States turn to seniors for help in classrooms

By: - October 5, 2007 12:00 am

Dorothy Johns, 74, volunteers as a teacher’s aide at a Baltimore elementary school and says the kids help her stay active and healthy. Elizabeth DeSell, the teacher she helps, says she doesn’t know what she would do without her. The kids say they like reading with Johns, and studies show their grades have improved.

They are all beneficiaries of in an inner-city volunteer program designed to pair retired elders with schools in need of extra help.

As baby boomers reach retirement age and begin to leave the public schools’ teaching ranks in droves, states are launching programs like Baltimore’s to fill mounting classroom vacancies.

Maryland, California, Virginia and other states are recruiting retirees to work in public schools as volunteers and salaried employees, offering boomers what they say they want – meaningful second careers.

In Maryland, first-term Gov. Martin O’Malley (D) plans to take the successful Baltimore program statewide. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) this summer launched a statewide program that partners with high-tech companies to recruit, train and place retiring employees in the state’s public schools. Virginia and other states use federal money to train retirees for volunteer work in classrooms and with students who need extra help.

The Baltimore program has improved teacher retention, raised student scores and boosted the overall health of the senior volunteers, according to studies by Johns Hopkins University . It has expanded from three to 16 schools since 1998 and now includes nearly 300 volunteers, said program director Sylvia McGill.

“We need to look at more ways older adults can share the knowledge that can only be gained through experience as we look to develop a better skilled workforce,” said O’Malley, who championed the Greater Homewood Community Corporation’s program when he was mayor of Baltimore.

Johns brings her life experience as a mother and professional experience from a 41-year career in Maryland’s vital statistics department to her new teaching job at Medfield Heights Elementary School. “I started out signing babies’ birth certificates and now I’m back, helping the children learn,” she said. Johns works 15 hours per week in a first-grade classroom for a stipend of .50 every two weeks.

DeSell is grateful to have her there. “Everyone else is jealous,” she said, explaining that Johns not only teaches kids to read, but helps them catch up when they miss class, works as a proctor during standardized testing sessions and sets up classroom activities.

Volunteer programs like Baltimore’s, based on a non-profit model called Experience Corps , also have been launched in 12 other states: Arizona, California, Connecticut, Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas and Utah.

In California, Schwarzenegger recently authorized a statewide teacher certification program called EnCorps aimed at replacing a critical shortage of math teachers with newly certified full- and part-time professionals who have retired from careers in the state’s technology, engineering and science industries.

California’s current teacher shortage is expected to worsen as the school system loses some100,000 baby boomers – one-third of the teacher workforce – over the next decade, according to the governor’s office. The EnCorps program is aimed at helping the state find more than 33,000 new science and math teachers.

Virginia’s volunteer teaching and mentoring program is part of a federally funded network of volunteer projects, called Senior Corps . Some 2,000 older volunteers there mentor special needs students and help run before- and after-school programs, said program specialist Jean Taylor Payne. Volunteers, who receive orientation and periodic training, focus primarily on literacy and reading skills, Payne said.

Nationwide, public schools are expected to lose about a million teachers over the next decade, according to the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future . Federally funded programs similar to Virginia’s have so far placed more than 54,000 volunteers over age 55 in classrooms in all 50 states, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service , which funds the Senior Corps program. Total grants to states last year under the program came to .7 million.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.