Pearl Johnson: helping kids learn as a volunteer with the Minneapolis Public Schools

Every Tuesday morning for the last eight years, 80-year-old "Grandma Pearl" sits with a 3rd-grader at Minneapolis Public Ramsey International Fine Arts School (K-8) and listens to the child read.

"We sit out in the hallway with a little desk and chairs. [The children] are really intent on reading, and they enjoy it so much. All of this crazy activity that goes up, down and around…and they are so focused they keep reading, it's so amusing. For the little boys that get distracted, I've fixed it so we face the wall," Pearl Johnson said.

A Tangletown resident of 42 years, Johnson grew up on a farm in Winthrop, Minnesota, but moved to Southwest Minneapolis after she married. Johnson worked as a secretary and at odd jobs while she raised five children who attended the now-closed Fuller Elementary School and then Ramsey Junior High School, just two blocks away from her home.

"Some mothers are happy to have a break when their children go to school. I was lonesome," said Johnson.

After Johnson retired in 1988, she wanted to spend more time with children. A friend -- who was also her children's kindergarten teacher -- encouraged Johnson to volunteer at Ramsey, 1 W. 49th St.

"I wanted to be around children and add some spice to my life," said Johnson.

Johnson was paired with third-grade teacher Joanne Ortendahl-Lucas, and she's stayed in the same classroom ever since. Ortendahl-Lucas says Johnson has a special ability to work with children and has a calming presence on the classroom. "She's very grandmotherly," said Ortendahl-Lucas.

Every Tuesday, Johnson volunteers for two and a half hours, reading for about 15 minutes each with individual students. "The most I can accomplish is reading with six students," she said. "Sometimes I'll sit and visit a bit. I think it's so important to get to know them personally. They enjoy being one on one, and there's no competition."

After eight years at the same school, Grandma Pearl is well known at Ramsey. Students often will come up behind her to give her a hug. "When kids come by and want to be remembered, it's such a joy to me. They are just dear young people. Years after we read together, they'll sneak up behind me and put their little face up to mine. That to me says that it means something to them," said Johnson.

Volunteer opportunities are available to work with pre-kindergarten through adult learners at the Minneapolis Public Schools. Flexible volunteer hours are available during the school day (K-12, adults) and in the evening (adults). Volunteer training is provided, and no teaching experience is required.

There are three specialized volunteer programs: Adult Basic Education (tutoring adult students), Intergenerational Program (for volunteers over age 55) and WISE (tutoring students from kindergarten through 12th grade). For more information and the volunteer application, call Volunteer Services at 668-3880.