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How volunteers and computers and students merge

When school administrators look for resources to develop computer programs, they usually scour their budgets for dollars and scan their staffs for someone who can squeeze in one more duty. Too often they forget a valuable resource: volunteers.

Here in Lexington, volunteers have proved their worth when it comes to getting children and computers together.They have done everything from drumming hardware out of local companies to instructing children and maintaining the machines.

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''They have just come out of the woodwork to do the work,'' said Frank DiGiammarino, director of planning and research for the suburban system of 6,000 students.

While some of the volunteers are the same people who bake cookies for every bake sale, many are people who might not otherwise be involved in the schools, according to Lewis Clapp, an early and influential volunteer who added that he probably wouldn't have done as much in another area of volunteer work.

''It is where I think I can make an impact,'' he explained.

Some of the volunteers who began when their children were in school have stayed when their children moved on, he said. And others who never had children in the schools have given their time because they are enthusiastic about computers and believe children should learn to use them early on.

Volunteers in the computer field have been contributing in Lexington since the 1960s, according to Mr. DiGiammarino. They have obtained equipment, worked with students, and worked behind the scenes for teachers.

In 1975, for example, Lexington got a federal grant to buy a computer with the capacity to handle 32 terminals. With the funds came a mandate to develop a managerial system.

Although administrators and teachers saw the opportunity to hitch the computer to terminals in the elementary schools, there were no terminals for the hitching and no money to buy them.

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''We said to the parents: find them,'' Mr. DiGiammarino said. ''They actually put an ad in the newspaper. A lot of parents work in high tech. They went into the closets.''

The result was terminals for every school. The terminals were primitive, but they worked and they were the start of an informal program of drill and practice and game playing run by volunteers.

Four years later volunteers raised funds to make sure the schools could take full advantage of a ''bargain'' offered by a microcomputer company.

The efforts of volunteers have not stopped with getting hardware into the schools. They have written programs and helped teachers modify other programs. And they have done much of the more tedious work of duplicating systems and data entry.

It was volunteers who performed the task of putting together a ''run book'' of all the programs available in the system by grade and math level. And they have worked with teachers to compile a source book for teachers to use in planning curriculum, a project that probably just wouldn't have been done without them, said Beth Lowd, who coordinates the use of computers in the town's 11 schools.

The instructional programs depend on volunteers to take children one and two at a time to use the terminals.

Lexington's parents and their neighbors have made their contribution without a lot of money or staff time. There is no separate budget and there is no systemwide coordinator who can tell you exactly how many people are putting in exactly how many hours.

Programs in schools were often begun by a small group of volunteers, teachers , and administrators, and each school evolved its own system as more volunteers joined. There tend to be eight to 10 volunteers in each school with a coordinator who may be a volunteer, the math specialist, or the librarian.

''Lexington has many schools that are scattered around town,'' Mr. Clapp said. ''The programs grew up and no one saw it happen, no one administrator channeled it. When they woke up and saw that they had a volunteer organization, they realized they needed it.''

His involvement is typical of how volunteers have contributed to the town's computer programs, especially in the elementary schools. He donated a teletype terminal for linking to the computer at the high school to his daughter's elementary school and then, with the support of the principal and the math specialist, did some teaching himself and helped organize a corps of volunteers to work with students.

Lexington has the advantage of its location: right in the middle of Boston's high-technology industry. Parents, like Mr. Clapp, who work in that industry and at nearby universities have the technical skills and the contacts for locating computer equipment ripe for the donating.

In addition, these are parents who don't need to be sold on the importance of computer education. They are its strongest advocates.

''Parents are understandably aware of and concerned about the importance of the kids' learning about computers,'' Ms. Lowd said.

But a location like Lexington's is not essential to using volunteers in a computer program, those taking part said.

Here is what they have learned:

* Someone has to be in charge. If the school staff doesn't have time, the first volunteer to recruit is the one who will supervise the others.

* Let volunteers know what the program's objectives are and exactly what is expected of them.

* Set up a system of communication between teachers and volunteers. Volunteers, for example, need to know which programs a student should be working on, and teachers will want to know how a student did.

* Provide training and time for volunteers to get used to computers.

* No matter how good the training, you should provide good written instructions. Volunteers often come only once a week and anyone can forget one step in that time.

* Have someone on hand to help when new volunteers first work with computers.

* Hold general meetings so volunteers get a sense of working on a team and a chance to share ideas.

* Take full advantage of volunteers by setting up an advisory committee.

* Be sure to say thank you.

And, finally, this piece of advice from a volunteer who asked not to be named: ''They let us do it. That is why it worked. The teachers and the principal didn't get threatened. They welcomed us. So the kids got something out of it and we did too.''

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