STEP right up to gentle mentoring, camaraderieNot all pilot programs catch on. Some take time, some fizzle. At Rocky Branch Elementary School, the piloted STEP seems to be a precocious program with a growing fan base.
By: Phil Pfuehler, River Falls Journal
At Rocky Branch Elementary School, the piloted STEP seems to be a precocious program with a growing fan base.
“If we were to lose it, it would rip out one of the essential services we provide for our students,” says Rocky Branch Principal Chuck Eaton.
Third grade teacher Pam Friede said her two students working with a STEP coach have “seen increased spelling scores, an increase in classroom participation and overall social growth.”
STEP -- Senior Tax Exchange Program -- was introduced for a trial run last fall in the River Falls School District. Some other school districts statewide and nationwide offer similar programs.
To qualify you have to be at least 62 and own a house within the school district. Those who do a minimum of 69 hours of volunteer school work earn a $500 check to defray property taxes.
At Rocky Branch, 15 STEP volunteers are mentoring individual students and also small student groups.
Eaton said teachers have “pinpointed areas beyond the everyday lesson plans where they need extra help with students.”
Eaton and STEP Coordinator Tara Albores then try to match needs and students to STEP applicants who are screened and interviewed.
The idea is also to find an area of interest or talent for the STEP applicant. Those applicants fill out forms with checkboxes to show what they’d like to help with at school.
Albores said it hasn’t taken long for STEP participants to “forge bonds” with their students. Eaton concurs.
Sometimes the STEP person coaches a student in the classroom, other times during recess or even while eating lunch together.
Assistance varies: Reading intervention, language development, spelling, flash cards for math, social studies vocabulary.
“Doing that -- being mentored, say, during recess -- could be viewed as tedious, but what we see happening is that a relationship has formed, and that the time together for academic support is considered fun and enjoyable by our students,” Eaton said.
He added that students see STEP coaches regularly and come to regard them as “caring adults.”
The result, Eaton says, is that the STEP-assisted students are now turning in homework on time. Many are now confident about “participating openly in class discussions.”
Eaton had “high hopes” when STEP was introduced last fall.
“But it’s not only delivered on its premise, its gone way beyond,” he said. “I can’t imagine anyone who wouldn’t want to grow this program.”
STEP participant Jeanne Ertz turns 73 this month.
She retired in 2009 after teaching sixth grade and later kindergarten for 40 years in St. Paul. Thirty years ago she got her master’s in education from UW-River Falls.
In retirement Ertz has taken up oil painting and learning Spanish. Her motto: “You have to keep that grey matter (the brain) going.”
Despite being an active retiree, Ertz said her conscience nagged that she had it too easy and it was “time to give back.”
So she signed up for STEP, started last October and hasn’t looked back.
“It just gets your adrenalin going to be here in these hallways and classrooms,” Ertz said. “It’s fulfilling to be with the children. They’re fun and honest.”
Ertz said volunteering at Rocky Branch has renewed her faith in the future of America.
“It makes me feel hopeful,” she says. “Each school that I’ve ever been in has its culture. At Rocky Branch, the culture is one of respect, caring and kindness. You can feel it.
“There is a structure in place here. The students know what to do, that they’re here to learn. The teachers are intelligent and very child-centered. There is respect for each child.”
Ertz mentors mostly kindergartners and first graders, plus one fifth grader.
She said the STEP property tax check is a “nice incentive” but not her motivation for volunteering at Rocky Branch.
Ertz wears a nametag that says “Nana” -- short for grandmother.
She calls the students she helps “my friends.”
“We hug, ask each other about how the week is going,” she said. “You want to find out how each one is doing as a person.”
Many students, she asserts, have developed improved outlooks about school in general.
Ertz said reading skills for the youngest Rocky Branch students are vital: “If they don’t have reading, they can be crippled for life.”
Ertz wants to continue with STEP next school year. She urges others in her age bracket to do the same.
“It gives you a reason to brush your teeth in the morning and to get going,” she says. “People my age aren’t dead. We’ve learned quite a lot in life.
“And you don’t have to be a teacher to do this. You just have to like being with kids and want to make a difference in the world.”
For the complete story, see the March 8 print edition of the River Falls Journal.