"I think a big wasted resource in this county is senior citizens," says Bob Spongberg, 79, a retired engineer who lives in Columbia.
That is why he has volunteered to work with pupils at Harper's Choice Middle School as part of a new collaboration between the school and the county's Office on Aging.
The tutoring sessions pair seniors with pupils for an hour once a week. If the program goes well, other schools might add it.
"This particular program is kind of a microcosm of what we envision," said Judi Bard, program specialist for the Howard County Office on Aging.
"It's going to be interesting," Spongberg said Tuesday during the first day of the program. Two weeks earlier, the seniors got lessons in how to teach the kids, and last week, the two groups met and got acquainted.
At Harper's Choice on Tuesday, about a dozen senior citizens met with about 20 pupils. They sat at round tables, with two or three pupils to each tutor, and read about Bessie Coleman, an African-American woman who became a stunt pilot in the 1920s.
The adults guided the students through worksheets with questions and information about the reading material, including discussions about genres and information about the time period. The completed assignments will be factored into each pupil's grades, said Patricia Sidhom, the school's reading specialist.
For now, the tutoring sessions are focusing on reading, but some pupils will soon receive math lessons. Spongberg, for one, is eager to begin the math portion of the program. "I came primarily to do the math because my background is in physics," he said.
Bard, who is based at the Bain Center, said she chose senior citizens for the program who were "looking for ways to volunteer and give back to the community," as well as those with backgrounds in education, math and Spanish. "I kind of handpicked the first bunch," she said.
Pat Ricker, for example, is a retired school teacher from West Virginia who teaches art classes at Howard County Community College and substitutes at Elkridge Elementary School. White-haired and energetic, she clearly was enjoying herself. "I really like it," Ricker, 63, said of her tutoring time.
Stephen Wallis, principal at Harper's Choice Middle, said the program is another example of the community collaboration he likes to encourage. The school works closely with the public library and with parents, he said, and bringing in senior citizens seemed like a natural next step.
"That whole spirit of collaboration makes it nice," he said.
The program takes place during an "enrichment period" devoted to extra help or activities, and the pupils are seventh- and eighth-graders.
"We looked for those kids who could really benefit from the assistance and weren't getting any assistance already," Wallis said.
That includes pupils such as Alejandra Sandoval, a seventh-grader whose first language is Spanish. Her family moved from Colombia, in South America, when she was in fifth grade, she said. Though she speaks English well, she has trouble reading.
"I think it's good," she said of the program, as she sat with tutor Ricker and fellow pupil Anishia Mills, an eighth-grader.
Anishia acknowledged that she was skeptical at first, but now she likes the reading program, even though she is there primarily for the math instruction.
The program provides valuable help for pupils, but it also helps forge connections between the generations. John Forrest, 74, who lives in Columbia, said he likes learning about the pupils with whom he is working, eighth-graders Ashley Roland and Hugo Gill. "I think it's good for the students, and it's a great way to meet students," he said.
"The more we meet each other, the better off we'll be," added Forrest, who is retired from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Hugo, who said he struggles with reading, is finding the extra help useful. "It helps a lot," he said.
As Forrest paged through printouts, he prompted his pupils to explain the difference between fact and fiction. He also provided a definition of "stereotype," a word that related to the reading material but also applied to other lessons being learned in the media center that day.
"We put people in a box," Forrest said, "and say all old people are this, all young people are that."