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Published in Print: March 3, 1999, as Senior Citizens Tutoring at Schools To Offset Tax Increases

Senior Citizens Tutoring at Schools To Offset Tax Increases

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Senior citizens in a St. Louis-area district are heading back to school for a lesson in economics. And, oddly enough, a property-tax hike and a tutoring program are what's helping to make those older residents nostalgic for the three R's.

Residents of the 6,900-student Riverview Gardens district have voted twice within the past two years to raise property taxes to pay for improvement and expansion of local school buildings. After the initial tax increase, retirees complained about having to come up with the extra money.

Administrators have since devised a plan to help the district's large population of senior citizens, many of whom are living on fixed incomes, and its struggling students at the same time.

To offset the property-tax hike of about $100 a year that resulted from the first increase, residents 65 and older can apply to tutor students for $10 an hour. They will be paid for a maximum of 10 hours a year to help students improve their reading skills, provide tutoring in several subjects, and assist in small-group activities. The unusual program, Seniors in Riverview Education Service, costs the district about $10,000 a year.

"Our hope is that once they earn their $100, they'll realize their contribution to the children" and continue to tutor for free, said David Clohessy, the director of community services for the Riverview Gardens district, which is adjacent to St. Louis in North County.

The district started accepting applications in early January, and about 15 people have already applied. The application process includes a background check through the police department, which takes about five to six weeks, Mr. Clohessy said.

"It's a no-lose proposition," Mr. Clohessy said. "Whether we get five or 105 [senior citizens], it's going to be that many more ears and eyes in our schools."

Not Alone

While this program is one of just a few of its kind in Missouri, districts in other states have been running similar programs for almost a decade. For instance, the Colorado legislature in 1991 passed a measure allowing taxpayers who are 60 years or older to work in their local districts in lieu of paying property taxes.

Districts across Colorado then began developing programs to integrate senior citizens into their schools. At least 12 districts there have adopted such programs.

"The schools love to have the seniors there, not just for the help but for the perspective they give the kids," said Gail Schatz, the director of STEP, the Senior Tax Exchange Program in the 28,400-student Aurora public schools. She said currently, 130 senior citizens are participating in the program.

The 31,100-student Cherry Creek schools have also found success with their Senior Citizen Tax Offset Program, in which about 200 residents help out in schools across the district.

"They do a variety of things," said Jack Platt, a retired district administrator who runs the program along with co-coordinator Jo Elaine Smith, who makes the contacts and finds assignments for the seniors. "It's not only tutoring. It may be helping students read or helping the media person in the library."

Similar programs have been recognized nationally. The 3,500-student Kaukauna district in Wisconsin has been running its program since 1995 and was awarded the 1997 Magna Award from the American School Board Journal. The award recognizes creative ways in which school boards involve the community in education.

At present, 34 seniors are doing such duties for the program as reading to children and teaching English as a second language.

The seniors "are very willing to become involved and work those extra hours," said Jayne Smits, the Kaukauna program coordinator.

Bridging the Gap

As a bonus, school officials have discovered that when the older residents work with the students, it creates a positive way to bridge the generations. "It helps the seniors understand what schools are about today," said Cherry Creek's Mr. Platt. "All they know is if they have grandkids in schools or what they read in the paper."

Ms. Schatz agreed: "Seniors who haven't been in schools get to see what modern schools are like. It also adds a nice age diversity to the classroom."

Like the Riverview Gardens district in Missouri, the schools in Colorado and Wisconsin require a background check and conduct an interview before hiring any senior tutor. Other than those requirements, participants must be at least 60 years of age and taxpayers in the community. In Wisconsin, seniors are matched up with schools based on their skills and abilities.

Some observers, however, recognize potential inequities in such programs.

"On the one hand, I think it's an excellent idea and a great way to promote intergenerational contact," said Nona Wegner, the senior vice president of the Seniors Coalition, a Washington-based nonpartisan advocacy group representing older Americans nationwide. "On the other hand, it is somewhat restrictive," she said. "For some seniors, tutoring is not an option. They could be impaired in some way or they may feel uncomfortable tutoring children," she added. "A better idea would be to look at realistic property taxes."

Nevertheless, those who are involved believe such programs will continue to pop up.

"I think it is probably a growing trend in the '90s," Ms. Schatz said. "I would imagine more districts would like to do it. With the support of the legislature and the community, it's a relatively easy program to implement."

Vol. 18, Issue 25, Page 9

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