Retirees lend a hand

February 19, 2020

A crowd of students and adult volunteers bustle about at Eldridge L. Miller Elementary School in Stone Mountain. They’re exchanging some laughs as they get acquainted with one another during an ice cream social that the school is hosting.

While the occasion has been lighthearted and fun, it’s far more than a casual get together. This is the official launch of the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) Foundation’s Experience Corps program in the DeKalb County School District.

Experience Corps, according to the Foundation’s website, is an “intergenerational volunteer-based tutoring program that is proven to help children who aren’t reading at grade level become great readers by the end of third grade.” The Foundation indicates that students who aren’t reading at grade level by fourth grade are four times more likely not to graduate from high school, which can contribute to creating a continuous cycle of poverty.

According to United Way of Greater Atlanta’s Child Well-Being Index, only 42.2 percent of third grade students are reading at grade level in DeKalb County. That’s nearly two percentage points lower than the Greater Atlanta regional average, which could spell trouble for the future.

That’s what prompted Debra Furtado of DeKalb County Human Services to seek out a program that could bolster third grade reading scores in her community – one like the Experience Corps program from the AARP Foundation.

She first raised the suggestion to Charles Sterne, director of basic needs at United Way of Greater Atlanta, during a monthly South DeKalb Partners Meeting. The South DeKalb Partners Meeting, convened by United Way, has been an opportunity to foster collaboration and drive impact in the 30032, 30034 and 30035 zip codes.

Sterne, who largely works in matters involving homelessness and food insecurity in Greater Atlanta, reached out to his colleague Ellyn Cochran to follow up on the matter. Cochran acts as the senior director of education for early learning and development at United Way of Greater Atlanta and had already been in talks with the AARP Foundation about bringing the Experience Corps program to the metropolitan area.

Before moving any further forward though, Cochran and Furtado decided to travel with their respective teams from DeKalb Human Services and United Way of Greater Atlanta to Macon, where the Experience Corps program had previously been implemented.

“The opportunity to see the program in action and learn about the experience of another United Way in launching and maintaining the program helped us visualize what a successful launch would look like for our first sites in Atlanta,” says Cochran.

With Furtado and DeKalb Human Services in the fold, Cochran then called on the DeKalb County School District to come on board and formally implement the Experience Corps program at their facilities.

In early 2019, all the coordination finally paid off.

United Way of Greater Atlanta secured a grant from the AARP Foundation and matched those funds with United Way dollars to integrate the Experience Corps program into the DeKalb County School District’s After School Extended Day Program. Based off a review of third grade Georgia Milestone scores in DeKalb County and a look at the Child Well-Being Index, four Elementary schools were identified in partnership with the school district for initial programming: Eldridge L. Miller, Murphey Candler, Redan and Stoneview.

In the several months that have passed since then, two more United Way of Greater Atlanta employees have been heavily involved in the training and recruitment processes to ensure that the Experience Corps program could have a successful implementation in DeKalb County.

Angelle Cooper, director of school transition and early literacy for United Way of Greater Atlanta, and Shun Dorsey, program manager for AARP Experience Corps at United Way of Greater Atlanta, have been quintessential in coordinating with partners at DeKalb Human Services and DeKalb County Schools to deploy the program this Fall.

“Everybody was happy and it’s not at all what I envisioned retirement would be like,” says Cooper. “They’re there bright and early, they’re ready to go, ready to give back.”

Cooper is referring to the volunteers that have made it through the recruitment and training process for the Experience Corps program – no simple task.

Volunteers were first recruited by DeKalb County Human Services, who hosted informational sessions at senior centers throughout DeKalb County and at United Way of Greater Atlanta.

The volunteerism team at United Way of Greater Atlanta then created an application for aspiring Experience Corps volunteers to fill out. DeKalb County Human Services and United Way worked together to review these applications and set up interviews with promising applicants.

Following interviews, DeKalb County Human Services initiated a reference check and, from there, the DeKalb County School District conducted a background check for each of the volunteers.

Dorsey says that, within 24 hours, most of the volunteers were cleared to get matched with students in need of reading assistance. But, the path to becoming an Experience Corps volunteer wasn’t over just yet.

“The pre-service training was really important,” says Dorsey.

Over the course of two days, each volunteer is required to attend and complete a course on the Experience Corps curriculum. Both sessions are about seven hours long.

“It’s two grueling days of this repetitive information that you’re receiving,” says Dorsey. “It kind of gauges that true interest in the program.”

Cooper says that the volunteers had to do “a lot of role play,” where they were asked to put themselves in the shoes of a student in the program. It shapes the volunteers’ understanding of how to stick to the guidelines of the program, while also instructing them on how to be culturally and emotionally sensitive to the backgrounds that students come from.

While intensive, no volunteer appeared phased.

“Everybody came back the second day, super excited,” says Cooper.

Volunteers will also be attending a follow-up training session in January of 2020, where they will be able to provide feedback about their experience with the program so far.

As the school year carries on, students involved in the program will continue taking their MAP tests, which will assess how their reading comprehension skills are developing.

There are 39 total Experience Corps volunteers who will be working with 84 students across the DeKalb County School District this year. They join the nearly 2,000 trained volunteers across the country who are already serving over 30,000 students in high-need elementary schools.

And, given the fact that studies from both Washington University St. Louis and Johns Hopkins University have concluded that students in the program experienced significant gains in reading comprehension, the early learning team from United Way of Greater Atlanta is hopeful that the program will be picked up again for 2020.

“When you say ‘it takes a village,’ to me it exemplifies the village,” says Cooper. “We are building the village.”

If you would like to learn more about volunteering for Experience Corps, click the link here to learn about upcoming opportunities. If you would like to learn about United Way of Greater Atlanta’s other work in Child Well-Being, visit the link here.