MAKING schools work used to be a job left to teachers, students, and their parents. No more. US schools are becoming everybody's business. It's a healthy development. Congress's recent proclamation of Nov. 12 as the first ``Salute to School Volunteers Day'' serves as an important reminder that America is well stocked with students, employees, and older adults who are volunteering millions of hours a year to improve the public schools. They deserve our thanks.
The change has come through necessity. Only 27 percent of the US population has school-age children these days, and many mothers must now work for salaries. School systems are pressed by tighter budgets, a smaller available pool of increasingly busy teachers, and complaints from colleges and employers who want better-trained graduates.
Some 4.3 million Americans give at least three hours a week to the public schools in their communities. Some, like 81-year-old Lt. Col. Corinne Edwards, a woman of broad interests who checks out books and tracks down the overdue variety three days a week in the library of the Coconut Grove Elementary School in Miami, give far more. When we tried to give her a call, we were told: ``She's not here today; she's out snorkeling.''
Though their ranks are diminished, parents are still in the forefront of those volunteering. They account for almost 40 percent of the total. And those giving their time are not just cleaning blackboards and pushing papers. Many volunteers work directly with students, particularly as tutors in reading and math. A few even teach mini-courses.
Both the federal government and US business, stressing the practical benefits later on for those willing to master math and science basics now, are involved in a big way. The Amoco Research Center in Tulsa, Okla., for instance, offers a science enrichment course in one local high school and invites 60 of the city's brightest students to visit and learn from its research lab on Saturday mornings. And in Springfield, Mass., a stockbroker regularly takes six high school seniors into his office for a practical view of how the stock market works.
All told, the public schools get more than $900 million worth of such free help every year, according to the National School Volunteer Program.
Volunteers benefit, too. In addition to the satisfaction of meeting known needs, some volunteers, particularly younger ones, translate their experience directly into r'esum'e talk. Congress recently passed legislation sponsored by Sen. Dan Evans (R) of Washington calling for new studies on the role of incentives in building volunteerism. Volunteerism could become a way for students to make partial paybacks on student loans.
When cities and towns face key public school decisions -- whether on school bond issues or textbooks -- the community consensus that can grow from citizen involvement can only help. We applaud the wish to help and share that motivates it; our schools are the richer.