Retired Alameda teacher can’t stop teaching
After 30 years teaching young children in Montessori programs in Alameda, Sheri Fenstermacher discovered an ideal new challenge in retirement: more teaching. She now volunteers with the Oakland-based Super Stars Literacy program, which offers additional one-on-one or small-group instruction for kindergarten through second-grade students who are falling behind in reading, writing and social skills. Originally a project of the Junior League of Oakland-East Bay, Super Stars launched at an Oakland school in 2002 and has since expanded to serve about 500 children at nine “high need” schools in Oakland, Hayward and Newark.
Super Stars Literacy recruits and trains more than two dozen recent college graduates to serve in AmeriCorps and facilitate the programs, complemented by dozens of volunteers from the community. Fenstermacher, who lives in Alameda, currently works with kindergarteners at Garfield Elementary in Oakland.
Q I understand your volunteer work is not just a second act, but a third?
A Yes, teaching was a second career for me to begin with. I graduated from college in marketing and worked for a women’s clothing manufacturer for a while. When my daughter went to preschool at a Montessori school, I discovered it was a really great program, so I went back to Saint Mary’s College and got a degree in education for very young children and continued from there.
Q How did you get involved with Super Stars?
A I had seen something on television about it — about someone involved with it who was being honored for making a significant contribution to the community. I was still working at the time, so I wrote down the information then and just hung on to it. Ever since I retired in 2012, I’ve been volunteering in classrooms and in the media center at the library at the school my grandchildren attend. It’s wonderful to be able to give your time to any school, but I felt these were rather privileged kids, and they had plenty of help. And I thought maybe I should try helping at a school where kids really needed it. So I just called the number (for Super Stars), and they were just wonderful over the phone, encouraging me to come to a meeting one Saturday and learn what the program was about. There was a range of people, some retired like me, some young people just getting into teaching.
Q So you started right away?
A Yes, I worked last year at Brookfield Elementary, and I’m at Garfield this year. I find it very rewarding for myself, but I really feel like I am making a difference. The actual after-school teachers themselves are just terrific, and the parents are involved in the program as well, which is a very positive thing, I think. Some of these children — we’re trying to catch these kids up. They may be kids who never had that feeling of success, that “Hey, I can do it!” feeling. So with this kind of one-on-one help, you do feel the children are getting that individual feedback, and they’re able to feel that satisfaction of being successful.
Q Have there been moments when you witnessed a light come on for a child?
A Oh, yes — many. I’ve seen such growth in the children we’ve worked with at Garfield just since September, not only learning their reading and writing skills, but social development. One was a child who came to school just recently speaking no English at all. He was able, through hand motions, to get me to realize what he knew. He’s only 5, but he does know a lot and can pick up on things quickly. We were able to communicate and break through a barrier that I thought would be there, and he’s already learning the alphabet. He’s very enthusiastic. Just darling. And he’s progressed in only a matter of weeks to speaking quite a bit of English and being able to communicate. I think it’s important for kids to learn from other generations. They get something different from someone who has had a lifetime of experience, and that’s an advantage I can offer.