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Seniors are flocking back to school to mentor Baltimore City students who 'need it more than ever'

Baba Olumiji is the principal of Johnston Square Elementary School in Baltimore City Public School system.
Zshekinah Collier
Baba Olumiji is the principal of Johnston Square Elementary School in Baltimore City Public School system.

Some Baltimore City Public School students may see an unfamiliar face in the classroom next year as local senior citizens are returning to schools seeking to offer guidance and mentorship to students.

Baba Olumiji, principal of Johnston Square Elementary School says he’s grateful to see the program dubbed Experience Corps return in February 2023.

“One of the things that we've discovered since we've been back to school full time since last year is that now more than ever, our children need to have love and support from as many trusted adults as possible,” Olumiji said.

Tutors offer extra hands and minds in the classroom for teachers in addition to academic and emotional support for students.

In the coming weeks, the program will return to Walter P. Carter and Arundel Elementary Middle school, Southwest Baltimore Charter School, and Johnston Square Elementary School.

But the tutoring program almost didn’t happen. During the coronavirus pandemic nearly three years ago schools shuttered and reverted to virtual learning for students.

A grassroots campaign led by Baltimore residents Jamal Davis and Robin Kaplan pushed for both the AARP Foundation and Baltimore City leadership to support its future.

Councilmember Zeke Cohen, who represents District 1 in Baltimore City, described the AARP Foundation’s Experience Corps program as an inter-generational volunteer tutoring program.

“This program provides mentorship, tutoring, and love to kids who badly need it. intergenerational relationships are critical to our success,” Cohen said during a press conference on Wednesday.

Experience Corps launched in Baltimore in 1998 and pairs students who read below grade-level, with volunteer tutors over the age of 50. The program strives to improve literacy skills in Baltimore City Public Schools. Volunteers attend a 25-hour training and spend between five to 15 hours in the classroom.

In May 2022, Cohen said AARP decided to scale back investments and the program did not return at the start of the 2022-2023 school year.

The grassroots organizing efforts helped secure funding from AARP Foundation for three years to host the program at Elev8 Baltimore and The Y of Central Maryland.

“This is a victory for our elders, our children and our entire village. When we stand together, when we demand respect and reject this investment, Baltimore cannot lose,” Cohen said.

Kaplan, the organizer who pressured both AARP and city hall, has been a tutor for 8 years.

“Many seniors in Baltimore are socially isolated. Experience Corps provides them with a meaningful opportunity to meet other people while serving the community,” she said. “Young students form relationships with trusted adults who work with them on a regular basis, and celebrate their successes.”

Zshekinah Collier is WYPR’s 2022-2023 Report for America Corps Member, where she covers Education. @Zshekinahgf
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