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New education push: 1 million volunteers to help struggling students

Efforts to recruit 1 million new volunteers, announced Thursday by United Way Worldwide, hope to scale up successful programs to transform the lives of American students.

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From right: Sheri Wilson, Princess Santiago and Francisca Figueroa rally in support of Americorps in this 2003 file photo from Boston. Many Americans 'say that they want to get involved [but] just don't know how to act on it,' says United Way Worldwide President and CEO Brian Gallagher.

Melanie Stetson Freeman / The Christian Science Monitor / File

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Community organizers want you. Whether it’s helping out in a classroom, tutoring after school, or mentoring a teenage church group, they’re hoping to galvanize more on-the-ground service to bring up early reading skills and graduation rates.

United Way Worldwide (UWW) announced Thursday an effort to recruit 1 million volunteers over the next three years to improve education.

People believe communities can’t be strong without strong schools – and vice versa – according to a new UWW report based on dozens of community conversations, focus groups, and polling data in urban and rural settings.

“An overwhelming majority ... say that they want to get involved in trying to help young people succeed. They just feel disconnected – they don’t know how to act on it,” says Brian Gallagher, president and CEO of United Way Worldwide, a nonprofit group with more than 1,200 chapters across the United States.

Next step: scale up from partnerships around the country already proven to make a difference.

In Grand Rapids, Mich., for example, the local United Way chapter is coordinating an effort to help 900 of the most disadvantaged first- through third-graders master reading. More than 60 companies are giving employees paid time off to mentor. About 1,200 community volunteers are working one-on-one with kids in school for 30 minutes a week. And churches are hosting after-school literacy programs. In just 9 months, students in some of these programs have gained 18 months worth of academic growth.

Talk about the need for volunteers is nothing new, but this moment could be different, says Patrick Corvington, CEO of the Corporation for National and Community Service, a federal agency overseeing service initiatives.

Many community and corporate groups are partnering with UWW to mobilize volunteers for education, and both President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan regularly use the bully pulpit to do the same. “What we have now is an alignment across some fairly powerful players in the field that are motivated to push education reform over the finish line,” Mr. Corvington says. “Everyone agrees that national service and volunteerism fuel education reform.”

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At a Town Hall meeting in Washington that United Way Worldwide convened and webcast Thursday morning, Secretary Duncan said the goal of 1 million more volunteers can be transformative: “If we can systematically step up to the plate ... our young people from the toughest of backgrounds can do extraordinarily well,” he said.

But there are barriers to overcome, including some mistrust between parents and school staff, according to the UWW report. Particularly in low-income and minority communities, some feel that the education system is stacked against them.

“Schools want a good relationship with parents, but especially of late, in the political climate around education, they’re feeling under siege,” says Steven Sheldon, a research scientist at the Center on School, Family, & Community Partnerships at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. “The accountability pressures on them are around finding immediate achievement test results, and things like a welcoming climate [and] parent trust ... are not on the accountability radar,” though ultimately they are essential for a successful school, he says.

When volunteer organizations coordinate effectively with schools, however, they have enormous potential, Mr. Sheldon says.

One effort his center is evaluating is a mentoring program for 6- to 18-year-olds being piloted by the Boys and Girls Club of America.

The “Be Great: Graduate” program coordinates with schools so that mentors can keep an eye on warning signs for dropping out, such as attendance or behavior issues. It requires a long-term commitment from volunteers, because the longer the relationship builds, the more young people develop trust.

“When they connect with caring, concerned adults, it’s just like a light goes on,” and the mentors become the ones kids bring their report card to, says Jan Still-Lindeman, spokeswoman of the Atlanta-based organization.

Indeed, paying attention to the whole child emerged as a theme in the United Way’s listening tour and poll. Community members raised concerns about bullying in schools and safety in neighborhoods. They rated “declining moral values” and lack of respect for teachers as a key challenge in education.

In the UWW's January poll of communities with low graduation rates, 29 percent of respondents said they worried about their child dropping out of school, and 91 percent agreed that “we as a community have to take greater responsibility for what’s happening with our schools.”

More than half the thousand people polled said they had volunteered in the past 12 months. The top activities they’re willing to do: Work with a church to provide youth activities (25 percent), neighborhood watch (22 percent), mentor children after school (21 percent) and help with homework or tutoring (15 percent).

The United Way has set up a website to help match up people find local opportunities to become a volunteer reader, tutor, or mentor: liveunited.org/volunteer.

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