Ferd Schlapper of Woodbury stepped away from a fulfilling 30-year career in academia in 2017. Then he stepped right back in.

The second time, though, the desks were smaller.

Just after Labor Day, Schlapper, a former director of health services for the University of Minnesota, will begin his second year as an AmeriCorps math enrichment tutor. He’ll spend six hours a day, three days a week, volunteering with 9- to 11-year-olds at Woodbury Elementary School, focused on a critical goal of improving their math proficiency so they can catch up with their peers and pass the Minnesota standardized test next spring.

He’s up to the challenge and, fortunately, so are the kids tapped for tutoring. “The overwhelming majority are extremely excited,” said Schlapper, 62. “At first, I thought it was because of me, but it also could be that they get out of the classroom.”

He laughs before adding that this fun endeavor is serious business: “We’re helping these young students who are at risk of falling further and further behind each year. You are reopening doors that are starting to close on them.”

In Minnesota, those doors shut with alarming frequency. The achievement gap in reading and math between affluent, primarily white children, and children of color, English language learners and children eligible for free and reduced lunches, remains among the highest in the nation.

Just 38% of Minnesota low income third-graders, for example, achieved proficient reading scores on the 2018 state exam, the MCA, compared to 56% of all third-graders. Similarly, 37% of eighth-grade students from low income families demonstrate grade-level proficiency in math, while 58% of all students reach this milestone.

Students lacking strong fundamental math skills are less likely to graduate from high school and attend college, which can have lifelong ramifications.

Enter AmeriCorps — sometimes called the domestic Peace Corps — which is demonstrating measurable success, aided by a robust Minnesota presence.

This month, Minneapolis-St. Paul was named No. 1 among U.S. cities for AmeriCorps volunteers per capita, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS), the federal agency that administers AmeriCorps. That’s up from second place last year.

Since AmeriCorps programs were introduced in 1994 (serveminnesota.org), approximately 32,000 Minnesotans have given more than 52 million hours of service across the United States. This year, CNCS will invest more than $37 million in national service projects in the state, including funding for about 1,700 AmeriCorps members with Reading Corps and Math Corps, reaching an estimated 35,000 students during the 2019-2020 school year.

About 500 tutoring opportunities are still available (see accompanying story). Tutors are supported by math and literacy coaches, who help them succeed and ensure effectiveness with the teaching model.

“The learning curve was really steep the first year,” Schlapper said, calling his very first day as a tutor “organized chaos. I’m amazed at the teachers who conduct this orchestra.”

Benefits for all involved

Thanks to teamwork between teachers, tutors and coaches, students are showing “consistent growth over time,” said Anne Sinclair, chief learning officer for Minnesota’s Reading & Math, Inc., the organization that recruits and trains AmeriCorps members.

In an independent evaluation, pre-K students who received reading help, she noted, outperformed their peers in picture names, rhyming, alliteration and letter sounds. Their slightly older peers achieved “significantly higher” reading fluency scores than children not in the program.

Students tutored to beef up basic math skills have seen jumps of as much as two levels in the program during a school year.

AmeriCorps’ evidence-based practice drew Sinclair to the state and to the job, she said. But she’s equally bullish about the program’s boisterous use of “human capital” — people like Schlapper.

While 58% of Reading Corps and Math Corps members are 35 and older, with a particular uptick among those over 55, the programs are welcoming tutors just out of high school or college who appreciate the work experience gained, networking opportunities and, naturally, twice monthly stipend; many take advantage of federal student loan repayment and/or no-cost health insurance.

Taylor Rierson, a 24-year-old from Lakeville, has been a reading tutor with AmeriCorps since she was 20. She’s still on her parents’ health plan, but the stipend and student loan help “was a huge, huge draw.”

She’s attending Normandale Community College, studying elementary education, but still carving out more than 40 hours a week to work one-on-one with kids at Lakeview Elementary School in Lakeville.

“Especially if you enjoy working with children, it’s a really great way to make connections in a school building,” Rierson said. “A great way to get your foot in the door.”

Parents are getting on board, too, serving in the schools their own kids attend. Chauntell Schleif, the mother of two young sons, gave 25 hours a week to the reading program last year and will bump up to 40 hours this year at Sheridan Elementary School in northeast Minneapolis.

Thanks to AmeriCorps, she’ll be enrolling in the health care insurance program and will use the tuition boost to return to school to study education.

“It’s very exciting,” she said, recalling the particular progress of several of her second-graders. “They started out at a low level and said, ‘Oh, I can’t read.’ Once they actually do it, it’s, ‘Wow! I can do this. Thank you for helping me.’

“It’s a rewarding program.”

Sometimes, involvement is a family affair. Dan Carlson, 59, is a math tutor in the Staples-Motley school district in central Minnesota. The retired police and SWAT officer had a grandchild who received Reading Corps help, which inspired Carlson’s daughter, Brianna Mielke, to become a tutor. Based on her experience, he signed on and soon begins his third year getting youngsters up to grade level in math.

“They’re eager to come in and generally are in good moods,” he said. That happiness rubs off on him.

“Having been in public safety for 35 years, where you’re often dealing with tragedy, something like this is quite an uplifting experience. And a great way to stay young. It’s salve for the soul.”

Back in the classroom

Schlapper would agree. At age 60, and eager to “rewire, not retire,” he learned about AmeriCorps from a posting for educational opportunities in the Twin Cities. He loved math as a kid and was “really excited about the possibilities to help those kids get back on track.”

He hears a common refrain from people when he tells them what he’s up to: “I’d like to help, too, but I’m not good at math.” He encourages them to reconsider.

“You don’t have to have a teaching background,” Schlapper said. “And you don’t have to be a math whiz. We are teaching the basic building blocks of math: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and decimals, not quadratic equations. Plus, the lesson plans are all spelled out for you.”

Schlapper typically takes students out of the classroom in groups of two or three for 90 minutes per week. That small teacher-student ratio is key to getting through and making progress. “I have more time to build a supportive rapport with each student and ask them about their lives and interests, what did they do on the weekend, how was volleyball or hockey practice.”

Building trust that way opens the door to deeper conversations, he said. “We talk about what success is and what it’s not. It’s not just a destination, not just getting the right answer on a particular problem. It’s learning, growing and continuing to take on challenges.

“I tell them, ‘If you don’t get the right answer today, that just means you’re not quite there — yet.’ We praise their effort and their embracing of the learning journey.”

Still, he has to make his case on occasion. One female student didn’t think she needed his help with math, he recalled. Then she showed up one day wearing a NASA T-shirt. “She told me about her interest in science and outer space. I asked her if she’d seen [the movie] ‘Hidden Figures.’ She went home and watched it and was really excited about the doors math could open for her for the rest of the year.”

Another fifth-grader told Schlapper that he didn’t need to learn math because he was going to play professional basketball.

“So I started talking to him about statistics, points per game, assists, multimillion-dollar contracts and paying his agent 10 percent. He said, ‘I guess I will need math.’ ”

It’s difficult to determine who gets more out of the program. “I find myself so invigorated,” Schlapper said. “I love to see these kids, who feel or have been told they’re not good at math, they’ll never get math, all of a sudden have the light go on and they become more confident and excited to learn more and take on new challenges.

“It’s just joyful. These young people have so much enthusiasm.”