CRENSHAW — The hourlong session in the empty classroom, the first for the white-haired tutor and her young charge, is going well. Five-year-old Terry Stewart, a shy kindergartner, is enjoying listening to nursery rhymes and softly answering questions about them. But he suddenly freezes when asked to tell a story about himself.
Veneo Joiner doesn't miss a beat. "What's your favorite subject, Terry?" she asks, the crisp energy and bright smile of an hour ago still intact. Terry, a peanut butter sandwich clutched tightly to his chest, replies that it's animals.
"That's great!" exclaims Joiner, whipping out a large sheet of paper and poising a pen over it. "Can you tell me what your favorite animal is?"
Soon Terry is steadily telling Joiner about his trip to the zoo, his affinity for elephants, the games he plays on the weekends. After completing his story and reading it back with Joiner, he beams. "I liked it," he said of the session, eager to share the biographical sketch he just created with his waiting mother.
Terry is one of 24 children participating in an intergenerational tutoring program sponsored by the Older Adult Service and Information System (OASIS) and the Los Angeles Unified School District. In an effort to strengthen basic reading and writing skills among 5- to 9-year-olds, 11 tutors were assigned last month to Crenshaw-area elementary schools to provide students with one-on-one support.
Those schools are Coliseum Street, Cienega, Dublin, 52nd Street, 49th Street, Hillcrest Drive, Hyde Park Boulevard, Menlo Avenue, 6th Avenue, 68th Street and Weemes.
Participating children were identified by teachers as needing extra assistance, and their tutoring is scheduled to continue through June.
"It's a unique approach to instruction because it's experience-based," said Jacquelyn Snead, a district administrator who trains the volunteer tutors. "Students acquire language skills through expressing themselves, their preferences, their activities. It's much more involving than simply having them read from a book."
Though the weekly sessions are meant to supplement classroom instruction, tutors are not teacher's aides; the lessons and materials they use were specifically designed by OASIS and the district for the program.
Snead said the program encourages children to incorporate their own experiences into creating stories, which makes them more attentive and involved.
"The kids I've tutored are quite bright and alert," said Joiner, a three-year OASIS member who has a background in social work. "Yet we hear so much about them having reading problems. This is something that can really help."
The Baldwin Hills chapter of OASIS, a national nonprofit organization, is housed in the May Co. at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. The group's 5,000 members are 60 and older and take part in activities including art and music instruction, field trips and workshops.
Helen Dave, who tutors first-graders at 6th Avenue Elementary, said the project has been a rewarding addition to her typically busy schedule. "The greatest thing is letting the child express himself," said Dave, a retired postal worker with four great-grandchildren.
"You find out what things are really important to them, the things they wouldn't tell a teacher. One child I have relates to drawing, another one loves going to church and praying with his family. Since the stories we work on are really the children's own, they remember. They listen."
So far, said OASIS director Cynthia Berry, the project has been well-received: "The tutors who have called me are very enthusiastic, and schools are really appreciative. The only problem is that schools really need more help. There aren't enough tutors. The next big step is to recruit and train more for next year."