Though he's 79, Herb Kempner never hesitated when he heard of a chance to go back to elementary school -- Lansdowne Elementary was seeking volunteers to read with children.
Every Monday morning, he's hard at work in the school, telling stories and reviewing the alphabet with first-graders.
"It's my privilege to give something back to the community," said Kempner, who lives in Catonsville and retired last winter from electrical supply sales. "It's also a real pleasure to work with so many eager kids who really want to learn."
Kempner was matched with Lansdowne Elementary through the Magic Carpet program, which places AmeriCorps members, senior citizens and other volunteers in a handful of Baltimore County elementary schools.
In its second school year, the program is widely praised by educators for helping young students make substantial progress learning to read.
It's in place at Campfield Early Childhood Center in Lochearn, Norwood Elementary School and Berkshire Elementary School, both in Dundalk, and might be expanded to other elementary schools this year.
"The kids get some extra attention in reading that they would never get without the volunteers," said Jeanne Urlock, reading specialist at Campfield. "This is an opportunity to have someone reading with them every day, and that's going to help all of them become better readers."
Magic Carpet began as an effort by the nonprofit Magic Me organization in response to the national America Reads initiative, which sought to have all children reading on grade level by the end of third grade.
Magic Me was founded in Baltimore in 1980 as an effort to encourage students and senior citizens to work together.
The organization operates more than 50 programs throughout the United States and England.
With Magic Me being a part of AmeriCorps, recent college graduates are eligible to work with the organization and receive grants to help pay college loans.
That's how Jeff Pietrzak became involved in the program at Lansdowne.
A recent graduate of the University of Scranton, Pietrzak said he was attracted to "trying something meaningful for a year."
"The intergenerational aspect of this program is what makes it so appealing," said Pietrzak, who organizes the Magic Carpet volunteers at Lansdowne while also working directly with beginning readers. "We're helping retirees stay active by working with young kids and helping the young kids learn to read."
Pietrzak is trying to recruit more senior citizen volunteers like Kempner to help Lansdowne students.
On a recent Monday, Kempner sat in the hallway outside a first-grade classroom as students came outside one by one to review their letters.
Kempner laid out the letter "Z" for 5-year-old Mark Tudor, and the first-grader correctly identified it. When Mark struggled with "V," Kempner gently helped him figure out the correct answer.
"You're doing very well," Kempner said. "This is the basis for when you learn to read."
The program has had such success at Lansdowne that Principal Anne Gold sought to have Magic Carpet operate a summer program for students.
More than two dozen students participated in the eight-week summer program, which was open to the school's prekindergarten, kindergarten and first-grade students.
"We think it is helping," Gold said. "These kids really benefit from all of the extra attention."
To volunteer in the Magic Carpet program, call Magic Me at 410-243-9066, Ext. 16.
Pub Date: 10/18/98