Wisdom, Knowledge of Elders Stream Into Area Classrooms

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Huddled around a desk at the District's Birney Elementary School, fourth-graders Markell Agnew and Erin Sheffey talked sports with 60-year-old Jon Gundersen.

As the boys shouted that the Pittsburgh Steelers beat the Seattle Seahawks in the Super Bowl, Gundersen sketched a map of the United States on a sheet of paper. He helped the boys place Seattle and Pittsburgh, and then the trio added New York, Canada and the Atlantic Ocean.

"You don't learn if you don't listen," Gundersen said, quieting the pair just a little.

"We have to respect each other," Erin acknowledged, nodding his head.

Gundersen, a 30-year veteran of the State Department who comes to Birney one afternoon each week to talk with Erin about history or homework or life, is among a growing cadre of older adults and retirees who volunteer regularly in schools across the country, helping children learn to read, practice multiplication tables and learn geography.

Similar scenes are playing out across the region and the country. A recent study in Maryland showed that in schools where older adults were a regular fixture -- with volunteers working 15 hours a week -- reading scores went up, and kids had fewer behavioral problems than their peers at other schools. The adults, meanwhile, had fewer falls, expanded their social circles and performed better than their peers on a memory test.

"It seemed to have a big impact on the atmosphere of the schools," said George W. Rebok, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, who helped conduct the study. "I think what we're tapping into is a sincere desire to help the next generation."

So two days each week, buses from the Greenspring retirement community in Springfield shuttle about two dozen seniors to two Fairfax County elementary schools to work one-on-one with students who need extra help. In Montgomery County, volunteers with the Interages program, all older than 50 but most in their seventies or older, mentor immigrant students and help young children learn to read. At Hollin Meadows Elementary School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, 89-year-old Norman Mayer, a former aerospace engineer with NASA, is a weekly fixture in science class.

And Barbara Shear, 73, of the Alexandria section of Fairfax County, responded to a blurb in her community newsletter seeking volunteers. The wife of a foreign service officer, Shear had lived in Nigeria and Senegal. She raised two daughters and worked as a graphic designer.

Slowing down wasn't her idea of fun. So Shear spends two days a week at Hollin Meadows working with children who need extra help and reading during lunchtime sessions that have a book-club feel.

One recent afternoon, Shear settled in with a table of sixth-graders who give up recess for reading. As the kids munched on chicken and cookies, Shear asked about their latest book, the story of young girl killed at Auschwitz.

"I didn't like some of the sad parts with the Nazis," said Deidra Mensah.

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