When Sarah Taylor — a native of the East Coast — moved to San Francisco two years ago, the stay-at-home mom was in search of a volunteer organization for spending some of her time.
A friend recommended that she try the Members Project to find groups in her area. The search led to Experience Corps Bay Area — ECBA — and weeks later, Taylor found herself volunteering in a first grade classroom at John Muir Elementary School.
Aspiranet — a nonprofit community-based organization — started ECBA in 1998 to help achieve their mission of creating permanent, lifelong connections for children and families in California.
Anson Hartson founded Aspiranet in 1975 when the former probation officer was creating Moss Beach Homes as a rehabilitation center for juvenile offenders. Within nine years, the organization had 12 group homes, with the understanding that children thrive in a loving family setting, rather than in an institution. The ECBA program was extended in the 1980s to include recruiting, training and supporting foster families.
ECBA and American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) joined forces, and is now one of the most highly regarded service programs, recruiting adults 50 years and older to volunteer to help improve Kindergarten through third grade literacy in underserved schools.
“Our mission for the most part has remained the same,” said ECBA Director Paul Olsen. “We empower older adults to solve some of our society’s biggest problems. Much of our focus is on mentoring and tutoring. It’s important to give the adults benchmarks so they know their efforts are successful.”
According to a 2010 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, children in grades K-3 who are proficient in reading tend to be 60 percent more likely to succeed in life. Students who are reading at grade level are more likely to graduate high school and continue onto higher education, the same study revealed.
Taylor — a former pharmacologist — provides general support to two teachers in two classrooms of 18 students each, once a week at John Muir Elementary. The teacher may suggest assisting a particular student who may need help that week depending on the lesson, and Taylor is there to provide any support necessary.
“Reading is definitely number one,” Taylor said in reference to her favorite subject. “It’s really rewarding to sit with a child and read a really good book. You can definitely see progression watching children read. Math is also fun. It’s great because they have really neat tools that we didn’t have when we were growing up to help them understand the lesson.”
The ECBA is now in 14 schools in the Bay Area, has worked with over 3,000 students, and has recruited hundreds of volunteers. The experience corps is in 19 cities throughout the U.S.
Volunteers go through a screening process and a background check that is required by law before entering the classroom. Next, they are provided with nine hours of preservice training which includes mentoring basics, academic tutoring and a focus on literacy.
“A literacy coach provides them with information on assorted topics, like behavior modifications, the importance of testing, and teaching English-language learners,” said Olsen. “It gives our members more tools to use when working with students. The trainers have a blog they can refer to, and they provide one-on-one training.”
The current trainer for ECBA is a teacher with over 20 years of elementary school experience, who brings both learning credentials and involvement with underserved schools to the role.
“They provided such excellent training,” said Taylor, who has been seasoned in training for many volunteer ventures in the past. “It really amazed me. The initial training was mandatory, but the guidelines, strategies and skills they went over were incredibly helpful.”
The volunteers and teachers receive even more support in the form of a site coordinator — another member of ECBA who is in the school during volunteer hours.
“Their function is to make sure we’re supporting our members as much as possible, and the teacher is getting what they need as well,” said Olsen. “Every one of them has a background in child development or teaching; some have a master’s in social work, or a doctorate in education.”
Experience corps activities take place in school during school hours. The volunteer and teacher agree on one of three methods that work for that particular group of students.
The first option is general classroom assistance, where a teacher might ask for the volunteer to walk around and help students, or sit in the back of the room where students can approach them for help. In the second option, the volunteer sits in the middle of a small group of students to provide support to all of them. The third is what ECBA calls one-on-one intervention, where a volunteer works with the same student for half an hour twice a week, preferably throughout the school year, to provide continual reinforcement.
“My model is to provide general support to two teachers,” said Taylor. “I help whoever needs help that particular week. Maybe they need help with a particular skill; sometimes a child needs a little one-on-one time; maybe they’re having a bad day, and sitting with them keeps their concentration.”
According to Olsen, the focus of ECBA is on older adults tutoring children because elders tend to have established a working career, and now have time available. They are familiar with reaching for goals, setting and meeting commitments, and they find themselves at a point in life where they want to give back. The mornings are considered the best time for academic intervention, and elders tend to have their mornings free.
“They’re consistent, they’re caring. It sets an example for the kids. They don’t necessarily have education backgrounds, but they’re normal, everyday people. They bring a sense of community with them to the classroom,” said Olsen. “Kids too often are in classes larger than we’d like. They are given a caring role model that’s from their community; that serves them very well. It shows them they too can someday help out and be a productive member in the community.”
Karen Osher, a second-grade teacher at Monroe Elementary, has had the same two volunteers coming into her class for the last several years. A woman volunteers three mornings a week, and a man joins her in the afternoon once a week to assist with her class of 21. They decided mutually after the first year to continue working together.
“The greatest advantage is they have a dedication to the children, tremendous flexibility, and they want to know [the students,]” said Osher. “They don’t come in with a ‘what do you want me to with them’ attitude. They really want to help; they’re very engaged and interested.”
Last year, Osher recalled, she had a particularly challenging group of students, some of whom were hostile towards adults. When the volunteer from ECBA saw how much difficulty Osher was having with one particular boy, she wanted to help.
“She was very persistent,” Osher recalled. “He would always say no when she asked to help him, and she was amazingly patient; she’d bring in a book every day and ask if he wanted to read it, eventually he gave in.”
Taylor shared a similar experience, when a first grade student in her class refused to participate.
“She didn’t seem to relate socially. She would walk out of class. My job was to keep her calm and quiet and stay in class,” said Taylor.
By the end of year, the girl showed little improvement and returned to first grade. After working consistently for six months with Taylor, she was participating, paying attention, and answering questions correctly.
“There are little moments every week, really, when you see a child grasp something. It’s so rewarding just being in there, they are so much fun,” said Taylor.
“It’s easy to have unrealistic expectations,” said Olsen. “We want results tomorrow for what we do today. Children don’t work on that schedule, it’s cumulative. From Monday to Tuesday you won’t see that change. We try to reinforce that [volunteers] are doing a great job, and they are going to make a difference.”
Rosa Parks Elementary school is the second school to join ECBA in the Western Edition, alongside John Muir Elementary. The self-funded organization continues to raise money with the support of Aspiranet through grants, donations, and government and private funding.
In San Francisco and Oakland, there are a combined 135 volunteers, which they expect to increase by at least fifteen — ideally fifty — by the end of the school year, and a staff of 12.
“This is a terrific program, it’s a win, win, win,” said Olsen. “We’re helping students to succeed in school and life, and there’s a renewed sense of purpose to older adults who aren’t always asked to give back. Our community is stronger because of that interaction. Last year we clocked [approximately] 30,000 hours of donated time from our volunteers. That’s a lot of love and care and academic support.”
ECBA and Aspiranet are always looking for volunteers. These organizations can be reached at www.experiencecorps.org/cities/sanfrancisco/
, or by calling 415.759.4223.