Volunteer Diane Lord (right) reads with Jakeem Johnson while his mother, Michelle Kavian observes.ÊLord tutored Jakeem through WISE & Healthy AgingÕs America Reads literacy program, helping boost his reading skills. (photo by Wise & Healthy Aging)

FAIRVIEW LIBRARY — Diane Lord doesn’t have a teaching background, nor any children, but when it came time to help a second-grade boy who was struggling to read, she found effective tutoring didn’t require experience.

It’s how the Santa Monica resident and about 200 other volunteers are spending their retirement years, coaching local elementary school students who are having trouble meeting literacy standards for their age group, part of the WISE & Healthy Aging America Reads program which pairs the older and younger generations for one-on-one tutoring.

“It makes me feel like I’m doing something that’s constructive for them as well as satisfies a need for me to be around kids and to be able to help them,” Lord, who retired following a career in the aerospace industry, said.

The six-year-old program has trained and placed approximately 200 volunteers with 800 students from the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, providing more than 20,000 cumulative tutoring hours. America Reads, which is a national initiative, focuses on schools that have a large population of students from low-income families.

“They love to learn from young kids and young kids love to learn from them,” Petula Storey, the director of volunteer services for WISE, said.

The volunteers undergo a three-hour training program run by a reading specialist who used to work at one of the public schools. They are then required to perform at least one hour of tutoring a week per student for an entire school year, providing continuity for the child. The students are referred by teachers.

Marjorie Allen, a retired real estate broker who lives in Marina del Rey, began volunteering with the program several years ago, tutoring students at the Fairview Library.

Being a recent widow, Allen said she likes the social contact.

“I enjoy the different personalities and it just invigorates me,” she said. “I thoroughly enjoy every minute with the kids.”

The program earlier this year received a $7,500 development grant, which will be used toward training. A dozen new volunteers just completed their training session.

Grace Cheng Braun, the president and CEO of WISE & Healthy Aging, said the program is important during a time when the federal No Child Left Behind Act has increased pressures on schools for student performances while the state cuts back on funding that could be used for enrichment programs.

“Studies show that up to grade three, children learn to read; after grade three, they read to learn,” she said. “ So there is a critical need for children to develop good reading skills early on, and that is what we are striving to provide through WISE America Reads.”

Donald Murchie, a volunteer and retired newspaper reporter and editor with the Beverly Hills Courier, said that there’s a need for tutoring programs that provide individualized attention to students, which they might not otherwise get in the classroom.

“Teachers do best to introduce materials but they don’t know the individual background that kids have,” he said.

Murchie has tutored about 15 students, mainly fourth and fifth graders at Will Rogers, during the three years he’s been with the program. The students include one who was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and another whose father was murdered.

The students read stories written by Murchie, which captures their attention.

“I started writing stories on my own and using them as the protagonist and they immediately responded,” he said.

The program has shown improved results for students.

Michelle Kavian, a Santa Monica mom, said her son Jakeem has become more enthusiastic about reading since he started tutoring sessions with Lord.

“I would tell everyone about her because she’s so great with kids,” Kavian said.


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