In an Era of Retrenchment, Volunteers Gain National Support For Their Work
Washington--At a time when other public-school organizations are struggling to head off the dissolution of the Education Department, counter the threat posed by tuition tax credits, and restore the tarnished image of public education, a relatively new and little-known organization promoting volunteerism in the nation's schools finds itself with friends in high places and a growing interest in its work.
That organization is the National School Volunteer Program (nsvp). At its annual conference here late last week, the nsvp was scheduled to hear from an undersecretary of education, a special assistant to President Reagan, a governor, and the president of a major education foundation.
The organization also announced projections of a 400-percent increase in membership in the coming year and a major media campaign designed to increase public awareness of its programs.
Sandra T. Gray, executive director of the 10-year-old organization--which has 1,500 dues-paying members in 47 states and three6foreign countries--says that in recent years shrinking budgets have made school volunteerism, and the work of nsvp, increasingly attractive to politicians and school officials.
"School boards and superintendents are beginning to appreciate volunteers as a tremendous untapped resource," she says. In addition, President Reagan's strong ideological commitment to volunteerism and private philanthrophy--expressed in a national address in September and a letter to nsvp--has also sparked interest in nsvp's work, she notes.
Ms. Gray describes the organization, which has had a permanent office and staff (now nine) for only six years, as a "catalyst" and "coalition-builder" for school-district volunteer programs nationwide.
To that end, the group offers training seminars to local volunteer-organizers, functions as a clearinghouse for local programs "that work and do not work," and helps to bring volunteers together with school districts.
The organization is also sponsoring a new coalition of 25 national educational and civil-rights organizations designed to improve par-ental involvement in schools.
Its budget, which has grown from $77,000 in 1976 to $460,000 in 1981, is supported by membership fees and grants from a variety of foundations, corporations, and the Department of Education.
nsvp estimates that there are four million to six million volunteers
nationwide (most of them in elementary schools), and that one-third of
the country's 16,000 school systems
have volunteer programs run by school-system staff members. About three-fourths of the nation's school systems have some sort of volunteer program, the volunteer group estimates.
Ms. Gray joined nsvp in March, leaving her position as special assistant to the U.S. undersecretary of education. She began her career in education in the mid-60's, when she became the first black person to teach in the public schools of Little Rock, Ark.
She is a firm believer in the good that volunteers can work in the nation's schools.
In some cases, she says, they free teachers from time-consuming clerical chores or offer students broader perspectives on the material they are studying. In others, the extra "one-on-one" attention they offer students is enough to save the student from "falling through the cracks" and getting behind in his or her studies or dropping out of school.
In addition, Ms. Gray asserts, there is frequently a "special chemistry" between volunteers and students, and in many school districts that relationship helps to reduce truancy and discipline problems."Even in the most difficult schools, you see students being very receptive to volunteers," she says.
There is little tension between teachers and volunteers over "territorial rights," according to Ms. Gray, largely because most volunteers are required to agree that they will not act as substitutes if the regular classroom teacher they work with goes on strike.
The two national teachers' organizations, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association (nea), endorse school volunteerism.
However, John E. Dunlop, manager of negotiation at nea, cautions that there would be "acrimony at the bargaining table" if school districts attempted to supplant teachers with volunteers, rather than have volunteers supplement the work of teachers, as he says they do now.
Volunteer programs are also good for the schools themselves, Ms. Gray3says. "Volunteer programs encourage community members to come inside schools as participants. When people participate, there is commitment."
Commitment, she believes, can be translated into approval by voters of bond issues, millage-rate increases, and contributions of such things as equipment and services.
The principal challenge facing nsvp, according to Ms. Gray, is to bring into the national volunteer movement a more diverse group of people.
She says that the increased number of one-parent families and families with two working parents has made it more difficult to find parents willing to volunteer. Moreover, the decline in the number of taxpaying households with school-age children intensifies the need to encourage other types of people, such as senior citizens and businessmen and women, to support schools.
(According to recent figures from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, 39 percent of the nation's households contained school-age children in 1979, compared with 45 percent in 1970.)
More school systems are developing programs that include senior citizens, high-school students and businesses, she said. Some, such as San Francisco's, have been doing that for more than 10 years.
The first formal school volunteer program, according to nsvp officials, was started in the New York City schools in 1956 by the Public Education Association.
Volunteers perform a variety of tasks. Many tutor, others participate in speakers' bureaus run by school districts, and some call other parents in programs to combat truancy.
A number of volunteers work with the handicapped, screen incoming kindergartners, or offer career counseling. In one program, volunteers answer the telephones in a homework hot-line.
The impact of volunteers can be dramatic. Last year in Springfield, Mass., 1,378 volunteers worked6112,920 hours and saved the district the equivalent of $682,764 in salaries, according to a local school official.
In Tulsa, Okla., 5,000 people volunteered 68,956 hours last year, a spokesman for the schools says, and saved the district the equivalent of $473,736. This was accomplished on a budget of $30,000 for the program.
Officials in New York City, which has one of the largest school volunteer programs in the country, estimate that last year 15,000 volunteers donated nearly one million hours, worth at least $4 million, to the city.
The Florida Legislature, perhaps recognizing the "dollar value" of volunteers, has passed a law allocating state funds to school-district volunteer programs. Some 77,000 volunteers worked in Florida school systems last year.
Ms. Gray is particularly interested in developing ties between schools and businesses. She says that business executives offer students role models and expertise on a wide variety of topics.
She is not persuaded by those who have argued recently that "partnerships" between schools and businesses compromise the independence of the school systems by indoctrinating students with ideas favorable to free enterprise and business.
"While [business participation in schools] appears to be selfish--and it is--it is also serving the needs of students," she says.
"Business people do not make commitments to schools to indoctrinate students. Rather, they do it as mentors and tutors. Certainly business has a point of view, but students need to be exposed to it, just like any other."
Ms. Gray asserts that business employees with special expertise are also needed as volunteers today because the role of the school volunteer is changing.
"Traditionally, volunteers were used without regard to their expertise," she says. "Now teachers are beginning to make them a more integral part of the curriculum. They are more involved in the teaching of the class."