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AARP’s Experience Corps has seniors helping Valley kids with reading

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PHOENIX – In Ms. McConkie’s first-grade class at Dunbar Elementary School, Ashley Vaca has struggled pronouncing her words when reading. But twice a week, she now leaves the room with a volunteer for a private reading session.

On this morning, Priscilla Overton, 73, sits down with Vaca, and together they read, “What Animals Eat.”

Overton starts: “Frogs like to eat bugs. Zap, zap.”

Turning the page, Vaca quietly stutters: “Monkeys like to eat fruit. Slurp, slurp.”

They stop, and Overton has her student underline the difficult words to review later.

“I get on their level; that’s what I do,” Overton said. “I take a slow pace if they are a slow student. It all depends on how that student is comprehending.”

Their tutoring session is part of Experience Corps, a nationwide AARP program that brings trained retirees to schools to help struggling kids improve their reading levels.

Experience Corps focuses on kindergarten through third grade, with 2,000 volunteers in 22 cities across the country helping children reach their grade reading levels.

The program has been serving schools in Tempe since 2006. It recently added 10 schools in the Phoenix area with a total of 73 volunteers.

Experience Corps requires volunteers to have a high school diploma and a background check. Volunteers train for 16 hours in the areas of Common Core components and child behavior.

Cathy Gaudio, AARP Experience Corps program manager, said it’s important to master reading at a young age.

“The ability to read opens so many doors,” she said. “When you are very young and able to read fluently you’re more confident, you participate in class and you’re able to understand all of your subjects.”

Gaudio added that research shows a correlation between the inability to read and the problems a person has later in life.

“This is where we find kids who end up in jail, who are unemployed, chronically unemployed, and they have very troubled lives,” she said.

Along with Experience Corps, state programs like Read On Arizona and Read On Phoenix focus on early literacy, Gaudio said.

“The objective is that no child will be retained,” she said.

Retention is the result of a 2010 law, Move On When Reading, that holds back third-graders who score poorly in the reading portion of the Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS).

According to, maintained by the state Department of Education, 56 percent of Dunbar Elementary School’s third-graders passed the reading portion of AIMS in the 2014, which is 18 percent lower than in 2012.

In order for the grant-funded program to continue, each school must provide data to show the program was effective based on feedback from volunteers, teachers and administrators.

Loraine Conley, principal of Dunbar Elementary School, said so far the baseline data and conversations with the teachers have been positive.

“We have observed students are excited to read and look forward to one-to-one mentoring sessions,” Conley said.

In the future, she hopes the program will expand in the school.

“We need first-, second- and third-graders to be able to read so many words per minute, enjoy what they’re reading and be able to pass state assessments,” she said.

Back in the tutoring session, Priscilla Overton finishes up her session with Ashley Vaca by reading about Clifford the Big Red Dog. Overton said she enjoys seeing Vaca smile and quickly turn pages of the colorful book.

“It’s rewarding seeing that child comprehend and knowing they have a love for reading,” she said. “It also helps me because I learn from the children.”