Sarah McKinney Gibson and Corita Brown, Ph.D.

Many nonprofits have long relied on “near-peer” tutors and mentors — youth and young adults who provide support to others relatively close in age, think college students as tutors for high school ones. They’re often plentiful, able to connect to the young people they tutor, and effective.

But what happens in places where the need for tutors is great, there are no college campuses nearby (or the student population has already been saturated for volunteers) — and people over 50 are plentiful?

AVID decided to find out.

AVID is a national nonprofit that works with more than 7,000 schools and 80,000 educators to help close the opportunity gap and prepare 2 million underserved students for college, careers and life.

AVID teachers follow a structured curriculum that includes weekly small group work with tutors, predominantly volunteers, to address challenges and questions that surface in classes.

AVID has mostly relied on a near-peer tutoring model, recruiting from nearby colleges or engaging students in higher grades. This tutoring model has been highly successful, but many AVID programs still seek to expand their tutoring efforts. Meanwhile, in many places, there’s a growing population of adults age 50+ with the time, talent and desire to help young people thrive.

In 2018, AVID partnered with Encore.org’s Gen2Gen initiative to learn more about the potential for engaging older adults as AVID tutors and to support program expansion. While college students are important role models for younger students, their turnover tends to be high — college students often don’t commit to tutoring for more than a semester. AVID hoped that tutors over 50 would complement the near-peer tutors by providing a stable source of support and a breadth of career and life experience that could prove beneficial.

Five schools signed up to participate in the pilot — in Maryland, Virginia, New York, Texas and Massachusetts — and a total of 25 AVID “encore tutors” were recruited. Tutors attended orientation and training sessions, then tutored for a few hours 1-2 days each week.

One school year later, and the results are promising. As one AVID director in Massachusetts noted, “The older adults formed relationships with the youth, they were there in the bad weather, they mentored the kids, they are committed over the long run, and they have decades of career experience.”

An independent evaluation firm, the Center for Assessment and Policy Development, found that the pilot produced many benefits for students, tutors and teachers.

  • Six in 10 students reported receiving helpful college and career advice.
  • Four in 10 students said their academic abilities improved and agreed to the statement, “I feel that there are people in my community who care about me, besides my own family, more than I did before.”
  • More than half of students surveyed said they have a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by older people, and at least one-third said they now feel more comfortable in intergenerational situations.
  • All encore tutors surveyed expressed happiness at passing knowledge to younger people and feeling a sense of empathy for the young people with whom they worked.
  • More than two-thirds of the tutors reported that, as a result of being AVID tutors, they gained confidence, a greater sense of purpose, improved mental health, and an increased sense of connection to their community.
  • AVID coordinators and teachers identified labor and cost savings associated with the retention of trained encore tutors as well as decreased recruiting costs, since the encore tutors naturally shared their enthusiasm and spread the word to other adults 50+ in their personal and professional networks.

As hoped, the encore tutors provided stability during transitions. One AVID director said, “An AVID teacher left mid-school year to take on a vice-principal job and the students were devastated, as were the tutors. Several subject teachers rotated into the tutorial sessions, and there was little stability. The older adult tutors not only demonstrated great resilience during this hiccup but also added needed stability to the classroom.”

An AVID teacher pointed to the value of the support older adults provided. “For our [student] population, they may not have a parental figure or grandparent. [The over-50 tutor] is a sweet, lovable adult that we are adding to these kids’ web of support, another adult that gets to know them.

“In urban education,” the teacher continued, “good teachers learn that relationships are what keep students in school, and that’s what the older tutors provide. One student said to their tutor: ‘When you are here, you make me feel comfortable. You want me to do better.’”

The benefits go both ways. “I learn as much or more from the students than what they learn from me,” shares Gayle Cordell, an encore tutor in Plano, Texas. “I never thought I would be back in school again after so many years, but I know without a doubt that I would like to continue being an AVID tutor for as long as I can.”

Behind the scenes, AVID and Encore.org staff worked together to make small changes that contributed to the pilot’s success. For example:

  • Adjustments were made to the orientation and training sessions so that older adult tutors could attend shorter sessions that spanned more days and visit the AVID classroom to observe.
  • AVID directors and teachers were briefed on the value of older adult tutors and the benefits of intergenerational connections and received coaching on strategies for recruiting and managing older tutors.
  • Opportunities for the older adult tutors to connect with one another — for peer support, socialization and fun — increased engagement and a sense of belonging.
  • On-going check-ins throughout the school year allowed tutors to feel heard and supported as they continued with the program.

Based on results from the pilots, AVID will include a new section on recruiting and retaining older tutors in its next iteration of tutor resources, coming in 2020. Ben Solomon, a manager in AVID’s Teaching and Learning Team, noted “We’re encouraged by the results of this pilot, as we’ve seen first-hand the benefits of older adult tutors for AVID students and teachers, as well as for the tutors and the community.”

One clear sign of success: Nearly all 25 encore tutors engaged in the pilot program will return this fall for a second year.

“The students really benefit from knowing there are people who care about them,” said Don Nelson, an encore tutor in Maryland’s Anne Arundel School District. “I think it’s one of the greatests gifts you can give to the next generation.”

Interested in becoming an AVID encore tutor? Write to [email protected]