The bulletin boards at Whittier K-8 School in Denver are empty, and the halls are silent except for the faint sound of adult voices in an upstairs office. It’s the start of summer, and almost everyone has retreated from the heat to rest after a full school year. Upstairs in Principal Jai Palmer’s office, however, a few adults have gathered to talk about a new effort to involve more volunteers in the school. Called the Metro Volunteers School Service Program, the initiative has more than quadrupled the number of community members volunteering in the school in support of academic and extracurricular programs. Whittier became one of the test sites for the program for the 2011-2012 school year, and the team behind the project is gathering information to assess how it can be improved and expanded for the coming year.
So far the results have been encouraging, and future plans include engaging more volunteers to serve as reading and math tutors, music and theater instructors, part-time school librarians and more. Similar initiatives are now under way at Skinner Middle School and Teller Elementary, with more schools scheduled to join the program soon.
“You have to think innovatively when budgets are tight,” noted Principal Palmer. “That’s the challenge— it’s also the opportunity.”
A Smart Approach to Solving Resource Shortages
Like most school districts across Colorado and the United States, Denver Public Schools has watched budgets shrink in the past few years. At the same time, the desire to improve students’ reading, math and science skills has increased.
With the focus firmly on academics, funding for physical education, visual and performing arts and after-school programming has dipped. Some school libraries stand empty, with no librarians to assist students with finding and checking out books.
While the emphasis on academics has helped schools like Whittier achieve gains in reading and other subjects, students also want a well-rounded education that includes the arts, sports and other activities to help broaden their horizons and connect academics to other interests. Engaging more volunteers in the school has allowed Whittier to make that happen, Palmer said. Whittier has been able to recruit retired educators and community members with real-life experiences they want to share. “The interaction brings something fresh and new to our students,” he said. “They get to meet someone who actually has drama experience or who has practiced science in the field.”
Volunteers have brought something else of equal importance to Whittier students, noted Karen Mortimer, president of the Whittier Parent-Teacher Association. “The more positive, encouraging adults our students have around them, the better,” she said. “Some lovely relationships come out of these interactions.”
A Sustainable Strategy
The Metro Volunteers School Service Program began in 2007, with funding from the HandsOn Network, The Home Depot and Qwest. Known at the time as HandsOn Schools, the program brought volunteers into the school to make needed physical improvements, such as installing a new playground, planting trees or painting walls. And while the projects transformed the physical environment, they didn’t help schools meet their long-term goals, said Cheryl Clark, neighboring specialist and director of school service programming at Metro Volunteers.
“Although we got input from the community about what they wanted done, we didn’t involve the community deeply in the work to create momentum for it to continue after the initial project was completed,” she said.
Metro Volunteers, therefore, decided to change the focus from organizing one-time volunteer projects to creating sustainable, school- and community-led volunteer initiatives that could meet more ambitious goals. To do that, Clark said, Metro Volunteers reached out to a broad array of experienced educators, administrators, parents, business professionals and others to form the Metro Volunteers School Service Program Operations Team.
That team retooled the program to establish a framework for developing customized, sustainable volunteer programs at individual schools. The new framework engages a broad array of school and community stakeholders in developing their own volunteer program. The schools involved in the Metro Volunteers School Service Program are now among the most diverse in Denver Public Schools. They also serve student populations in which more than 90 percent qualify for free or reduced lunches.
The operations team begins each new initiative by conducting a comprehensive assessment of the school’s needs and attitudes about working with volunteers. This assessment is given to a wide range of stakeholders, and a summary report is given to school administrators to consider before further work is done.
If the school decides to proceed, the operations team will work with school administrators to assemble a Volunteer Leadership Team. This team is composed of representatives from all the major stakeholder groups at the school. The team reviews the assessment report and the school’s educational plan to identify the top goals for the new volunteer program.
Within the Volunteer Leadership Team is a group called the PAVES team, which stands for Parent and Volunteer Engagement Specialists. The PAVES team implements the school’s volunteer engagement plan with the help of Metro Volunteers. This team of four to five members helps recruit, train and manage volunteers, and it completes an evaluation at the end of the year to drive future improvements. Metro Volunteers also provides training to educators and school employees about working with a diverse volunteer workforce.
A Growing Desire for Expansion
Each school identifies its own priorities for volunteer recruitment and engagement, but some common themes have emerged.
“So far, the consistent need that schools have is structure,” said Lynne Montague-Clouse, who co-leads the operations team with Clark. “Principals report that they have parents calling them to volunteer, but they don’t have the staff resources to screen, place and manage those volunteers.”
Thanks to the Metro Volunteers School Service Program, Whittier K-8 School now has a volunteer infrastructure in place, and can engage more volunteers for the next school year. The current plan calls for recruiting volunteers to assist with literacy efforts—and to provide additional after-school programming.
Whittier has seen another unexpected benefit from its volunteer initiatives as well, Mortimer said. “It’s been a conduit for more nonprofits and community members to get involved. They see us as a school that welcomes collaboration, so they approach us with offers to help.”
So far Whittier has had some great organizations reach out to them—the local YMCA has offered a basketball clinic to Whittier students; Deltak, a company focused on online higher education, has sponsored a reading day at the school; and a Leadership Denver class painted Whittier’s walls to add color and school spirit to the plain white interior. Other companies have approached Whittier as well to explore how they can get involved.
Given these early signs of success, Metro Volunteers hopes to replicate what has been done at Whittier and expand the program to 20 or 30 more schools in the Denver metro area.
Clark hopes that more volunteers and businesses will step forward to support the program as they learn about its benefits.
“Our program develops a sustainable plan that alleviates burnout in the schools and reflects community values by asking community members what they want volunteers to help achieve in their schools,” she said. “Volunteers really can help elevate our schools, if we continue to connect the dots properly.”
Metro Volunteers is actively seeking more volunteers for its School Service Program team. For more information about volunteering or sponsoring a school with the Metro Volunteers School Service Program, contact Cheryl Clark at Metro Volunteers at Cheryl@metrovolunteers.org or 303.282.1234, x308.
Jennifer Watson, APR, is a communications consultant in Denver and a volunteer with Metro Volunteers.