School volunteers help make difference

Published 1:11 pm Saturday, October 18, 2014

When it comes down to it, a big part of the V, or victory formation— as Superintendent Willie Bell puts it — is the community. J.P. King Middle School Principal Lisa Francis said she gives the volunteers a big part of the credit for the growth that happened at the school last year on the Standards of Learning scores.

It takes everyone working together — parents, teachers, administration and the community, including the volunteers and business leaders.

“Don’t get me wrong, the teachers absolutely worked their butts off last year,” Francis said. “But it really helps when you have that extra pair of hands in the classroom.”

An example she gave was the in-school tutoring program, STAR. In that class period, teachers lead volunteers and they go over the material the students are learning at that moment to make sure they get it.

Last year, Tom Jones helped with math and Chuck Lilley with reading, Francis said.

“It gives teachers more hands in the classroom,” Francis said. “For sixth-grade math, Cindy Fillhart has three groups rolling through different activities. Each group is with an adult. It’s like having another teacher in the classroom.”

Sixth-grade math is particularly important because those students are a year removed as a class from having a 39 percent fail rate on the SOLs at S.P. Morton Elementary School as fifth graders. It’s also the largest class at the school, so having extra hands is important to help give children individualized attention. It’s making a difference.

“They are doing great,” Francis said. “We just hit our 4 and-a-half week benchmarks, and you can see a lot of improvement.”

And it’s not just about academics, Jones said. He was one of the “pioneer volunteers” last year, as Francis puts it, and he’s got a background in engineering, so working math problems comes natural. But Jones, who was part of a committee to streamline and bolster the school’s volunteer program in creating VIPS, said the schools have needs everywhere.

“For example, the teachers have to copy all of their materials that they hand out,” Jones said. “So, if we had a volunteer who could routinely and dependably make copies for the teachers, they wouldn’t be using their classroom preparation time making copies.”

If you aren’t into making copies, either, Franklin High School Principal Travis Felts said he could use you elsewhere.

“If tutoring isn’t your thing, then we have other opportunities,” he said. “If you are willing to give us the time, we have something you can help us with. I don’t want anybody to feel like they don’t have something to offer. I know they can help us in some way.”

And on Wednesday, Oct. 22, from 5 to 6:30 p.m. at Franklin High School, there’s an opportunity to find out more about it. At that meeting they will have information available on different ways that you can volunteer, and also the forms you need to get started.

“I hope to see a big crowd come out and learn how to join us and volunteer in our schools,” said Human Resources Director Gail Wade, who was part of the process of streamlining the volunteer forms. “It’s a mammoth task. The education of students and raising student achievement is a mammoth task.

“We realize that as educators we can’t do it alone. We need help from our businesses, our community and our parents.”

How it got started

Jones, along with others in the community, saw the need in the schools, and just decided to throw himself at it.

“I had recently retired, and I thought that I could come in and make a difference on a personal basis,” he said. “Regardless of what was going on in the school system; what the state was doing; what the school board was doing; I could come in and give a hand. I could make a personal impact.”

So, he decided to go to J.P. King and talked Francis and Assistant Principal Ricky Wright.

“When I first talked to them, I said I think I can handle sixth-grade math, but I’m not sure I could go much higher,” Jones said with a laugh. “But really, I like to catch them in the sixth grade because I feel like this is when the kids could really use extra help. It is their first year in a new school, and I think it is a good grade to catch.”

Toward the end of the school year, he, along with Lilley and some others, put together a small committee of people who went to each school and tried to figure out exactly where they needed help, particularly in the realms of directly helping students or freeing up teachers.

Lilley said the committee started in May in developing the VIPS, or Volunteers in Public Schools, program. They finalized it sometime in August, with descriptions for each area where a person could potentially volunteer. That information is now on Franklin City Public School’s website at From there, you click on the community tab and find the volunteering page in the drop down menu. It has overall information as well as details on each school.

At the same time, Wade and the school board were working toward streamlining the application process to make the paperwork to get in a little less cumbersome.

Felts said it helps, as the application is no longer a hurdle, with the exception of a background check, which does slow the process down. However, student safety is important, and just as teachers have to go through background checks, so do others who work with children.

And he added that it’s been good to see the response people have had in coming into the schools.

“It is good to know that we have the support of the community,” Felts said. “Everyone who has come in has been positive about the students.”

Lilley said that from here the business community would be key.

“To be successful we will need the business community to support this effort, as Union Camp did with flexible employees’ lunch hours back in the mid-90s,” he said.

Book Buddies/Book Mice

Of course, volunteering in the schools is nothing new. The Book Buddies and Book Mice program at S.P. Morton goes back more than 14 years. Book Buddies is a program for children who scored poorly on reading benchmarks, and the Book Mice program is to just for any student who wants the help. The adult or high school student volunteers read to the children, and sometimes, the children also read back.

