The Good Life: Living better. Living longer.

Back to school: seniors help struggling students

  • Article by: NORMAN DRAPER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 13, 2011 - 4:29 PM

A growing number of Minnesota seniors who have left the workforce are giving back by going back to school.

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Dawn McLean teaches young children language and reading skills for the Minnesota Reading Corps at the Minneapolis YWCA. Celeste Peterson four years old works with Dawn McLean at the board where students write names.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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It wouldn't be completely accurate to call them "volunteers" or "retirees", but a growing number of Minnesota seniors who have left the workforce are giving back by going back to school.

They are members of the Minnesota Reading Corps and Minnesota Math Corps, serving in preschools and elementary and middle schools throughout the state, tutoring one-on-one or in small groups with children who are having difficulty mastering their reading or math skills.

For many of these seniors, committing to the Reading Corps or Math Corps often accompanies big changes in their lives. Many have retired from their jobs and watched their children grow up and leave home. They're looking for ways to stay busy. But the most common denominator is this: They want to serve the community and leave at least a small legacy of public service in their wake.

In return for committing to a year of part-time service (20 hours per week) or full-time service (40 hours a week), they are paid a small stipend and earn higher education vouchers they can use for themselves, or transfer to their children or grandchildren.

Matching interests

Dawn McLean, 55, was a nurse for 25 years in Oregon and Washington before retiring and moving to the Twin Cities to be close to her daughter's family. She was looking for a job that matched her interest in helping children -- "I've always loved children and loved reading," she said -- but she also needed something that offered pay and benefits. However, even with her retirement money to supplement it, her stipend of about $900 a month means "I can't afford to do this probably more than a second year," McLean said. "It's a volunteer commitment almost. It's sort of like a domestic Peace Corps, really."

McLean serves 40 hours a week at the downtown Minneapolis YWCA preschool program. She helps out in the regular classroom and is responsible for tutoring 3- and 4-year-olds, individually or in small groups. The plan is to help these children get ready for their next big learning step -- kindergarten. Out of a class of 21, McLean singles out seven for special attention. She sees them every day for between five and 10 minutes each.

"I help them with reading and writing, and listening and speaking, conversation," McLean said. "I plan 'interventions' around their needs. Part of our job is to assess them on a regular basis and monitor their progress."

McLean stressed that her "interventions" -- strategies designed to address particular reading and speaking problem areas -- are based on practices that deliver results. One educational game she plays with her students involves rolling a cardboard cube covered with pictures to see which picture turns up on top, then having the kids identify the picture and pronounce the word.

The job can be tough, especially when it involves "having enough energy for 21 three-year-olds and multitasking and managing behavior."

Is it worth it?

"Totally, if you think about giving back," McLean said. "If you teach children to read, they can read to learn for the rest of their lives. ... You want to leave things better than when you found them."

About half of those who sign on with the Reading Corps and Math Corps are recent college graduates, said Anna Peters, recruitment and outreach manager for both programs. The other half are either in mid-career or retired. Of the 674 members placed in reading programs this year, 52 are 55 or older.

Minnesota Reading Corps, which serves children aged 3 through grade three, started in 2004 as a pilot literacy program with just 24 members. The Math Corps, which serves grades four through eight, began in 2008. Since then the programs have continued to grow each year to the point where they have now served more than 18,000 students, said Kathy Saltzman, executive director of both programs. They are supported with more than $24 million from state, federal and private sources over the current two-year funding cycle, much of which comes from the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency that funds AmeriCorps programs throughout the country. In Minnesota, those programs are administered by a Minneapolis-based nonprofit organization called ServeMinnesota, which also has a broader mission of advancing national service and volunteerism across the state.

Fulfillment in retirement

Rodney Spitz, a 75-year-old retired chemist and current Math Corps member, tutors at Sunrise Elementary School in North Branch, where he lives. He teaches five 40-minute classes, two with three students, and three with two students.

"I'm certainly enjoying myself," said Spitz, who has six children and 12 grandchildren. "I love working with the kids. I think they're progressing well."

A former teacher who has enlisted in the Minnesota Reading Corps is Nancy Schmid, 64, of Inver Grove Heights. Schmid used to teach third grade in the Mounds View school district.

"I kind of retired, but I wasn't happy," she said. "I didn't like being home alone all day." When her daughter heard about the Minnesota Reading Corps, "I pretty much jumped at it because I love kids and I love reading," Schmid said. "The fact that it was one-on-one made me very enthused."

Not all Reading Corps and Math Corps members have an education background like Schmid's, so there's plenty of training involved in both programs. Schmid attended three-day summer training sessions both years she's been with the program, and additional training is offered throughout the school year. Schmid is responsible for 16 students at the Kaposia Education Center in South St. Paul, and gives each one of them 20 minutes a day of individual attention. She has been gratified to see significant improvement in her kids' reading skills, as measured by special proficiency tests, so she's decided to sign up for a third year.

Originally service in the Reading Corps and Math Corps was restricted to a maximum of two years, but that's now been extended to up to four years as part of a federal effort to encourage more participation in public service. Members commit to either 1,720 or 920 hours per year, and on successful completion of their service, they receive higher education grants of up $5,550 a year for full-time members. The number of members returning to serve a second or third year is increasing, but the goal is to have 900 members next year -- the largest recruitment drive yet -- so more applicants are needed (go to www.MinnesotaReadingCorps. org or www.MinnesotaMathCorps. org for more information).

"For older adults especially," said Peters, "service can be an excellent way to leave a lasting and needed legacy for kids who need the extra support to succeed."

Norman Draper • 612-673-4547

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