Volunteering gives a critical boost to community-school relations, according to a study of elementary school volunteers recently done for the National Center for Education Statistics.
Brian Brent, a professor at the University of Rochester's Warner Graduate School of Education surveyed 57 schools across New York State, asking principals and volunteers about the effectiveness of their volunteer programs, what they accomplish, and who volunteers.
Volunteering is a well-used but little-discussed resource, Mr. Brent found. Many principals had little knowledge about the corps of unpaid adults who walk their halls each day. In the schools Brent surveyed, volunteers were mostly women (88 percent) and between the ages of 36 and 55 (62 percent). Just over half had earned at least a bachelor's degree. Primarily, schools enlisted them to help with classroom activities and tutoring.
But even more than increasing students' achievement levels, volunteers help improve the climate in the school and the community. "I expected there to be a positive response, but not so overwhelming," says Brent. Ninety-eight percent of the principals he interviewed said volunteers had improved community relations, which is important for schools because they depend on voters to pass referendums and budgets.
While volunteers are not a free resource - costs include training, recruitment, and administration - every principal said the benefits far outweighed the costs. Most said volunteers could improve the quality of classroom instruction and increase individual student achievement, though it is unlikely that they will have a significant effect on school test-score averages.
Principals weren't the only ones who saw benefits. About 90 percent of volunteers said they had greater respect for teachers and had learned more about how schools operate.
Brent was disappointed, but not surprised, to find that the more disadvantaged the school, the less likely it was to recruit volunteers. The few principals in poorer neighborhoods who successfully attracted volunteers had actively solicited help themselves.
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