Keeping promises: Malcolm X teacher James Lowe returns to classroom with Experience Corps

by Linda Murley

James-Lowe, Keeping promises: Malcolm X teacher James Lowe returns to classroom with Experience Corps, Culture Currents Mr. James Lowe is a man who believes in keeping promises. Born and raised in San Francisco, James comes from a “family of preachers and teachers.” When he promised his dying grandmother he would be a teacher, James knew it was a promise he had to fulfill.

His father was a man who either worked every day or looked for work every day of his life. His mother was college-educated homemaker who raised three sons to be giving, productive men.

James was one of the first African American students to integrate Lincoln High School in 1963 and can vividly recall the small group of African American students banded together in the white student cafeteria. James has three children and 11 grandchildren of his own and knows full well the responsibility of mentoring our youth.

James worked with disadvantaged youth for 30 years before retiring in 2009. He taught fifth grade at Malcolm X Academy in Hunters Point for 22 years. He taught in the same classroom all those years making it easy for returning students to visit him. A teenager or adult returning to visit a favorite grammar school instructor is one of the greatest compliments a teacher can receive.

A few years ago, James became aware of Experience Corps, an innovative volunteer program that brought Bayview Hunters Point’s seniors and adults over 55 back to the classroom as literacy tutors, mentors and friends to kids at MXA. James met the program’s on-site advocate Barbara Thomas. He learned about Experience Corps from Barbara and he made her a promise. He promised that two years after retiring from teaching, he would be back at Malcolm X as an Experience Corps volunteer. This fall, James will keep that promise.

Experience Corps is a nationwide network of older adult volunteers who tutor kindergarten through third grade students. Experience Corps Bay Area works with Marin, Oakland and San Francisco schools. Experience Corps is a big idea come to life. In 1988, civic leader John Gardner wrote a concept paper envisioning an “operation give back” to mobilize the time, talent and experience of older adults to revitalize their communities.

Ten years later, he met Civic Ventures founder Marc Freedman and Experience Corps was born. Now, in 2011, we are an award-winning network of partners, schools and community service organizations in 21 cities across America. Today, 2,000 Experience Corps members work to improve the lives of 20,000 students.

“Experience Corps works because Experience Corps members are carefully screened and trained to support local literacy instruction,” said Lester Strong, the program’s CEO. “Plus, most Experience Corps members come from the neighborhoods where they serve. They know these kids, they believe in these kids and they see a future in them.

“Experience Corps puts a growing national resource, experienced Americans, to work on a pressing national need – giving all students the reading skills they need to succeed,” Strong continued. “There’s no shortage of older adults – nearly 10,000 Americans turn 60 every day – and no shortage of kids who need help. Half of our urban students never graduate from high school. We could be doing so much more to put these two generations together.”

Indeed, the children aren’t the only ones who benefit. Research shows that volunteer service improves the health and well being of seniors, too. Johns Hopkins University found that physical activity, strength and cognitive ability increased significantly for Experience Corps members. In addition, 85 percent of volunteers felt that their lives had improved because of their involvement with Experience Corps.

As it turns out, volunteering isn’t just good to do, it’s good for you. Studies indicate that volunteering can alleviate depression, social isolation and the onset of dementia and Alzheimer’s in older adults. Further validating the health and social benefit of volunteering for older adults, Experience Corps will merge with AARP during the next year.

Experience Corps is looking to recruit and train volunteers to serve at Malcolm X Academy. If you would like to learn more about how you can help, please call (415) 759-4223 or email