What is the difference between a school that offers a basic educational program and one whose program is alive with opportunities? At Redwood Heights Elementary School in Oakland, Calif., the answer lies in its volunteer commitment to education. A corps of active community volunteers enable this multiracial city school to offer a varied and enriched curriculum across the grades.
More than 75 parents and friends from the community regularly volunteer their time and talents at Redwood Heights in kindergarten through grade six, with most opting for classroom work. Dozens more assist with office demands, write newsletters, and support fund-raisers, book fairs, luncheons, musical programs, and countless other PTA projects and events. Last year's volunteer group contributed over 2,500 hours to the school in various capacities. This effort so impressed state evaluation teams that Redwood Heights received highest marks for this facet of its program. Mrs. Margaret Hauben, principal, speaks with great pride of this support when she says, ''Our volunteers are just fantastic!''
School volunteers include parents and other relatives of the students, as well as neighbors who have no school-age children. Many are employed elsewhere on a part-time basis but nonetheless find time to offer their services. Though they save the school at least $10,000 per year, their real value is incalculable in money.
Volunteers work to improve children's skills in reading, math, and language arts as well as do one-to-one tutoring with limited-English speakers and the educationally handicapped. They are an integral part of the motor-skills program , a comprehensive step-by-step program that integrates physical and visual abilities, and they do such time-consuming tasks as putting up bulletin boards and grading papers for busy teachers. Parents from other cultures have introduced students to ethnic cooking; other parents have developed elaborate art projects. An entomologist-father brought California's Med fly crisis to the student level when he visited the school with the dreaded (albeit dead) culprit and explained the havoc caused by this insect.
Volunteer presence is especially felt at the kindergarten level where there is much moving about and many materials involved in day-to-day lessons. Since many activities are carried out in small groups of four or five, additional adult assistance is almost mandatory.
Of particular interest are the books ''written'' annually by kindergarten students. Each child has his own handmade book in which he dictates significant events of the school year. Illustrations are done by the child or provided by photos taken of class activities. After taking the dictation, volunteers type these stories on a large-type typewriter and paste them into the clothbound books.
Among the kindergarten volunteers is Mrs. Betty Bilskey, who has worked as many as five days a week. She became interested in kindergarten work shortly after her retirement while out on a morning walk. ''I saw the children going to school and decided to offer myself,'' she relates. She has found that the life of a kindergarten volunteer is never dull. ''I read to the children, I help with lessons, I type, I turn the jump rope, I wipe noses - whatever needs to be done.'' Mrs. Bilskey describes her experience as ''the greatest thing that ever happened to me.''
Two other volunteers joined the Redwood Heights volunteer force when their grandnephew entered kindergarten. Geraldine and Mary Gallagher found kindergarten work so rewarding that they continued to work at this level the following year. Last year they took a breather but have offered to return this fall when another grandnephew enters kindergarten. As Geraldine Gallagher puts it, ''There's a wonderful feeling of getting something from the children as you're working with them.''
At the other end of the spectrum is Mrs. Judi Bank, parent of twin boys and a veteran volunteer in nearly every phase of school activity. She began volunteering when the boys began kindergarten and followed the class through the sixth grade last June. ''I've worked with these kids for so long that I've really gotten to know them and I really like them,'' she says. ''Besides, this way I can keep in touch with my sons' teachers, too.''
Not all volunteers are women; some fathers give of their time as does at least one grandfather, Levasta Patton. Mr. Patton has performed such diverse duties as supervising noon activities, assisting in motor-skills lessons, and cutting countless construction-paper turkeys at Thanksgiving. When lack of funding prevented hiring crossing guards at a busy intersection near school, Mr. Patton posted himself there with a ''stop'' sign to assist young pedestrians en route to school.
Though the children benefit from the volunteer efforts, parents find a particular reward for their labors - the opportunity to see what the educational atmosphere is like for their children. It creates a better understanding of the school, one that is not often apparent by other means. ''It certainly makes one more appreciative of the work of the classroom teacher,'' commented a parent.
Do the volunteers make a difference? A resounding ''yes'' comes from the faculty. Second-grade teacher Claire Vallette Barney claims that ''without volunteers my program would be only the basics. Volunteers allow me to have an in-depth program, take more time with individuals and groups who need me, and offer the so-called extras that aren't really extra.''
Sixth-grade teacher Betty Canady finds that while ''volunteers do the kinds of things that may be mundane, they make it possible for teachers to give their creative juices to the classroom. They provide that extra boost.''
That extra boost is in evidence again as another school year swings into action. At Redwood Heights Elementary School volunteers begin another year of involvement, another year of sharing and caring, and 350 students reap the benefits.