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10,000 Donate Time and Talent To Houston Schools

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What do the Sharpstown Baptist Church Women, 20 Hughes Tool Company employees, a University of Houston professor of art, and a World War I veteran have in common?

Little, perhaps, but the fact that they were among the nearly 10,000 Houston, Texas, residents who offered their time and skills to the city's public schools last year.

The volunteers gave guitar lessons, painted cartoons on rest room walls, and manned duplicating machines; they called the parents of truants; they tutored, tested, and talked.

All were members of Volunteers in the Public Schools (vips), a far-reaching, many-faceted program designed to improve the performance of the Houston schools and to get the community into the schools.

In a time of widespread public discontent with the nation's schools and cuts in federal aid to education, vips has been credited with fostering broad support for the schools among Houston's citizens.

School Superintendent Billy R. Reagan claims a direct link between the positive publicity gained by the Houston schools from vips and the passage of a $300-million school-bond issue in 1976--the first such issue approved in 10 years.

Set up by the Houston Independent School District (hisd) in 1970 after the successful completion of several pilot projects organized by Houston citizens in the mid-1960's, the vips program has grown dramatically--from 2,000 participants and a $30,000 budget in its first year to a $120,000 budget for an expected 10,000-plus turn-out this year.

vips projects, which operate in all of the school district's 168 elementary schools and approximately half of its 60 secondary schools, include an annual screening of 14,000 incoming kindergartners, a "community resources bank" which last year brought 998 Houston citizens--young and old, white- and blue-collar workers--into the schools to speak on topics ranging from careers to world culture, a "parents-calling-parents network" designed to reduce truancy, and two new projects--vips Seniors and Business/School Partnerships.

Potential Benefits Great

Most observers agree that students benefit from the exposure to volunteers. "They bring the world to the classroom," says Mr. Reagan.

About two-thirds of the volunteers work in the classroom in support of the regular teacher.

Ann Thornhill, a teacher at River Oaks Elementary School who has had volunteers in her classroom for seven years, is a strong exponent of the value of such in-class volunteers. "They are best," she says, "at helping kids who often fall through the cracks--those who need a little extra help with their reading but whose problems are not severe enough to warrant special-ed classes."

Other Houston teachers say that students display increased interest in their work when they get regular one-to-one instruction from a volunteer. Said one teacher: "It creates an environment where the child feels he's ok."

Volunteers are asked to spend two hours a week in their assigned classrooms. Eighty percent of the Houston volunteers work in elementary schools; 20 percent work in the middle and high schools.

When Houston school officials talk of the contribution of vips to the quality of instruction in their schools, they frequently mention the "intangible" value of personal contact between student and volunteer; and they estimate that the 345,289 hours volunteered last year produced nearly $1.7 million-worth of instruction.

But they are also quick to mention the contribution vips has made to breaking down tension between the 190,000-pupil school district (the nation's fifth largest) and the city of Houston.

"Before vips, the doors to the schools were closed except for traditional routes like the pta," says Jean Davis Meyers, employed by the school district to direct the program. Ms. Meyers is also president of the National School Volunteer Program, Inc., an organization that represents approximately six million volunteers nationally.

Teachers and principals, she says, initially were reluctant to accept volunteers into their schools because they felt their "turf" was being encroached upon. "It took a lot of selling with the school staffs," she says, adding that such tensions have subsided.

Mr. Reagan claims that vips is the best public-relations program the Houston school district has: "With each volunteer, you are making a friend for public education; you are enlisting a missionary." Many volunteers agree with Mr. Reagan. Says Olivet B. Borders, a senior citizen who has worked at the Reynolds Elementary School: "vips is a wonderful thing; it enables individuals to find out what their children are doing."

In April, Houston Mayor James McConn, declaring vips volunteers "among the city's finest resources," proclaimed April 27 through May 1 "Volunteers in Public School Week."

Race is another Houston problem that vips is beginning to come to terms with, observers say.

Elizabeth Spates, chairman of the "parents-calling-parents" project and a member of the vips advisory board, the group of 25 volunteer leaders who work with Ms. Meyers and her staff of five to set vips policy, says that blacks and Hispanics--who together make up 70 percent of the district's school population--have in the past felt ostracized from decisions concerning the schools.

She also says that blacks until recently have shunned participation in vips because of its volunteer nature. "We're slow about volunteering because we are not used to working for nothing; that's the way it is. It is getting better though."

According to Ms. Meyers, blacks and Hispanics last year accounted together for about 45 percent of the vips volunteers.

Superintendent Reagan says that the race issue has been at once the greatest obstacle and an area of success for vips: "We're just now getting minority volunteers into the schools. It is exploding the myth of the upper class whites that blacks do not care about their children's education. And it is proving to the blacks that white teachers can teach minority children. They are starting to get together."

Problems Do Exist

Not all is roses with vips, however. Sandra F. Sawyer, chairman of the advisory council, says that the program is locked in a constant struggle against inertia: "The reality is that the number of people who want to do volunteer work is not that great. We are constantly trying to recruit new volunteers."

Ms. Sawyer also says that volunteers are needed in the Houston schools because teachers there have in large part failed as role models. "It would have been ludicrous to say this in years past, but not today. Business people provide better models."

In fact, Ms. Sawyer and other vips officials are actively seeking greater business participation in the schools at a time when other business-schools programs around the country are coming under criticism for creating what a recent article in The Nation called "patron-client" relationships.

Both Mr. Reagan and Betty Lou (Blue) Alexander, president of the school board, deny that the vips "Business/School Partnership" compromises the independence of the school system by unfairly indoctrinating students with ideas favorable to free enterprise and business.

But Ms. Alexander states that she "hopes students in the vips business program are taught the value of the free enterprise system."

And Kent F. Taylor, an ibm employee and coordinator of the vips business project, wrote in the March 1981 issue of Houston magazine that one of the benefits to corporations that participate in the vips program is their ability to "educate students about free enterprise and the benefits of profit, countering media discussions of 'obscene' profits."

Most observers agree, however, that the vips program's problems are minor, and that it has been instrumental in facilitating open, thoughtful discussion of the problems facing the Houston schools.

Concludes Ms. Spates: "We are just as accountable to the schools as they are to us."

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