A one-on-one tutoring program in the era of kids being sent home and back and home again from school has been flourishing online, giving Casa Grande second- and third-graders extra help to bolster their all-important reading skills.
The AARP Experience Corps is a literacy program pairing volunteers with students who have been referred for twice-weekly tutoring sessions. The Casa Grande Elementary School District and City of Casa Grande are teaming with Pinal Alliance to bring the opportunity to local students, the first rural Arizona city to participate.
The Casa Grande program is one of very few volunteer programs launched by AARP since the beginning of the pandemic. Its virtual format makes it possible to protect retired participants at higher risk of severe COVID-19 illness.
Laurie Gardner, who is tutoring two students for the program, said she was excited to hear about it since COVID had dashed her plans to volunteer this winter, her second in Casa Grande, and get more involved in the community.
She is enjoying building relationships with her two readers and says in some respects the Zoom format makes that easier to do.
“It’s too bad we can’t be face-to-face. But on the other hand I think you get to have a little more of a personal relationship because you’re stepping into people’s homes,” she said.
Caryl Chase, AARP Experience Corps program manager for Casa Grande, said 33 volunteers are tutoring more than 40 students from Saguaro, Cottonwood and Evergreen elementary schools, spending two 30-minute sessions with them per week.
Their goal is to help the children become more fluent in their reading skills so they can comprehend, retain and comprehend the information they learn through reading. They do this through reading with and to the child, as well as playing three to four games per session.
“We always learn more when it’s fun for us,” Chase said.
Multiple studies have found the AARP Experience Corps approach to be effective, with up to 62% of students improving at least half a grade level during a semester with a tutor.
Tutor Debbie Burdett has lived in Casa Grande since 1980 and has volunteered her time with children in various settings until contracting a serious lung infection in 2019, after which she was advised to avoid spending a lot of time around kids. She said that having the chance to help them online has been “a godsend.”
She said working with kids over Zoom after so many years of being face-to-face with them has been an adjustment, but she’s been able to teach them effectively despite the changes.
During each session, Burdett said, “there’s a lot of repetition with the program, and we start out with an overview of the book. We look at them, the cover, the back, the title page, and we have them investigate them. We ask them, ‘What do you think the story is going to be about,’ picking up on their curiosity. Your intellectual curiosity is so important.”
Tutors don’t spend a lot of time on building vocabulary, but do review what could be difficult words for the students before reading through the entire book, she added. “That gives them a little bit of a confidence boost,” she said.
The online sessions were held throughout the fall semester, the first two weeks of which the kids were on campus and the rest being taught on distance learning. Chase said the program will continue for the spring semester either face-to-face or online, depending on the circumstances.
AARP Experience Corps is still seeking volunteer tutors. For more information or to apply contact Chase at 520-421-8710, Ext. 5103 or firstname.lastname@example.org