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Tutoring Program Seeks Older Volunteers
in Duquesne, McKeesport Schools

New partnership designed to boost reading, literacy in K-4 classrooms

By Richard Finch Jr.
The Tube City Almanac
December 18, 2019
Posted in: Duquesne News, McKeesport and Region News

(Submitted photo courtesy Oasis Intergenerational Tutoring)

Two local school districts are partnering with Literacy Pittsburgh to bring volunteers age 50 and older into kindergarten through fourth-grade classrooms to help students work on their reading and writing skills.

Oasis Intergenerational Tutoring is already working in the Wilkinsburg, Woodland Hills and Pittsburgh school districts, and is now expanding into Duquesne and McKeesport Area schools.

“We only go into places where the districts want us to be there, so I commend all these districts because we know there is a high correlation between low literacy and poverty and these are high poverty districts,” said Carey Harris, Literacy Pittsburgh's chief executive officer.

Harris commended McKeesport Area and Duquesne for being proactive about seeking partners to provide additional enrichment support.

Oasis is a national organization based in St. Louis and is managed here by Literacy Pittsburgh, according to program director John Spehar, who is in charge of recruiting and training volunteers. “Generally, we hold three large trainings with about 15 to 25 volunteers, as well as two smaller sessions each year," he said.

Spehar has been recruiting and training volunteers with Oasis since 2012. The group had about 68 tutors in the Pittsburgh area at the time, and is now at 180.

According to Literacy Pittsburgh, tutors “learn ways to draw on a child’s experiences to create simple stories that form the basis for reading activities.”

In 2018, 166 Oasis volunteers tutored 359 children in 34 local school districts. Children must be referred to the program by their teachers.

Spehar said training sessions are scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Jan. 7 and 9 at the community room in the Tube City Center for Business and Innovation (old Daily News building) at Lysle and Walnut streets in Downtown McKeesport.

Spehar and his staff have already begun training a handful of tutors who are going out to Duquesne and McKeesport.

“To get it up and running in the schools, they are working on a lot of recruitment and more training,” he said. “We have other tutors that are waiting to be cleared (but) they have to have clearances before they can be placed.”

Spehar said all districts require child abuse and criminal background checks. Some districts also require FBI and fingerprint checks, though those are sometimes waived for volunteers who have been Pennsylvania residents for the past consecutive 10 years, he said.

Oasis used to be more of a standalone program in Pittsburgh before partnering with Literacy Pittsburgh in 2013, Harris said.

Although Literacy Pittsburgh's focus is primarily on adults, Harris said Oasis fits her agency's goal of creating “better lives through learning.”

“We do a little bit of family literacy work and we know that it’s important to try to catch literacy issues young, this was just a nice way for us to be more (involved) in the early development stage,” she said.

“When the community is willing to step in and support and help, that makes a big difference for kids,” she said.

Districts who are contacted by Oasis almost always agree that they want to use the program, Harris said, adding that her organization is receiving positive feedback from school officials who have seen Oasis in action.

“They reached out to us, and the Duquesne City School District, around the same time ... and we gladly accepted the opportunity since we always encourage our community to volunteer and help out, or visit, in our schools,” said Kristen Davis, McKeesport Area School District spokeswoman. 

The program hasn’t started yet, but most of the work --- including interviews and training --- is being handled through by Oasis, Davis said. McKeesport Area will receive a list of volunteers once that's completed, she said.

Spehar hopes Duquesne and McKeesport area residents will be as receptive as residents in Wilkinsburg and the other districts they serve. “Wilkinsburg, which has been growing very quickly, the tutors in that community are coming out, contacting me, it's been very successful there,” he said.

According to Harris, adult programs rely heavily on volunteer tutors,

“This was also a nice way to do something we are good at --- training, recruiting and supporting tutors, but for young children,” she said. “Half of the core adult programs focus on english language learners and the remaining half focuses on native english speakers.”

English-as-a-second-language learners are taught reading, writing and speaking, while native English speaking clients are provided with basic reading, writing, math and substantial GED preparation. “Brush-up courses are available for clients who may already have a high school diploma, but want to up-skill so they can obtain a credential or go onto post-secondary (learning),” Harris said.

Interested volunteers should call (412) 393-7648 for details and to register, she said. In addition, office volunteers are needed to help support tutors and students behind the scenes.

Richard Finch Jr. is a freelance writer who covers news from McKeesport Area School District and North Versailles Twp. for Tube City Almanac. He may be reached at finchr43@gmail.com.

Originally published December 18, 2019.

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