Faith Atkinson, who at the time was a recently retired SPM teacher, came out of retirement to bring a program called Book Buddies from the University of Virginia.

“It took off like wildfire,” she said. “We expanded it every year, and it did so well in the first five to six years that we added the second-grade Book Buddy program, as well. Originally it was just first grade.”

Now retired, Atkinson likes the program so much that she continues to volunteer today. Joyce Carter is running it along with the other SPM volunteer operations. It’s about the students.

“I think it is very important for them,” Atkinson said. “Not just for the skill development, but for what they learn from the adults that they do not learn at home.

“A lot of the times, the adults are such wonderful role models, and they show the children just how much they love and care for them by their dependability. They are there when they say they are going to be, and for a lot of these children, they don’t understand when an adult says they are going to be there and then they are actually there.”

Often, the children will form a bond with their Book Buddy.

“They are getting far more than just the reading skills,” Atkinson said. “They will do the skills just to please this person that cares for them and shows an interest in them.”

Carter said the adults are often like mother or father, grandfather or grandmother figure. And when the high school students come in, it’s like having an older brother or sister.

“It is a great time to talk about not only reading and adventures and different stories, but sometimes some of these kids have little problems,” she said. “With a Book Buddy, they have someone they can talk to. Sometimes at home, they don’t.”

And it works.

“The kids we have had with Book Buddies, a lot of them have had as much as two years of growth in reading over the year,” she said. “That’s not all the Book Buddies program. It takes teachers, tutors, the reading specialist and my program. But all together, we all have a talent to give to help these children.”

It can also be good for the book buddy, said Don Spengeman, who was once the SPM principal.

“Seeing a child’s eyes light up when I walk into the room because I am their Book Buddy and they want to be with me, and to know that this is going to make a difference in their success, is just a special feeling,” he said. “It is a time well spent. It is time that we won’t miss in our lives, but the difference that time makes to a child will be a whole lot more than you can imagine. I would encourage everybody to be involved.

“Plus, it is our public schools and it belongs to the public. I feel like everybody has a role to play.”

Making a difference

SPM Principal Jason Chandler said the volunteer programs are a vital part of his school. He went so far as to say that Book Buddies is essential.

“Reading is definitely the foundation of all learning,” he said. “It is the building block. You need that to to be a strong foundation to be able to pick up the other subjects. It is an essential part of what we do at S.P. Morton.”

Volunteering in general, including that program, is also important.

“Of course, all of our teachers are genuinely concerned about students and their welfare,” Chandler said. “But it is nice that the students can come in and work with an adult from the community who is genuinely caring, supportive and willing to help.

“The children just love when volunteers come in. They bring in new experiences to the school.”

Katie Johnson works at Bronco Federal Credit Union as a mortgage loan originator. But during her lunch break, she and her grandmother go to SPM to be Book Mice. She does it because she is an FCPS alumna, and also because Joyce Carter was her favorite teacher. But Johnson continues because she can tell it makes a difference.

“I saw my book mouse last year make great improvements,” she said. “She started off very quiet and kind of uncomfortable. But she ended up blossoming out, and I saw her personality by the end of the year, and more often than not she was reading to me.

“Then when Joyce reads out the strikes that the kids made during the year at the end of the year brunch, it is just an incredible feeling.”

Then there are people like Bob Holt, who retired as a long-time human resources manager and college professor. He’s there to help guide students who may enter the work force directly after high school.

“I’ve seen that people can do what they really want to do,” Holt said. “So what I am going to try to do is help the students determine, first of all, what it is they really want to do. Secondly, if they are qualified to do it. And thirdly, get them qualified to do whatever they want to do.”

He’s working with freshmen and seniors.

“I’m just looking forward to watching the kids develop and become what they want to become,” he said. “That’s what teaching is all about — developing students and seeing positive outcomes.”

Getting involved

If you can’t make the Oct. 22 meeting, there’s still plenty of opportunities. First, by visiting the website and learning more about it. From there. Francis said, just go to a school. Or, you can call or email the school of your choice.

At her school, J.P. King, Francis said first she’d just give you a tour of the building and see the students in action. From there, she’d talk to them and help them figure out where there strengths would be. Be it in the classroom, or elsewhere, such as helping in the library.

And like Jones did when he started, once you pick where you’d like to help, first just sit back and observe the teacher in action.

From there, Francis said Jones went right into the classroom and it’s hard to tell the difference.

“He started with a sixth-grade bunch and ended with them,” she said. “And just to see the growth from the beginning to end. The class came in with pass rates in the 30s, and we ended up with a 67 percent pass rate to end the year. That’s huge.”

Superintendent Bell said the goal of VIPS is enabling citizens to assist the FCPS team in developing students.

“It is all about helping our students to be successful and everyone in our community has something to offer to assist us,” he said. “We are very appreciative of the enthusiasm and participation of our current volunteers and certainly invite others to become involved. Volunteering is a great opportunity to truly make a difference in our schools and our community.”