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School & District Management Opinion

Volunteers Are Ready—All Schools Need to Do Is Ask

By Matthew Tully — December 06, 2010 5 min read
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As the holidays approached last year, I wrote a column for my newspaper about Spencer Lloyd, an energetic young choir teacher who was finding ways to bring excellence to one of the worst-performing schools in Indiana.

The 26-year-old Hoosier is one of those teachers they make movies about. Passionate and driven, he had convinced his sometimes skeptical students that they could excel in a building where few did. He understood the cruel challenges facing many of the students in his high-poverty school but he refused to accept excuses. Day after day, he counseled his students, made clear he cared about them, and then did anything he could—including sing, dance, and impersonate anyone from Jack Black to Steven Tyler—to keep them engaged.

I met Mr. Lloyd during the year I spent chronicling Manual High School, which sits in the heart of Indianapolis, and quickly noticed the difference between his class and just about everything else in the school. It was a school marred by apathy and a 39 percent graduation rate. The hallways were filled constantly with class-skipping students. Students frequently cursed at teachers. Attendance was poor. Discipline problems, crime, and academic failure dominated the high school.

But you would never know any of that by walking into Mr. Lloyd’s classroom. His class was filled not only with music but also with nonstop energy and excitement.

“If you want to be in an average choir,” he told his students one day, “then you need to go to another school. We’re not going to be average in here.”

Mr. Lloyd sees music as a path to keep teenagers interested in school. When I first met him, he said he saw in his choir program a chance to unify a school that because of budget problems and indifference lacked many of the staples of high school life. such as a football program, a school newspaper, or a student council. In only his second year of teaching at the school, he had already resuscitated a nearly defunct choir program.

I wrote the column about Mr. Lloyd in mid-December of last year, telling readers about his energy, his students’ buy-in, and the choir’s upcoming annual holiday concert—an event that typically drew crowds so tiny they barely filled the first few rows of the school’s cavernous auditorium. I gently encouraged readers to attend the concert in a show of support for a teacher whose class was filled with the urgency that all of us who advocate for education reform want to see. More important, I wrote, a large crowd would send a powerful and much-needed message to Mr. Lloyd’s students.

That message was delivered on the night of the concert.

There is an army of Americans eager to help the students and teachers in the failing schools that threaten the future of cities. ... Many of them just need to be told how they can help.

Manual High School’s 1,200-seat auditorium was filled, including nearly every inch of aisle space, 30 minutes before the show began. Visitors continued to arrive, though, forcing the choir to add a second show. On the normally quiet streets outside the school, a massive traffic jam developed as supporters of the struggling school continued to arrive. Inside, visitors contributed more than $10,000 to the music program, more than 10 times its annual budget.

“It’s like a Christmas movie,” one teacher said.

It was also a reminder of something simple that sometimes gets forgotten in these days of important education debates: There is an army of Americans eager to help the students and teachers in the failing schools that threaten the future of cities such as Indianapolis. Many of them just need to be told how they can help.

Most of the people who showed up on that cold winter night had no children or grandchildren in the school. Most did not live in the neighborhoods the school serves. Those who sat and listened and gave multiple standing ovations to Mr. Lloyd’s choir showed up simply because they wanted to help.

The state of Indiana, along with many other states and the federal government, is on the verge of another round of sweeping education debates. These debates will center on crucial issues such as charter schools, union contracts, and teacher quality. In Indiana, Gov. Mitch Daniels is expected to lead a major education reform push that, among other things, will take on collective bargaining rules that protect veteran teachers at the expense of junior teachers such as Mr. Lloyd.

The reforms and policy changes are crucial. But policies alone won’t save American schools. The problems go deeper than laws and regulations. Schools such as Manual need to attack the culture of brutal apathy that suffocates them. Many students, parents, and teachers care and try their best each day. But many feel they are in a lonely battle, and many others have given up. I heard complaints from a parade of Manual High teachers the year I spent in their midst. Apathy, they argued, is the most challenging and insidious force blocking improvements to schools such as Manual.

Addressing the problem often requires tackling it one student and one family at a time–a devotion of resources that is out of bounds for many schools as budgets and staff are cut. Fortunately, there are those who want to help. Retirees, alumni, parents who may or may not have students in the schools—and a long list of others—understand the issues facing struggling schools and are looking for more ways to get involved. The overflow crowd on the night of Manual’s holiday concert last December underscored that point.

The challenge for school leaders is to find a way to harness the energy of people who desperately want to help. Some want to tutor or mentor students. Some want to help build tighter bonds with parents, or to advocate on behalf of the schools. Others are just looking for students who need a boost—financially or otherwise. And some might be satisfied with turning out for school events—reminding student actors, musicians, athletes, and others that people indeed care about them. Whatever the case, those eager to help are making clear that the small band of school employees in every struggling school need not be in this battle alone.

Unfortunately, many struggling schools are not taking advantage of the army of potential volunteers, helpers, contributors, and advocates that could energize their classrooms and hallways. Many Indianapolis schools, for example, ignore or place obstacles in the paths of those who want to help. Phone calls and e-mails are ignored. Busy administrators don’t have time to find creative ways to engage volunteers. Even established volunteer-based groups, many of which are doing amazing work in schools, sometimes find themselves frustrated when dealing with Indianapolis and other school districts.

It’s nice to think that major improvements in student performance at schools such as Manual High are only a few sweeping policy changes away. Clearly, though, decades of education debates have proved it’s not that easy.

Big policy changes are indeed needed. But some improvements will come only with heavy lifting—the kind with which an army of community supporters could help. That army is out there. It’s up to school leaders to harness their energy.

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