or older, have a high school diploma or equivalent, and be willing to tutor small groups of students. Tutors must complete 25 hours of training and submit to a background check. They commit to spending 2.5 hours at the school two days a week.

Tutor surveys reveal that volunteers get as much from the program as students. “This experience has a positive impact on their lives and their health and wellness,” Brown said, noting that the tutor retention rate is 80 percent.

Tutors add “another caring, trained adult to the classroom,” said Megan Hougard, network chief for about 40 schools, in Englewood, Auburn Gresham and Washington Heights.

“Experience Corps has a whole system to support volunteers,” she added. The program makes life easier for teachers, rather than adding to their work: “Principals love it; teachers love it.”

Anderson has an ardent plea for would-be volunteers: “We are asking for people, regardless of their professional background, to spend time with the future. It makes a difference not just for the child but for the adults.”

For more information on volunteering, contact AARP Foundation Experience Corps Chicago at aarp.org/ecchicago or 312-660-8655.

Lisa Bertagnoli is a writer living in Chicago.