Rick Nations used to just shake his head when his wife, a kindergarten teacher, would rave about how much her students had grown over winter break. He would think, “It’s two weeks? How much could these kids grow?”
Now, after hundreds of hours volunteering at Wilkinson Elementary School, Nations gets it. The retired Sarasota School District administrator who once chuckled at his wife’s amazement over growth spurts, is himself marveling at how quickly 5-year olds grow.
“It’s amazing what happens over Christmas vacation,” he said. “That’s one reason I love kindergarten so much.”
Nations is one of more than 300 volunteers who spends time in Wilkinson Elementary each month, reading children stories, laminating posters for busy teachers, walking children to the bathroom and “sometimes just being a grandpa.” But unlike his fellow volunteers, he can’t attribute his service to pure altruism. When his daughter-in-law, Susan Nations, became the school’s principal in 2016, one of her top priorities was getting more helpers in the door. Both her in-laws are former Sarasota educators, and they live right down the street from Wilkinson, so Rick Nations had no excuse.
“This, I think, was planned,” he said with a laugh, referring to his daughter-in-law taking the top job at his neighborhood school. “We’ve been living in the same place since 1972.”
Susan Nations isn’t just relying on family members. She has thrown open the doors of her school, bringing in hundreds of volunteers each week to work with the children. She said those helpers fill a much-needed role in her students’ lives.
“Many of our students come without extended family or very busy parents who don’t have the time to sit and read with them,” Nations said. “Something as simple as reading a book, playing a game, that can really make a difference in a child’s life.”
The school has 331 registered volunteers within its system, which district spokeswoman Kelsey Whealy described as “significantly more than most schools.” Those volunteers have logged a total of 3,093 hours at the school this year, and that number does not include the hours an additional 10 to 15 volunteers contribute during a Saturday program once a month, and the number of hours volunteers spend running programs outside of school hours. And unlike most schools, many of the volunteers are not related to the children attending the school.
“The majority of their volunteers are community members without any other connection to the school,” Whealy said.
A Title I school, Wilkinson had 78 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch last year. The school has earned a C each of the last five years, and last year 59 percent of the school’s third graders were not reading on grade level. As schools deal with increasing numbers of children not reading on grade level, more and more kids need time working on their reading skills with a mentor. Organizations like the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading have mobilized to get helpers into classrooms.
As a former literacy coach and testing coordinator, Susan Nations knows how important just having adults read with children can be to improving outcomes.
Establishing relationships with different faith-based organizations has been key to building the school’s volunteer base. Temple Emanu El sends 83 volunteers once a week to read to kindergarten students, and Church of the Palms runs a similar program for first graders, sending 45 “book buddies” to the school for an hour each week. The Shore Church runs a program called All Pro Dads every Monday morning and a Saturday program once a month.
Tanice Knopp, a member of Temple Emanu El who has helped manage the partnership with Wilkinson, said the synagogue originally wanted to get enough volunteers to help out with one kindergarten class. Now, with 115 people involved, members of the synagogue are at the school constantly throughout the week, reading to students, building a garden, conducting dramatic storytelling, leading thespian groups, giving music lessons and helping out with various school needs.
“We knew that the literature tells us that entering kindergarten students often suffer from a vocabulary gap and not much exposure to books and reading,” Knopp said. “We wanted to focus on closing the vocabulary gap and instill a love for reading.”
Sarah Soboleski, director of community engagement for the Church of the Palms, said the church’s mission is to “Love God and love neighbors,” and conversations with Nations helped them develop a plan to put their motto into action.
“It’s so simple and it’s so magical,” she said. “It’s the gift of presence. Just showing up for these kids week after week, they just light up.”
Soboleski spends an hour at the school each week, reading with a little girl named Sophia and a boy named Ishmael. She said most of the volunteers from the church are retirees — a group that Rick Nations said is one of Sarasota’s greatest resources.
Nations, who spent 27 years working in the School District administrative offices, wants to get more of his former colleagues to join him.
“This is more fun,” he said. “Those kids love the (volunteers). They just light up when they come in. I’ve seen some real straight-laced people just melt with these kids.”
Interested in volunteering with the Sarasota School District? Contact Lyndsey Cantees at the Sarasota School District Office of Student Involvement 941-927-9000 x 31500 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you are interested in volunteering in Manatee County School District school, contact the school where you would like to help and ask to speak with the volunteer coordinator.
This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at https://www.gradelevelreadingsuncoast.net/category/solutions-journalism-partnership/.