School helpers

Editorial Notebook

May 31, 2008|By Diane Camper

Natrese Pindell is a lot taller than the middle-schoolers in the hallway at Baltimore's Beechfield Elementary/Middle School.

"Do you have a pass?" the 20-year-old volunteer asks the sixth- and seventh-grade boys as they try to enter a bathroom while classes are in session. The boys either show her a pass or slink back to the classroom. Ms. Pindell, a freshman at Baltimore City Community College who plans to major in education, is one of four college-age volunteers who have helped enforce discipline in the hallways and in the cafeteria at Beechfield in the last two months.

The college students, who also serve as mentors and role models, arrived at Beechfield before city schools CEO Andres Alonso put out an S.O.S. in April for 500 volunteers to work in schools after an art teacher at a high school was assaulted by a student. Since then, 700 people have come forward, and about 100 so far have cleared the screening process and are working in the schools.

Good volunteers are an important addition to any school, but they need to be reliable and to show up consistently, because administrators and students start to count on them. And Mr. Alonso is right to use volunteering as a way to promote more community involvement in schools.

With 70 staff members and nearly 800 students, Beechfield, in West Baltimore, welcomes volunteers. More than 80 percent of the students receive free or reduced lunches. Declining test scores led to restructuring, and a new principal, Barbara Johnson, took over last August.

She sees parents and staff (who put in a lot of unpaid time) as the school's first volunteers, but extra helpers can bring added value, from setting up phone trees to track absent students to offering additional care and support. The Rev. Ronald C. Williams of nearby Pleasant Grove Baptist Church spends about two hours there on Mondays, in part to satisfy his desire to reconnect church, school and community, and in part to look out for the children of some of his congregants. He sits in on classes and talks to teachers; students now look forward to his visits. "I help tighten the net of support that a child has," he notes. "I'm another pair of eyes."

Ms. Johnson hopes to have more volunteers involved in the school's essential business next year. Those who want to work with younger children will get a brief refresher on how to read to them and perhaps tutor them individually. Samuel Burris, a 21-year-old junior at Coppin State University, has ambitious plans for peer mediation, safety and mentoring programs for middle graders. "I wasn't the best middle school student," he admits. Now, he wants to help other struggling young people realize their potential.

That's the same reason why Chantel Clea, a 25-year-old junior at Morgan State University, lunches regularly with a seventh-grade girl who is considered a high dropout risk. Ms. Clea, who was once expelled from Northwestern High School, wants to help put the girl on the right path earlier than she was helped: "I let her know I'm in her corner."

The kind of help that Ms. Clea and the other Beechfield volunteers offer involves commitment. And, as Ms. Johnson notes, their collective efforts "help us provide a better environment for our children."

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