Posted September 4, 2007

Temple tutoring program places older adults in Philadelphia classrooms

Experience Corps is a win-win proposition

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Photo courtesy Experience Corps Program
A member of Experience Corps shares her knowledge with one of the program’s many students. Experience Corps members are currently in 41 Philadelphia-area schools and there are plans to expand the program.
At a table in the library of the Gen. George G. Meade School in North Philadelphia, Barbara Ford is doing what elders have done since the beginning of time: sharing her wisdom with the next generation.

Ford, a member of the Experience Corps program at Meade, is helping 12-year-old Fatimah Herbert and 11-year-old Destineh Kelly learn to write in cursive.

She’s also helping them learn some things they may need to negotiate life.

“She tells us a lot of stuff that we didn’t know about,” Destineh said. “I like her because she tells us the truth about everything and she’s funny.”


Being given the chance to share her knowledge is something that Ford, whose home is near the school, appreciates being able to do.

“We go over things over and over again and it gives them an opportunity to get better each time,” she said. “When they catch on, that’s the reward.”

For the 400 retirees and older adults who work intensively in 41 schools around the City of Philadelphia, the rewards that come with helping a youngster understand subjects ranging from English to math are being realized through the Experience Corps program.

This program, which is run through Temple University’s Center for Intergenerational Learning, unites school-aged children with retirees and older adults for the purpose of providing high-impact literacy and reading support through one-to-one and small-group tutoring. They also support students in math, English and other subjects, while giving the Experience Corps members the chance to share their knowledge as mentors and educators.

This past year, Experience Corps was the recipient of a $500,000 grant from State Rep. Dwight Evans, who was so impressed with the program that he planned to include it as part of his education agenda had he become Philadelphia’s next mayor.

While touring one of the schools in his district, Evans saw Experience Corps in action and liked the combination of older people teaching and young people learning. But what impressed Evans enough to invest state funding in the program were the holes that it seemed to plug in what he calls “the civic infrastructure.”

“It gives those with experience the chance to be mentors and provide care to young people,” he said. “There’s been a breakdown in the civic infrastructure and that’s what causes things to fall apart. This is a program that I’d like to see expanded (throughout the city) to help with that.”

The program began in 1995 as a pilot program operating in five cities: New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and San Francisco. Initially in only two schools here in Philadelphia, the program completed a large-scale expansion 2006 and is now in over 40 schools across Philadelphia. Regarded now as the flagship for a national network that has expanded to 19 cities, the Philadelphia program has been highlighted in U.S.News & World Report, NBC Evening News, ABC Morning News, NPR, The New York Times, Mother Jones and The Wall Street Journal, to name a few. It also has won several awards for excellence from the federal Administration on Aging, the National Council on Aging and the Archstone Foundation, and was hailed as one of the most effective models for building social and civic capital in the United States by Harvard scholar Robert Putnam, author of the books Bowling Alone and Better Together.

“When we were developing the idea for implementation, we decided to focus on schools where there is a great need,” said Robert Tietze, director and co-founder of the Philadelphia program. “As we worked with the schools, we came to understand that the greatest need was in reading and literacy; that gave us our focus and the ability to have the greatest impact.”

Before they’re placed in schools to tutor the students, the Experience Corps members complete an intensive training program to help them be as effective as possible in helping the kids they’re assigned to.

“We give them an orientation that includes teaching early childhood literacy, the cognitive process of language acquisition, reading and tutoring instructional strategies, and early childhood development, as well as leadership, teambuilding and school district policies,” said Evette Lucas, deputy director for training. “We give them a real grounding of how to work in schools and with kids and how what they’re doing is integrated into the classroom and school curriculum.”

The kids who get help in literacy and other academic skills through Experience Corps are selected through their school reading specialist, which in the case of the Meade school is Peggy Sager. While many of the kids are there because of difficulties with literacy, some of them are a part of the program because school officials thought they’d benefit from the interaction with a grandparent figure, she said.

Members receive stipends; for the first two years by a large grant through AmeriCorps, a federal service program begun in 1992, and thereafter through non-federal grants.

In addition, the program is funded by a variety of sources including Civic Ventures, the parent company for national Experience Corps; the Pennsylvania Department of Education; the Pennsylvania Department of Economic and Community Development; and the schools themselves. In fact, each school contributes between 15 percent and -20 percent toward the cost of the program.

To the principals whose students are involved in the program, what the members of Experience Corp bring to their students is worth the costs.

“They’re a resource,” said Meade Principal Frank Murphy. “These students have access to adults. This creates an extended family for them and creates a neighborhood for them within the walls of the school.”

A testament to the impact that Experience Cops has on student reading and literacy development is that the skills of the children in the program are improving. The average increase in literacy levels for students in the Experience Corps program is one full grade level.

It also provides a benefit for the older adults who serve in the program. While all of them have had to adjust to the kids they’re mentoring, it soon seems as if they’ve acquired another set of grandchildren, they say.

“This is the first time in my whole life that I don’t regret coming to work,” said Helen Allen, who tutors kids in 5th and 6th grades and has been with Experience Corps for three years. “This is different. I want to be here because the students want me to be here. I have a relationship with these kids. I’m a part of their lives.”

There are plans to bring Experience Corps into more schools and more communities.

“We’re working with AARP, Rep. Evans’ office and other community and political leaders to explore further expansion throughout the city, as well as a statewide expansion,” said Tietze. “We believe we are on the vanguard of a sea change in the role of older adults and the critical role they can play in preparing future generations. The potential for Experience Corps here and nationally is exciting.”.

For more information on the Experience Corps program, call 215-204-8559 or visit the program’s website at