Grade-School Seniors

When retirees volunteer to help kids do better in school, test scores aren’t the only things that improve.


The Alain Locke Elementary School commands the corner of Haverford and 46th streets in West Philadelphia, a neighborhood that people tend to describe as “getting better,” which is a way of saying it’s not quite as bad as it once was. But buildings are still boarded up, houses are empty, and the only thriving business for blocks is a funeral home.

The school itself is modern in a faded, 1960s kind of way, and ringed by housing projects that dominate the landscape outside. The students, well scrubbed and eager, carrying 76ers backpacks and Barbie book bags, come from the neighborhood. Almost all are African American. Almost all receive free breakfasts. Among school administrators and politicians and parents, qualifying for a free school meal is the bureaucratic euphemism for being poor, for living near — as if it were a rope stretched close to the cold, ungiving ground — the poverty line.

Inside, the school is quiet and clean. A bulletin board announces whose attendance has been perfect. Pictures of the Cat in the Hat and Barney are painted cheerily on its yellow cinder- block walls. Even so, the outside slips in, like air.

“Dear Chenika,” says a letter outside a fourth-grade classroom, on a bulletin board celebrating the art of letter writing. “How come you don’t call no more. I miss you. Sometimes come and stop by. I haven’t seen you in a good old month. I will be home today and all this month. Just give me a call. Love, your sister. P.S. I hope to see you again.”

“These kids are so emotionally burdened,” a handsome, soft-spoken black woman named Rosetta Moody tells me as we walk down the hall. Now nearly 60, Moody has no business, really, being in this school. A retired nurse, she heard about a program called Experience Corps on the radio one day, about a year ago, when she was cleaning her house. The program hooks up retirees with young children in public schools, tapping into the elders’ reservoirs of knowledge and time to provide support and guidance for kids who have been identified as slow learners, or who otherwise require extra attention. The volunteers are trained and supervised and have to commit to being “on the job” during school hours for 15 hours a week. In exchange, they are given a small stipend to cover transportation, as well as a large sense of purpose.

“I was tired of being home with nothing to do, and tired of feeling worthless and complaining about all my aches and pains,” Moody says. She thought she was done with education, now that her seven kids are grown and raising families of their own. “I was not into the school system,” she says simply, with a rueful smile, because now, it is obvious, the school system is into her.

“We learn our ABCs together. We play games together. I like to make puzzles,” explains a first-grader about the time she spends with Moody, who nods her head in agreement. Moody’s stated reason for being there is to reinforce the girl’s classroom work, particularly her reading. Learning is exponential and messy. It goes off on tangents. When it does, Rosetta Moody is there. And it’s not just the little girl who is learning things. Moody, for instance, has just told the little girl’s grandparents that their grandchild needs glasses. How she knows this, and why no one else does, says everything about the relationship between volunteer and student, which is close and focused.

“I work with them one on one,” she says. “It motivates them. It gives them confidence.”

Alain Locke is one of 12 schools in Philadelphia’s University City cluster, so named for its proximity to the University of Pennsylvania, if distance is merely a matter of linear feet. At the university there are professors of political science, of jurisprudence, of business management, of sociology, and all of them, in their own ways, are concerned with what makes a society cohere. Typically they talk about its laws and its economy and the distribution of wealth. They talk about inclusiveness. Ultimately, though, all their talk leads to the same concept — to the countless intersecting interests that weave a social fabric out of the disparate threads of individual lives. They are not talking about a citizenry that uniformly cares about the same things, but rather one that haphazardly, and unpredictably, and when it’s all said and done, ends up caring about the same things. In neighborhoods like the one surrounding Locke, though, it hasn’t worked that way.

Rosetta Moody lives across the city, in a place called Nicetown. But now that she has been assigned to Alain Locke she comes here three times a week, and it has taught her a lot, she says, about the pressures the children and their families are under. “We have parents working three jobs. The neighborhood love is just not there,” she says, putting her arm around a little boy, who hugs her back.

How naive would it be to believe that neighborhoods can be made whole by the hugging of a six-year-old child a couple of times a week? So think of that hug in another way, as a visual metaphor for one part of the community reaching out to another and not letting go. This is what happens when Rosetta Moody and the 84 other Experience Corps volunteers in Philadelphia — and its more than 1,000 volunteers nationwide — wrap their long lives around the short sights of children who cease to be strangers. And as they do, the students’ families are drawn in, too. This is how interests begin to intersect.

And like this, too: Up in room 312, the Experience Corps headquarters at Locke, Rosetta Moody is playing alphabet lotto with four first-graders, while another Corps volunteer, Nina Morrison, works on math with two other youngsters, a six-year-old boy and a seven-year-old girl.

“If you make a mistake, so what? You can always try another day,” says Morrison, a retired Ford assembly line worker. “Even if you have to use your fingers and fingernails.” The children smile at her broadly. They are enjoying this.

“I had a sister,” says the boy, Nevada, though no one has asked. “But she’s going to get married.”

“But she’ll always be your sister,” Morrison consoles him. “Don’t you love her?”

“Sometimes,” says Nevada, a friendly boy with an open face and shining eyes. “She hits me. Sometimes I feel sad with her.”

“What number comes after 11?” Morrison asks him.

“I don’t know,” he says.

“Yes you do,” she says.

“Twelve,” pipes up the girl, Costalenna, who Morrison says is usually quite shy. Morrison beams at her, less for the answer than that she said something at all.

Earlier in the day, Morrison had met Costalenna’s mother at the monthly breakfast that Experience Corps puts on for volunteers, students, families, teachers, and administrators. “I was amazed to find out that she has nine children,” Morrison says. “I’ll get all the information about these kids eventually, but it takes a while.” just about the same time that Rosetta Moody and Nina Morrison began working at the Locke School last fall, Bill Bradley launched his campaign for president by issuing a slew of position papers. Lost in the ensuing debates about fixing the health care system and eradicating child poverty were Bradley’s views on the graying of America. Maybe they weren’t controversial enough, or maybe they were too obvious — the other presidential candidates ritually laud volunteerism, and the potential contributions to be made by the elderly, as well. Or maybe no one wants to think about growing old. In any case, Bradley considers people in what he calls “the Third Age” — the years that start at 50 and go on until forever — to be a natural resource. “People in the Third Age want something more than material possessions,” Bradley wrote. “Many of them feel a strong, unfulfilled service commitment. Indeed, in a recent survey 40 percent of Americans between 50 and 75 said they were ‘very interested’ or ‘fairly interested’ in a half-time volunteer role in their retirement.

“To encourage this phenomenon,” he went on, “what if we drew upon the very successful model of Experience Corps…? What if we directed this army of new volunteers to work with young people in school and nonprofit groups both during and after school? What if we offered small tax-free stipends to these seniors to help offset their transportation?”

To emphasize his point, Bradley proposed $1.2 billion for this effort. That’s a lot of bus fare for a lot of Rosetta Moodys and Nina Morrisons — about 500,000 throughout the country, the Bradley camp estimates. But more to the point, it could encourage a lot of individual strands to cross this way and that until they make something else: something cohesive. Something like the scene I saw from the far end of the corridor at Alain Locke the day I visited: five people snaking down the hall as one, an older woman surrounded by a pack of little ones, their arms linked.

Though the light was dim, I knew exactly what it was as soon as it appeared, and so would you, if you had seen it. Those five souls, arm in arm — they were the body politic.