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STEP participant Sandy Terrell works with Sam Bonhus in a 3rd grade art class.

Editorial: This program hasn't lost a step

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opinion River Falls, 54022
River Falls Wisconsin 2815 Prairie Drive / P.O. Box 25 54022

The River Falls School District's Senior Tax Exchange Program (STEP) was piloted at Rocky Branch Elementary School in fall 2011 with 15 volunteer participants. Now the popular program has spread to all the schools, including Montessori and Renaissance, and has 28 participants.

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The stated aim of STEP is to bridge a gap between senior citizens and local youth and their schools. Seniors 62 and older, with a variety of lifelong skills and experiences to offer, can help out in schools under the direction of teachers and staff.

Doing so for 69 hours during the school year allows seniors to earn up to $500 in property tax relief. STEP is part of the school district's Community Education, which has its own fund that uses tax levy dollars and also collects class fees.

STEP, however, also gets private donations and grants, such as from Allina Health, the River Falls Optimist Club, the local Forward Foundation, and from United Way St. Croix Valley. The latter this year provided a $1,600 grant that STEP used to add three more volunteers who, in turn, are giving some 210 hours of assistance in our schools.

STEP Coordinator Tara Albores says that while many seniors choose to help kids with the math and reading basics in the elementary schools, others have branched out: One helps with vocals and piano playing for the middle school choir; another counsels a Renaissance (high-school-age) student with on-the-job skills at a downtown business; one advises a publishing and blog writing middle school class; several assist middle school students with homework organization and planning during guided study times.

So what's the feedback from STEP participants?

One indication is telling. Albores says about a third of the current group is going beyond the 69 hours needed to earn the property tax credit. In other words, they've decided to keep working and are now helping students and their local school out of sheer enjoyment and satisfaction.

As we've editorialized before, STEP seems like a great outlet for retired folks to stay connected to schools and for continuing to be valuable contributors to the community and for public education. The fact that they can earn property tax relief for such rewarding work is frosting on the cake.

Albores said every effort will be made to again expand STEP for the 2013-14 school year. The degree of the expansion will depend, in part, on interested volunteers.

If you wish to enroll as a STEP applicant, call Albores at 715-425-1819, extension 3131 or email her at Tara.

Find out more about STEP by going online at RF Learns.

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