Lending a hand: Volunteers a bonus to local schools

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Sunday, January 1, 2012
— "Mr. Jon, can you help me?"

It's late morning in JoAnn Moore's kindergarten class at Jackson Elementary School. Children are working on learning games at "stations" around the room.

Moore and classroom aide Jon Flora flit from one student to the next. They can't keep up with the questions the children are asking, even in this small class of 14.

Moore said she waits until Flora is available before opening the learning stations to her students.

"They need a lot of support," Moore explained.

"It would be ideal if each classroom had a support person," Moore said later.

Volunteers do a variety of jobs in Janesville schools. Tasks can be as simple as helping with paperwork or listening to a student read.

Flora said volunteers' most valuable contributions might be providing students a friendly face and a willingness to listen.

Volunteers also can help the teacher focus on teaching.

"You do need some (other) adults in the class so the teacher is not disciplining the students all the time but is able to concentrate on the lesson for the day," Flora said.

"There's always a couple of students that are disruptive, and there are more of those today," Flora said.

Elsewhere at Jackson, Connie Campbell sits in the library with fifth-grader Yuliana Lopez, who is making up a test.

Yuliana said Campbell helps in her room of 30 students.

Without Campbell?

"Oh, my God, it's going to be harder because there's a lot of kids, and sometimes they don't cooperate," Yuliana said.

Campbell once was an aide at Jackson but retired after rheumatoid arthritis got the better of her. She still enjoys the work, especially if she can sit.

"I love the children, and I love to help," Campbell said. "It's so fun to see the spark in their eyes when they get what you're trying to help them with."

Flora, a former purchasing manager for a manufacturer, now is retired and has been volunteering for two years. He spends upwards of six hours a day at Jackson, and students and staff alike all know him. Last year, he was named the state PTA's volunteer of the year.

"He's here when you need him. He's great with the kids," aide Theresa Maginot said.

"He likes chill-axing and having fun with kids," said fourth-grader Ashley McDaniels.

Without volunteers such as Flora?

"It would go crazy because some kids are hyper, some kids aren't focused," Ashley said.

"Some kids have anger issues," added Ashley's classmate, Isabel Schmidt.

"If Mr. Flora doesn't see you pay attention, he'll come over and say, 'Look up!'" said fourth-grader Kamron Chesebro. "If you still don't pay attention, he'll sit by you and make sure you stay focused."

Flora introduced a visitor to another volunteer, Bill MacFarlane, known locally as the owner of a pheasant farm.

MacFarlane said the school is close to his work, so it's easy to drop in for an hour, and he gets something out if it: He returns to work with a positive perspective.

MacFarlane knows that local taxes to support schools is a contentious issue. One way to save costs, he suggests, is volunteers.

Karen Hirsch is another volunteer at Jackson. She works in the first-grade class where the teacher is Susan Hirsch, her sister-in-law. Six years after Susan recruited her, Karen still enjoys the work.

"Some of these kids need a little extra attention, someone to give them a pat on the back," Karen said, echoing what some other volunteers said.

With a variety of reading abilities in the same class, teacher Hirsch can work with one group while volunteer Hirsch sits with another.

A volunteer doesn't need to be a relative or acquaintance of the teacher, Susan said.

"Any adult—an extra pair of hands is always helpful," she said.

"We've got amazing volunteers. We're pretty fortunate," said Jackson Principal Kristen Moisson. "We could always use more. I think that's the same for all the schools."

Moisson doesn't see volunteers as absolutely necessary. Rather, they're like "the topping on the ice cream."

Could more be done with volunteers?

The Janesville School District has cut staff in recent years, but officials were cautious when asked whether volunteers could help fill the gaps.

"I would not rule out doing some kind of recruitment if I see an increased need," said Steve Sperry, director of administrative and human services.

Sperry did not immediately know of a big increase in needs, but he said he would ask the principals for their thoughts.

In a follow-up exchange of emails, Sperry did not convey much enthusiasm for more volunteers.

"Yes they have a need, and the need varies," Sperry wrote.

Classroom aide hours were reduced over the past year, largely because of a decline in enrollment, officials said. The greatest losses were 18.5 hours a day at the two high schools, combined, and 12.25 hours a day at the three middle schools combined.

The elementary schools lost 45 minutes per day of aide time, combined for all 12 schools. Individual schools might have more or fewer minutes of aide time, however, depending on varying needs.

The Janesville School District welcomes volunteers but has no formal recruitment or training program, officials said.

The district once ran something called the Community Involvement Program, which was described on the district's website as "a coordinated program which recruits, trains and schedules community members."

District spokesman Brett Berg said that program no longer exists.

Berg is in charge of volunteer-application forms. Volunteers' references are checked, and the forms are filed. Supervision and training of volunteers seems to be largely the task of teachers or other staff with whom the volunteers work.

Volunteer Jon Flora said he and the volunteers he sees "have pretty much been able to fit in with what is expected with the teachers."

Nevertheless, Flora sees a need for more organization. He has been gently urging Superintendent Karen Schulte to consider a more formal volunteer program.

"I do feel we need an orientation program or something structured so the volunteer knows what is involved or expected," Flora wrote in a recent email to Schulte.

Flora has been looking for a district that has a formal volunteer program and has not found one.

"School districts continue to rely on the PTA or perhaps a child's parent to help in the classroom, is what I am hearing," Flora wrote in an email. "A school principal may call some churches or organizations, is an answer I receive."

The district does not have a system to track numbers of volunteers or volunteer hours, Sperry said.

Volunteers' applications are on file at the schools where they work, Sperry said, but tracking their hours would be a difficult job, given that volunteers come and go, and some volunteer only for special projects. Others may volunteer for a time and then drop out.

To volunteer

Volunteer application forms are available at any Janesville School District building or at the Educational Services Center, 527 S. Franklin St.

Applications ask for two references. Only volunteers who help on overnight outings are fingerprinted because regular volunteers always are supervised by a staff member, said Brett Berg, district spokesman.

Volunteers with special interests or skills may note those on the application, and the schools will try to match those with the school's needs.

The average time to process an application is about two weeks, Berg said.

For questions, contact Berg at (608) 743-5137 or bberg@janesville.k12.wi.us.

Last updated: 7:37 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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