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New education push: 1 million volunteers to help struggling students

Efforts to recruit 1 million new volunteers, announced Thursday by United Way Worldwide, hope to scale up successful programs to transform the lives of American students.

By Staff writer / March 31, 2011

From right: Sheri Wilson, Princess Santiago and Francisca Figueroa rally in support of Americorps in this 2003 file photo from Boston. Many Americans 'say that they want to get involved [but] just don't know how to act on it,' says United Way Worldwide President and CEO Brian Gallagher.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor / File

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Community organizers want you. Whether it’s helping out in a classroom, tutoring after school, or mentoring a teenage church group, they’re hoping to galvanize more on-the-ground service to bring up early reading skills and graduation rates.

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United Way Worldwide (UWW) announced Thursday an effort to recruit 1 million volunteers over the next three years to improve education.

People believe communities can’t be strong without strong schools – and vice versa – according to a new UWW report based on dozens of community conversations, focus groups, and polling data in urban and rural settings.

“An overwhelming majority ... say that they want to get involved in trying to help young people succeed. They just feel disconnected – they don’t know how to act on it,” says Brian Gallagher, president and CEO of United Way Worldwide, a nonprofit group with more than 1,200 chapters across the United States.

Next step: scale up from partnerships around the country already proven to make a difference.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., for example, the local United Way chapter is coordinating an effort to help 900 of the most disadvantaged first- through third-graders master reading. More than 60 companies are giving employees paid time off to mentor. About 1,200 community volunteers are working one-on-one with kids in school for 30 minutes a week. And churches are hosting after-school literacy programs. In just 9 months, students in some of these programs have gained 18 months worth of academic growth.

Talk about the need for volunteers is nothing new, but this moment could be different, says Patrick Corvington, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency overseeing service initiatives.

Many community and corporate groups are partnering with UWW to mobilize volunteers for education, and both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan regularly use the bully pulpit to do the same. “What we have now is an alignment across some fairly powerful players in the field that are motivated to push education reform over the finish line,” Mr. Corvington says. “Everyone agrees that national service and volunteerism fuel education reform.”

At a Town Hall meeting in Washington that United Way Worldwide convened and webcast Thursday morning, Secretary Duncan said the goal of 1 million more volunteers can be transformative: “If we can systematically step up to the plate ... our young people from the toughest of backgrounds can do extraordinarily well,” he said.

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