It's back-to-school time. Amid the frenzy of shopping for school supplies and organizing carpools, it is worth pausing to ask: To what kinds of schools will our children return?

Some will go back to schools thriving with parental involvement, cutting-edge technology and community financial support. But many other children will be returning to overcrowded and underfunded schools, schools that lack the resources to provide individualized attention to students who have fallen behind grade level in critical skills such as reading. This is cause for concern -- especially because "students who are not reading at grade level by the end of third grade are three times more likely to become part of the juvenile justice system," according to the LaDonna Harris, chief probation officer of Alameda County.

Helping students attain grade-level literacy is no small task, but an award-winning nonprofit, Experience Corps Bay Area, has had tremendous success doing just that. Experience Corps mobilizes older adults (50-plus years old) as volunteer literacy tutors and mentors for more than 3,400 children in grades K-3 in 18 lower-performing public schools in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco.

Each volunteer is rigorously trained and then paired with individual or small groups of students who are struggling to attain grade-level literacy. Volunteers provide intensive reading intervention for the student throughout an entire school year, helping the student reach critical academic milestones. Through lasting relationships with caring volunteers, students are more likely to succeed academically and less likely to engage in risky behavior -- the kind that could land them in the juvenile justice system.


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The approach is working. One in every 3 of the Experience Corps students who began the school year below grade level and received sustained tutoring was reading at grade level by the end of the school year. And a 2009 study of the Experience Corps program by researchers at Washington University in St. Louis found that "teachers overwhelmingly rated the (Experience Corps) program as beneficial to students" and the program "had statistically and substantively important effects on reading outcomes." In fact, students with Experience Corps tutors made over 60 percent more progress in learning critical reading skills than similar students not served by the program.

That's why Monique Brinson, the principal of Sankofa Academy in Oakland, has praised Experience Corps as an "incredible resource to our school and our students" that has helped "transform our school into becoming a place of care and rigor."

Even better, Experience Corp's model delivers a double-win -- not only supporting students academically and social-emotionally, but also enhancing the volunteers' physical and mental well-being, increasing their self-esteem, and widening their social networks. This at a time where more and more retiring baby boomers are looking for "encore" careers that allow them to give back to their communities and cultivate a sense of personal fulfillment.

To scale its successful model, Experience Corps has partnered with AARP and is undertaking an ambitious campaign to expand to new schools in the Bay Area where there is evidence of student need, including in Oakland. Currently in eight Oakland Title I schools, Experience Corps is slated to expand to two more Alameda County schools this year in an effort to respond to ongoing requests in the community.

With each Experience Corps volunteer who goes "back to school" this fall, another at-risk child will gain a meaningful opportunity to develop critical literacy skills, putting them on track for future academic success. At a time when so much of the news about public education is negative, Experience Corps is a reminder that, with the right kind of help, all kids can learn.

David L. Kirp is the James D. Marver Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and author of Kids First: "Five Big Ideas for Transforming Kids' Lives and America's Future."