THE BLOG

Are Volunteers Overwhelming Our Schools?

01/07/2011 03:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There is a call going out around the country for volunteers to help our public schools. During Education Week, President Obama called upon Americans to get involved in their local public schools. In New York City, Mayor Bloomberg recently launched Alumni for Public Schools to enable the city's graduates to give back to today's students. And on the heels of NBC's Education Nation this past fall, David Gregory called for more volunteers in public schools on Meet the Press, adding on Twitter that "education reform is the new patriotism."

It appears America is heeding the call -- in 2009, there were 1.6 million more volunteers than in 2008, and schools are increasingly the focus of that support.

This, of course, should send tongues (and Tweets) wagging for all of us who are involved in supporting public schools. Yet, we must be careful of what we wish for. We have an educational system that is, in every sense of the word, overwhelmed, and it is not clear if schools can handle an influx of volunteers.

Despite good intentions, volunteers can actually steer our schools off track.

At a recent gathering of New York City-based organizations committed to improving our public schools, we joined the call for more volunteers in our schools, but with one important caveat: we must do a better job of creating structures and systems for using volunteers effectively. That's how we stay on track.

Over the past 15 years, we at PENCIL have connected thousands of private sector volunteers with thousands of public schools. We have seen tremendous success stories where volunteers have literally helped transform a school from a case study of failure into a model of success. But, we have also seen volunteers -- despite the best of intentions -- throw their arms up in frustration and walk away from a school that, in their mind, "doesn't appreciate what I'm trying to do."

To ensure more turnaround stories and fewer stories of disappointment, we have developed a comprehensive structure to support our volunteers and the schools with which they work. We have built this structure around some basic, but often overlooked, principles that can help ensure an effective volunteer program that truly increases student achievement.

Aligning School Needs with Volunteer Skills

Too often, a volunteer has an idea of what they want to do -- but it's not necessarily in line with what a school needs. Principals bite their tongue, as they don't want to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth. But if the volunteer experience is truly about helping the school, then the process must begin with identifying what the school needs. Raising money for a new playground is great, but not if what the school really needs is a new science lab. Starting a drama club might be nice, but not if what the principal really wants is a reading club because the students are reading below grade level.

And schools must not be afraid to turn away volunteers who don't meet their needs while seeking out volunteers whose skills are in line with what they are trying to achieve. If a principal's number one priority is helping students improve their math skills, then that principal should look for volunteers who can help the students with math.

When volunteers' skills are in line with the school's core needs, it creates both a more productive relationship for the school and a more rewarding experience for the volunteers.

Setting Clear and Realistic Goals

It's ambitious to say "I want to help ensure that every single child in this school graduates." Well, if only 50 percent of the students are currently graduating, that's not realistic - and it sets the relationship up for failure. Set realistic goals, such as: "We are going to increase the number of students reading at grade level by 25 percent." Or, "We are going to double the number of parents attending parent-teacher conferences."

Similarly, principals shouldn't expect -- and volunteers shouldn't promise -- more than they can offer. Most volunteers haven't been in a school for a very long time and when they encounter the students for the first time, they want to promise the world. Then they go back to home or to the office and say, "What did I commit to? I can't do that." So don't promise to be at the school every day to mentor students, raise lots of money from your friends, and organize a school trip to the local museum. Commit to what you really can do -- not what you wish you could do.

Realistic goals make everyone feel successful, keep everyone engaged and motivated, and, over time, lead to those dramatic, inspiring results everyone is hoping for.

When setting goals, think about how you will know if you've been successful. Will we track attendance rates? Or staff turnover rates? Or how many parents come to back to school night? Which leads us to...

Measuring Impact

In our work life, we all evaluate our productivity. Are we selling as much as we'd like to? Are we providing the level of service our customers demand? And schools evaluate themselves as well -- are our students learning? Are they on track to graduate? Yet, for some reason when volunteers and schools come together, evaluation often goes out the window. This is an enormous mistake. What's the point of donating our time and expertise if it's not having an impact on the school? And why divert principals' and teachers' attentions to volunteer programs if they aren't having an impact?

Rigorous evaluation has another benefit -- we know that if we can show volunteers a tangible impact of their efforts, they are more likely to stay engaged and motivated. And if we're not having the desired impact, we can recalibrate our efforts. The best relationships adapt to changes and evolve over time.

Ongoing and Open Communication

When volunteers join a school community, it's the creation of a relationship. And just like any relationship, communication is a key to success. Both parties need to commit to maintaining regular and honest communication with each other, whether by email, phone, or in person. And communication isn't just talking, but listening and assessing, too. If a particular program isn't having impact, the school and volunteers must be open to hearing the truth and be open to figuring out what changes can be made to achieve the desired impact.

Developing a strategic volunteer program that is in line with the schools goals and objectives is not always easy. But time and again, we have found that it's well worth the effort. In fact, we have found that a structured, strategic, and streamlined approach ultimately reduces the burden on volunteers: A volunteer can have a dramatic impact on a school by donating the equivalent of only one work week of time across the entire school year. And we at PENCIL can proudly say that because we follow these basic guidelines, 95 percent of our volunteers are having a meaningful impact on the schools that they are supporting.