Sunday, October 08, 2000

Volunteers making the grade

Students require more hands-on help

By Jennifer Mrozowski
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Classroom volunteers are nothing new, but Tristate districts and teachers are turning to them in increasing numbers to make the grade.

        From Campbell to Warren counties, they tutor children in reading, math and other subjects; copy worksheets; monitor small groups; and grade papers.

        Teachers say there are two key reasons for the increase:

        • Greater emphasis on meeting the learning needs of every child.

[photo] Volunteer Libby Uetrecht displays math flash cards at J.F. Burns Elementary School in Lebanon.
(Dick Swaim photo)
| ZOOM |
        • Greater emphasis on teacher accountability.

        Bake-sale and sports moms and dads still pitch in plenty, but volunteers are increasingly being called upon to work in the classroom. And their ranks have expanded beyond parents to include professionals, senior citizens and employees of companies who make community service a priority.

        The upshot is one-on-one attention that teachers say they can't provide when they're at the front of the room.

        “Without them, I don't know if I could do as good a job managing everything,” said Kelly Jones, who teaches first and second grades at Reily Elementary in Alexandria.

        The volunteer effort in her district, Campbell County Schools, last year was 1,100-people strong. That's up from 440 two years ago, said district spokesman Chris Gramke. Much of the increase comes from a districtwide plan stressing community involvement to help kids achieve, Mr. Gramke said.

        “People are finding the time because their children are involved or maybe because they feel it's the best way to give back to the community,” he said.

    OhioReads — the governor's plan to improve reading skills so students can pass the Fourth Grade Reading Proficiency Test — calls for millions in training and special programs.
    But a key component is Gov. Bob Taft's call for 20,000 volunteers to tutor one-on-one.
    To help:
    • Contact a local elementary school or school district.
    • Encourage your service organization to set up a reading volunteer program in partnership with a school.
    • Encourage your employer to arrange for employees to use work time to volunteer, or partner with a school to provide resources for a reading program.
   Source: Ohio Department of Education

        Oyler Elementary in Cincinnati Public Schools had more than 300 volunteers last year, said Assistant Principal Craig Hockenberry. The number has been increasing every year through a mentor program that pulls in community volunteers who give at least a half-hour of their time every week to tutor children.

        In the past few years, more and more volunteers are coming into the classrooms of the Kings Local School District, spokeswoman Linda Oda said.

        “Teachers are getting used to asking for them,” Mrs. Oda said.

        While some of the more than 1,000 volunteers at Kings Local are stay-at-home moms, many are not, she said. More men are helping out.

        One-third of Kings volunteers are men, she said, “whereas 10 years ago it was 90 percent women.”

        Dan Rapp, a 27-year-old copywriter, volunteers because he thinks he can make a difference in a kid's life.

        He's single and has no children but he spends about an hour a week during his lunchtime to help kids read and write at Oyler Elementary. Mr. Rapp is joined by more than 50 others from his employer, Northlich, a Cincinnati advertising agency.

        “For me, it's probably the easiest way to make a difference in people's lives,” he said. “By seeing someone regularly, this is a really big benefit.

        “And sometimes you don't get so much from your job, but this is a guaranteed picker-upper.”

        With more hands pitching in, teachers say they have more time to do what they do best: teach.

Needs vary

        J.F. Burns Elementary teacher Susan Waugh uses her volunteers to manage the classroom while she concentrates on teaching.

        Not all of her second-graders are at the same level, so she breaks them into smaller groups, called centers, across her classroom.

        Recently, she sat in the corner of her Deerfield Township classroom at a tiny table while four small heads bowed around her at the reading center. The students took turns reading the book My Cat Likes Milk.

        Volunteer Libby Uetrecht flashed math cards for another group in a math center and quieted several other groups practicing counting exercises. All the while, students in the reading center took no note of the clatter behind them.

        “A little too fast,” Mrs. Waugh said to 8-year-old Matthew Davis, who was reading at a speedy whisper in the reading center.

        Matthew's voice became slower and crisper.

        Such small-group learning is being stressed in teacher colleges today because it emphasizes “inclusion” - helping kids within the classroom setting rather than pulling them out, said Barbara J. Reid, chairwoman of the education department at the College of Mount St. Joseph.

        For example, more special-education students with mild to moderate needs have been shifted from special classes back to regular classrooms in the past five years, Ms. Reid said.

        Because of that shift, more classroom assistants are needed, she said.

        “Students have much more variation in needs and abilities and we are ethically obliged to teach all of them,” Ms. Reid said. “And if teachers can't have more money to hire someone else, then they use volunteers.”

Schools accountable
        Instead of watering down the curriculum for the average child, teacher standards require educators to reach every student.

        The Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 aimed to simultaneously assess student performance and hold schools accountable for the results.

        In Ohio, teachers have to prepare all fourth-graders to meet the Fourth Grade Reading Guarantee, which takes effect in the 2001-02 school year. Students must read at fourth-grade level or they will be held back.

        To meet Ohio standards, Gov. Robert Taft last year started a massive volunteer effort called Ohio Reads. In its first year, more than 21,000 volunteers helped kids learn to read.

        Districts, wary of the standards, are forging their own efforts.

        Lebanon City Schools in Warren County is seeking volunteers to tutor elementary children in reading.

        “There are only so many minutes in the day and so much teachers can do if you want individual instruction,” Superintendent Bill Sears said.

        Cincinnati's Bond Hill Academy is another example. The school closed last year for a redesign following several years of poor student performance.

        Bond Hill now has new staff and a new focus, part of which centers on community involvement.

        “The idea is to provide a safety net for children doing poorly academically,” Principal Thomas Boggs said.

        This year the school's 20 volunteers are helping kids with reading, writing and study skills.

        Ms. Uetrecht, a stay-at-home mom, volunteers about six hours a week in the Kings district. She said her time in the classroom frees up teachers such as Ms. Waugh.

        “They can spend time teaching instead of doing the little stuff,” she said. “I'm there to do whatever needs to be done.”

Professional volunteers

        As long as the volunteers are trained properly, are safe and are not taking over the job of teaching, they should be welcomed, said Rick Beck, president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers.

        Schools such as Lebanon are weaving training into their new volunteer program.

        Background checks are also becoming part of the routine in volunteer efforts.

        Kentucky has a new state law requiring background checks for school volunteers. Some Ohio schools also provide such checks.

        The extra help, many teachers say, is a matter of necessity.

        “The change in the whole education system is about meeting the needs of students,” said fourth-grade teacher Amy Geyer of Western Row Elementary in Mason.

        “I don't want to spend my time on activities that are not directly beneficial to the kids.”

        While her volunteers grade papers or take individual student questions in the computer lab, she said she spends her time teaching the whole class.

        “I don't think I could do my job without them.”


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