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All Hands on Deck

Keep volunteers on board to lighten the load and motivate students.

By Tim Walker

Schools with thriving volunteer programs know that a volunteer's contributions can go far beyond relieving teachers of minor tasks (though help with the little things is much appreciated). Whether assisting teachers in classroom activities, helping out with long-term projects, leading small group activities, or instructing students one-on-one in a particular subject, dedicated volunteers can become valuable partners in the students' learning process.

The teachers we interviewed say the efforts they put into keeping volunteers engaged have obvious benefits—their students achieve higher grades, have better attendance and behavior, complete more homework, are more motivated to learn, and demonstrate a more positive attitude toward education.

Are you making the most of the time and talents that people from your community are willing to donate? Here's some advice from teachers who are.

Tap into their talents

Over the years, the pool of potential school volunteers has changed dramatically. No longer the exclusive domain of parents, now schools actively recruit people from the business community, retired citizens, and college students.

There are volunteers in all corners of the community who will give happily of their time to help local schools—especially when presented with a project that's compelling to them. Members of the business community, for example, are interested in shaping keen business minds for the future, and older Americans value the sense of helping the younger generation. (Check out Math Buddies to read about a school that invites businesspeople to help elementary students with math.)

Many workplaces encourage their employees to volunteer and have programs that schools can tap into. Deborah Finkenbeim, a literacy coach at King Elementary in Little Rock, Arkansas, works with 28 volunteers from the Arkansas Children's Hospital as part of Little Rock's Volunteering in Public Schools program.

"The volunteers who participate in our Reading Aloud Renaissance program come from many professional fields," says Finkenbeim. "We have graphic designers, lab technicians, office managers, and nurses. They all come in every week to read to a class for half an hour."

Other volunteers might help with activity preparations, read with individual students, tutor in math or language arts, or assist children with homework.

Organize and communicate

Stephanie Jones, in addition to being a special education teacher, is the volunteer coordinator at Love Grove Elementary in Jacksonville, Florida. In that capacity she's a liaison between the school faculty and volunteers, working with an average of 175 to 250 volunteers annually. Every year, she must first fill the roster of volunteers, which can be draining.

"You'll get responses like 'I don't have the time' or 'You have to call the corporate office,'" Jones says. But she says not to let rejections throw you off course and that "a positive attitude and presentation can have a great effect on prospective volunteers."

Once volunteers are on board, keeping the lines of communication open is crucial.

"I really try to get to know our volunteers on a personal basis," says Finkenbeim, "because it is important for them to feel comfortable if they ever have any questions concerning their assignments." Finkenbeim works with a coordinator who actually finds the volunteers, then she matches them up with the appropriate teacher. All the volunteers at King Elementary have her e-mail address, which allows them to stay in touch every day.

The educators we spoke to offer the following advice on key ways that classroom educators can build a stronger relationship with volunteers:

  • Conduct orientation and training sessions
  • Always provide clear instructions and explain expectations to volunteers
  • Make sure the volunteer is comfortable with the academic task
  • Try to strike the right balance between guiding and helping the volunteer and empowering them to try their own ideas.

Reap the benefits

Different volunteer groups bring different talents and expertise and different, equally valuable, results. School staff witness, for example, how parent volunteers, with their deeper understanding of families and their needs, can significantly improve school ties to the students' families. Stronger communication with parents through a volunteering program can also create more valuable parent-teacher conferences and a better understanding of different types of families and cultural backgrounds.

Schools in Maryland have seen firsthand the benefits of their senior citizen volunteer program. A 2005 study by the University of Maryland revealed that in schools where older Americans were a regular fixture, reading scores went up and administrators reported fewer behavioral problems than at other schools.

Deborah Finkenbeim sees two significant effects volunteers from community organizations have on her students. "One of the best things about our program is that our volunteers stress to our students the importance of getting out in the community and making it a better place. And the students' joy and love of reading has gone up dramatically!"

Background Checks

With student safety a paramount concern in all schools, any unknown person coming into the building must be viewed as a potential threat—including volunteers.

At Stephanie Jones' school in Jacksonville,background checks are conducted on volunteers when they start and then every two years thereafter, required under Florida law. All prospective volunteers complete a form that gets sent to the district Community Involvement Department where the background check is conducted. Every volunteer coordinator in Florida also receives Predator Updates from the state attorney's office.

Elsewhere, many districts that are considering implementing such a policy express concerns that background checks might deter would-be volunteers and that the information provided by applicants would become public record. Still, background checks, whether mandated at the state or district level, are a modern-day reality for many school volunteers.

Math Buddies

Faced with flagging math results, Martin Luther King Elementary in Vancouver, Washington, partnered with volunteers from high-tech industries, banks, and other businesses to initiate the Math Buddies volunteer program in the spring of 2007. The idea is that bringing engineers, accountants, and business executives—people who use math every day—into the classroom to work with students instills a sense of fun into the subject.

One day a week, the volunteers visit the school and meet one-on-one with students in grades 3, 4, and 5 to play research-based math games.

"We give [volunteers] information about the math concepts we're working on at the time," says fourth-grade teacher Julie Spencer. "Last spring we utilized the Math Buddies primarily for multiplication strategies, as that was the greatest area of support my students needed."

Adds third-grade teacher Sonja Nevin: "I'll meet with the volunteer and share the math areas his or her 'buddy' needs help with at that time. If the volunteer has any questions or concerns, we will come up with a plan to help the student."

Although the program is still in its infancy, teachers at King Elementary are already seeing a difference in student confidence and improvement in math skills.

"The program works because the students really enjoy having the relationship with the adult," explains Spencer. To track progress, all volunteers fill out an information sheet letting the teacher know what was accomplished during tutoring time and how well the student performed the tasks.

Staff at King Elementary are excited that the Math Buddies program may become a model for other schools. After the program was touted at a recent principals meeting, the Vancouver school district is exploring ways to bring Math Buddies to other schools in the area.


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