By Robert Tietze
and Richard Chevrefils
Many parents, teachers, and students celebrated high school graduations this month. Sadly, though, only half the students who began their journey in the first grade will earn a diploma and the opportunity to be part of such an important moment.
The dropout crisis challenging our school systems, communities, and society is on the priority lists of policymakers, educators, and business leaders. Commissions have explored new approaches and an array of strategies, and a great deal of money has been spent in the quest to address the problem.
It would be ideal if school systems could provide intensive, one-on-one tutoring support for children who are below grade level to ensure that each has the chance to graduate. But that's an expensive proposition. Or at least it used to be.
We now have an opportunity to provide that ideal kind of instruction at a very low cost. It's called the aging boom.
Over the next 15 years or so, more than 77 million baby boomers will retire. But many in this new generation of retirees will not be seeking refuge in Florida or endless days on the golf course. Instead, studies show, they will be looking to play rewarding, meaningful roles in their communities - for opportunities to share their lifetimes of skill and experience with the next generation.
This is a powerful demographic shift that's under way in the United States and in Pennsylvania, where 20 percent of the population is currently over the age of 60. This "graying America" will have a seismic impact on virtually every aspect of our society. It provides a golden opportunity to address the frightening dropout rate in Philadelphia and across the nation.
These potential tutors will be the most well-educated, financially well-off, healthiest, and most engaged generation of retirees in history. John Gardner, the architect of Common Cause and a cabinet member to Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, once said that "our older adults are this nation's only increasing natural resource." We need to mobilize this great resource to increase student literacy levels.
Washington University recently completed a two-year study on Experience Corps, a national tutoring program that, here in Philadelphia, engages the time and talent of more 400 retirees to provide intensive tutoring in 38 schools across the city. The researchers found statistically significant improvement in literacy and other key academic areas among children served by Experience Corps tutors, which ranks it in the top tier of the 150 national literacy-tutoring programs rated by the U.S. Department of Education's Institute for Educational Science.
At an annual cost of only $450 per child, the question is why we aren't using this strategy for all students who need support in reading and literacy, especially from kindergarten through third grade.
If a child is not reading at grade level by fourth grade, his or her chances of ever reaching grade level decrease significantly each year. These are the children who will be unable to read and therefore learn as they move into and beyond fourth grade. These are the children who will not be there in June to receive their diplomas years from now. These are the children we are losing, and we are losing them early.
Experience Corps and AARP are already working together, and we are prepared to expand current efforts to support children's literacy and academic success. AARP's 2008 report More to Give found that 45 million people between the ages of 44 and 79 are likely to increase the time they spend volunteering in the next five years. Experience Corps is able to leverage this interest and capacity. In fact, more than 3,000 AARP members have served through Experience Corps Philadelphia during its 12-year history.
Now we need the leadership and commitment of our policymakers to ensure that this low-cost, research-backed approach is given the support it needs to expand, so more children get the support they need to graduate.