A new state law in Michigan about early literacy stoked fear in Ike Sheppard, a retired engineer in Rochester. Beginning with the 2019-20 school year, the law requires that third graders who aren’t proficient in reading be held back. “That’s going to be a social disaster,” Ike remembered thinking.
The law gave Ike a new sense of purpose: to help disadvantaged second graders, mostly boys, improve their reading skills, so they can be promoted to fourth grade. Ike began tutoring second graders twice a week at an elementary school in Pontiac. Then he heard about Oakland Literacy Council, and he decided he wanted to help adults who are functionally illiterate, too.
Last year, the Council trained and certified him. Now, in addition to his grade schoolers, Ike tutors two adult men, both born abroad, who struggle with English. Some days, he’s gone nearly the whole day, tutoring. He meets his students at the Rochester Hills Public Library, where they work on reading, listening, and pronunciation.
“I absolutely love being a tutor,” he says. “I’m in heaven.”
How did a retiree with a PhD in structural engineering develop a keen awareness of the power of literacy? His mother was an elementary school teacher, and Ike remembers the gap she saw in reading ability among children who had a book of their own compared with those who did not. “Reading and education are exceedingly important to people’s life experience and happiness—really,” he says.
Tutoring adults is different from tutoring students, he says. Adults are more motivated; on the other hand, he can see quicker progress in children, who typically are beginning at lower levels.
“I don’t want to be known as a retired engineer,” Ike said. “I want to be known as a current and future tutor helping people to learn.”