Wednesday, August 03, 2005


Do you have three hours to spare this coming school year, to devote to kids? I bet you do. Go Big Ed is going to make it easy for you to contribute your help to our public schools, and unite around our kids. You’ll receive a fantastic return on your investment of three hours: the knowledge that you made a difference for kids.

Here’s where the idea comes from: the attempt by the Omaha Public Schools to absorb suburban districts within Omaha’s city limits is fueled by a desire for more funding. But there’s something more valuable that OPS would get: a huge infusion of excellent school volunteers.

Suburban parents who are college-educated, well-employed, upwardly mobile, and ambitious for their children’s futures are the secret weapon of those west Omaha schools. Parents, grandparents and other citizens in more affluent areas have more money and, often, more available time, to volunteer in schools and make the learning experience deeper and broader for the children.

Parents like these are great role models for other parents. That’s what’s missing in OPS: positive peer pressure among the parents.

One of the reasons we left an OPS grade school and moved away, many years ago, is that less than 25% of the parents showed up at Open House. That was a red flag to us that the school culture was not very healthy. I know that’s true of many other middle-class parents, who left for better peers for their children as well as a school environment where other parents put a top priority on education. It’s high time we tried to change that toxic school culture, for inner-city families.

What needs to change is the quality of the lessons being taught OUTSIDE of class as well as inside. The way to do that is to get quality volunteers into struggling schools to mix with inner-city parents, and show them the ropes of effective parental involvement so that they and their children can have increased success in the future.

Examples of school volunteering:

Read to a small group of children once a week for 20 minutes
Mentor a middle-school child with two to four contacts per month
Tutor a child in spelling and grammar
Give a talk at Career Day
Change a bulletin board for a teacher
Cut out learning materials
Assist with art lessons
Help with annual health screenings
Help on Picture Day
Do a children’s book drive in your neighborhood
Have a neighborhood garage sale and donate some proceeds to your local PTA or PTO
Coach high-school students on research papers
Chaperone field trips
Answer the phone
Put library books away
Be a hall monitor
Staff a book fair
Make photocopies
Donate money for science supplies
Donate money and ideas for room parties

The list is endless, and the needs are great.

Now, for the past several decades, OPS has seen its achievement gap widening between rich and poor, and black and white. The more money they spend, the more people they employ, the more programs they put into place, the more that gap widens.

I’m convinced it doesn’t have anything to do with money. It’s because they don’t have enough oversight – the public basically gives them carte blanche on tax dollars and allows them to keep blaming the kids for their own educational ineffectiveness. They’re using the wrong methods and they don’t even know it. Why? Because there aren’t enough smart, friendly and powerful people, who are not financially dependent on the status quo, coming in to those classrooms and school offices, and seeing the many places where things could be made better, and money could be spent more wisely.

If there were college-educated moms coming in to those classrooms in the early grades and seeing how the kids aren’t taught to decode words accurately, but told to just “guess” at words . . . and sprawl willy-nilly on the floor with their pencils in their fists “writing,” instead of sitting properly at desks and holding their pencils correctly . . . and how teachers have been told to ignore spelling errors to preserve “self-esteem” and so no wonder the kids can’t spell their way out of a wet paper bag . . . and if more citizens got a load of the absolute TRASH that is the assigned reading in many English classes . . . and saw how stupid Whole Math is as a teaching strategy . . . I have no doubt things would get better, and fast, because these people would squawk.

Affluent, college-educated parents and citizens don’t just accept substandard practices. They ask questions. They gripe. They use their political power. They make phone calls and write letters.

We need more intelligent, good-hearted eyes and ears in our schools – not only to help the kids, but to help the paid staff “do” school better. To learn from us, in other words.

I would rather see OPS broken up completely and its schools divided among the more successful suburban districts, because OPS is too big and bureaucratic. But that isn’t likely to happen. So I advocate a huge push for volunteers from west Omaha to give time and money to OPS schools this year. Maybe, by so doing, we would prove that we’re not just selfish and interested in our own suburban kids – but in ALL kids – and so all schools in the metro area don’t need to be conglomerated. We should just work together more.

For those who live or work too far from OPS to make volunteering workable, of course, if they would prefer, I’d encourage them to give time and money to their own neighborhood school, or any number of youth-serving organizations that they may favor.

And I’d like to encourage Nebraskans in all communities to do the same thing, wherever they may choose to direct their volunteer efforts.

So part of Go Big Ed’s back-to-school program, intended to vault Nebraska’s K-12 education system to first in the country, focuses on a dramatic increase in community support for our schools in the form of volunteering.

I’m going to start a “Three4Me” program like the one below, on the redesigned Go Big Ed website. It will list volunteer opportunities and small funding needs from area schools and youth-serving organizations. Readers can look at that list, fill a specific need, and let me know, either by name or anonymously. Then I’ll keep track of how much time and money we’re giving. I’m going to look hardest in OPS for those opportunities to help, because they appear to need help the most.

“Three4Me” is a promise from you to give the schools a minimum of three hours of volunteer time this year, or to donate money that equates to three hours of take-home pay. It’s a donation, a sacrifice and a gift for kids that would unite us behind our children, and send a strong signal to educators that we’re out here, and we really do care.

I’m hoping to have this up and running by late August, and will ask your help in spreading the word.

To measure effectiveness, I would like school volunteers to send me an email when they’ve completed their three hours, or have given their donation, and I’ll update the website.

By the end of the school year, I’m hoping to display an incredible amount of new time and money devoted by everyday Nebraskans to our children – and I have no doubt that there will be higher achievement and happier children and parents as a result.


School Volunteering: ‘Three4Me’

Q. I’m retired, and I’d really like to get involved and help our public schools, especially disadvantaged children. But I don’t have a lot of money or time. What could I do to make a difference?

Poet Noah Barker wrote that the most important thing in life is “to soften the weight of Adversity’s touch on the faded cheek of my fellow man.” There may be no more accurate measurement of character, than the urge to help others. So bravo.

Because so many parents are working these days, volunteer help from nonparents, including retirees, can make a crucial difference in the culture of a school. A small contribution, such as 20 minutes a week reading to a group of children, would be a tremendous boost to that teacher and children with a strong ripple effect to their families, sending the message that the community cares.

Just pick up the phone and call the principal of a school in the inner city, and offer yourself as a volunteer for a specific amount of time, whatever they might need you to do. Talk about making that principal’s day! What a wonderful gesture that will be, and what a fulfilling and enjoyable experience you will have.

Because of safety and security concerns, of course, you will have to fill out an application and undergo some form of a background check.

Most schools require volunteers to report to the office to sign in and out, and wear an ID badge.

Your service may be coordinated by a school staffer or by the existing parent-teacher organization. You may undergo some amount of training or be given a manual with guidelines and a code of ethics to clarify their expectations of you, and vice versa.

Remember, the responsibility for the actual instruction and programming belongs to the paid staff, and you cannot supercede it or undermine it in any way. Staff is responsible for the instruction and supervision of students, and anything you might do is solely at their discretion and direction. That means you probably shouldn’t be grading or evaluating student work, and you shouldn’t directly discipline or reprimand students.

Here are the characteristics of a good school volunteer: dependable; respects authority; adheres to confidentiality; impartial; objective, and neat appearance.

To dramatically increase volunteer support for a given school, help start a “Three4Me” volunteer program for parents and community members alike. See
www.Three4Me.com to learn all about it.

Homework: See
www.Three4Me.com/volsignupform.htm for examples of volunteer tasks that are needed in a typical school.

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