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It's been a long time since Val Jackson, 79, has had to do anything.
But one of the things Jackson, of Golden Valley, has chosen to do in retirement -- tutoring kids through a program called Experience Corps -- recently was found in a study to make a big difference in how well kids read.
Fifteen years into Jackson's so-called retirement, his volunteer tutoring is turning out to be some of the more fulfilling work the former electrical engineer has done.
"I started back when the whole idea of seniors in schools was an experiment," said Jackson, a fixture at Lucy Laney Elementary in Minneapolis. "The longer I've stayed, the more I've seen the need for a program like this."
Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found students with Experience Corps tutors made at least 60 percent more progress in two critical areas -- sounding out new words and reading comprehension -- than students who weren't in the program.
"From kindergarten through third grade, you're learning to read; after that you're reading to learn," said Janet Triplett, coordinator of the Experience Corps program for Volunteers of America-Minnesota. "If kids learn to read well by third grade, they have a better chance of being successful."
An effect like reducing class size
About 60 tutors ages 55 and older have worked with more than 800 children through the program. Volunteers of America-Minnesota recruits, trains and monitors tutors at five schools in Minneapolis and three in St. Paul.
"They're trained, and it's effective," said David Branch, principal of Lucy Laney. "It's not just someone coming into the classroom."
Jackson retired in the 1990s after working in England for several decades. He came to Minnesota shortly afterward to be near his adult daughter.
He tutors 15 hours or more each week. The work has special importance lately, as students in eight mostly high-poverty schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul prepare to take state exams this spring.
The researchers looked at 23 schools in Boston, New York and Port Arthur, Texas, from 2006 to 2008, said Nancy Morrow-Howell, the lead researcher and a social work professor at Washington University.
They found that having Experience Corps tutors equated in effectiveness to reducing class size as much as 40 percent. It was effective regardless of students' gender, ethnicity, grade level, family income, behavior and English proficiency.
That's a key finding for districts such as Minneapolis and St. Paul, where many schools serve more than 50 percent minority students and a growing number who are learning English. The Twin Cities are among 23 in the United States with the program.
Nod of approval
Triplett said the study could help her agency as it applies for state or federal grants to expand the program.
The program's budget in the Twin Cities is about $200,000. Tutors receive a stipend of between $2,000 and $2,800 a year for up to two-years, depending on the hours they put in. Jackson is no longer eligible for a stipend but continues as a volunteer.
"I've got a lot of grandchildren," said Jackson of his Lucy Laney students. "I've realized that many of the kids don't have a positive male figure in their lives."
On a recent afternoon, tutor Ann Godfrey, a retired teacher, sat with first-grader Cody Williams as he read from a Halloween-themed book. The book is one of Cody's favorites because it has pop-ups.
She let him reread it because it has three- and four-syllable words. He paused to sound out "skel-e-ton" and "gel-a-tin," and looked to her for approval. It came in the form of a smile and a nod, and Cody continued to read.
She said: "Sometimes a big part of it is just sharing the excitement."
Patrice Relerford • 612-673-4395