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April 14, 2015

Volunteers Key to Thinking Outside of the Box to Increase Parent, Community Involvement

This post is part of a series highlighting the outstanding contributions of volunteers during National Volunteer Week April 12-18. These volunteers contribute meaningful time and talent that will contribute to the ongoing progress and success of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading in our local community.

Research has shown that the most successful students are those whose parents are involved in their education. These students tend to earn better grades, score higher on standardized tests, have better attendance records and show a more positive attitude toward school.

While Sarasota is known for its white sandy beaches, thriving arts community, and multi-million-dollar homes, Alta Vista Elementary School is a Title I school with a diverse, low-income population where students struggle to meet proficiency levels in reading and math state standards.

At Alta Vista, 76% of students come from minority families (27% African American, 38% Hispanic, 4% Asian and 7% Indian/Multi-ethnic). Thirty percent of students live in homes where a language other than English is the primary language, and 92% of the 639 students are enrolled in the free and reduced-price lunch program. This free and reduced lunch ratio has increased from 78% up to 94% in the seven years since I became the principal.

A majority of our students come from low-income families who struggle to put food on the table and gas in their cars. Most of our parents are not educated, have often had negative experiences in school, and became statistics in our educational system by dropping out of high school. As a result, parent involvement was minimal, and we struggled to get parents to volunteer in the school, attend parent educational programs, conferences and work with their children at home. We were challenged to find a way to increase parent involvement and capitalize on our community resources to support student learning.

Getting creative with volunteers

The Eagles’ Nest Volunteer Center was created six years ago as a solution to our dilemma. We believed that if we could provide a safe learning environment that was exciting and supportive, we could attract parents and community volunteers who would join us in our efforts to make a difference in the lives of children and families.

Each year, our Eagles’ Nest provides a specialized program for up to 250 at-risk students where community and parent volunteers provide individualized, intensive instruction in reading and math. In six years, our Eagles’ Nest has grown from 25 – 30 volunteers to over 150 volunteers who are parents, grandparents, corporate employees, business owners, neighborhood church and YMCA members, community nonprofit organizations, and retired teachers, principals, and superintendents who reside in Sarasota year round or part of the year.

The Eagles’ Nest Volunteer Center is located in a special room in the school’s media center, where there are nine individual “executive” tables set up with school supplies and a colorful privacy divider board enhanced with reading, math, and writing instructional resources. Throughout the room, there are curriculum materials and bulletin boards with teaching aides and information for volunteers. Pictures of volunteers and students working together personalize the room that has been created in primary colors. Along one wall is a display of the “master schedule” with the volunteers’ names, the days and times they are at Alta Vista, and the names of their students. Since the schedule and names of volunteers and students are sometimes fluid, the information is moveable and easily manipulated.

Ensuring quality instruction and mentoring

While the Eagles’ Nest is managed by a volunteer coordinator, classroom teachers provide the instructional focus and curriculum materials used by volunteers during their 30 minutes of daily or weekly individualized instruction with students. They use progress monitoring data to guide the work of the volunteers and monitor student progress each week. At the end of each session, the volunteer completes a feedback form for the teacher and updates student’s progress. At varying times, the teacher meets with their students’ volunteers to collaborate and share information and strategies to support student learning.

To provide our volunteers with the most current instructional tools and best practices, our teachers lead training workshops in reading and math strategies and present important curriculum materials. Volunteers have attended the Ruby Payne: A Framework for Understanding Poverty training to gain a greater understanding and sensitivity to the needs of our students. Our volunteers are eager to learn and use their time wisely in providing care and instruction to maximize student learning.

A track record of results

Throughout the past six years, the Eagles’ Nest Volunteer Center has had a powerful impact on our student achievement. The benefit of the relationship and bond between students and their volunteer has made a difference in how students feel about themselves and their success in school. We have also increased parent involvement by providing them with a safe and secure environment to get involved in the school and the skills to work with their children and other students.

A survey taken by students, volunteers, and teachers indicates that Eagles’ Nest students increased performance on weekly test scores and grades, completed more classwork and homework, had a greater understanding of what was being taught in the classroom, increased attendance, and had a more positive attitude in school.

Here’s what some of the children had to say:
“My volunteer helps me learn to read. I am getting good at it.”
“I am happy when it is Monday and I see my volunteer.”
“My volunteer is fun and makes me smile.”
“I love my mom coming to my school and helping me.”

Students often refer to their volunteers as their grandmother, grandfather, big sister or big brother. Volunteers have stated, “I feel good every time I am with my student because I know I am having a positive impact on that child’s life.” One mother stated, “I finally know how to help my child be successful in school.”

Over the past six years, the Eagles’ Nest Volunteer Center has been recognized as a model program in our school district where other administrators have replicated the program in their schools. It has earned the PTA Parent Involvement Award for its efforts to increase parent involvement in the school, won a special Positive Change Award recognizing it for embracing the spirit of positive change in our community, and there have been multiple media articles published giving our Eagles’ Nest many accolades.

The Eagles’ Nest has become a multi-generational partnership where relationships between families and the larger community benefit our at-risk students’ learning needs. Perhaps most important is that when responsibility for children’s learning is shared by the school, home, and community, children have more opportunities for life-long success.

The Eagles’ Nest Volunteer Center is an exemplar program created as a solution to a lack of parent involvement that has transformed the culture of our school community. In these difficult economic times, a shared vision and commitment by parents, educators, and community resulted in “thinking outside the box” to find a creative solution. I would be interested in learning how other schools have developed creative solutions to increasing parent and community involvement. By sharing our ideas, all of our students will develop a passion for learning, a love of school, and a hope for a future where their dreams will become a reality.

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