Volunteers' role key to healthy public schools

by Hilary Thomson

Staff writer

School volunteers are often associated with non-essential activities such as bake sales, sports days and field trips.

In his recently published book, Schools with Heart, Prof. Dan Brown of the Dept. of Educational Studies suggests this view underestimates what volunteers really bring to public schools. He believes that the use of volunteers may be one of the key solutions to the problems facing public elementary schools today.

"The state can pay the bills but it can't love a school," says Brown. "Schools with heart are rich in community connections through the volunteers' donation of time and energy."

His team of graduate students in the Educational Administration and Leadership Program conducted 185 interviews with principals, teachers and volunteers in elementary schools in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver Island.

They found that voluntarism partially addresses problems of insufficient resources, excess of bureaucratic control and social dislocation of many pupils' lives.

"Schools will remain healthy because of volunteers, not in spite of them," says Brown.

His research showed volunteers helping with activities such as reading assistance, supervision, fundraising and administrative tasks.

In addition, volunteers provided specialized instruction according to their own personal skills and interests. One mother who worked as a police constable talked to kids about her job and a First Nations grandfather gave a carving demonstration.

"Volunteers are more than a pair of helping hands," says Brown. "They contribute to the social life of the school. They engage in the moral development of our children by teaching them that education is important and people are worth supporting with a donation of time."

The research found volunteers in schools in both wealthy and low-income neighbourhoods. They are usually Caucasian mothers who do not work full-time. Extended family members, college students and other community members also serve as volunteers.

Some get involved to take responsibility for their community into their own hands. Others want to improve their language or employment skills or just enjoy the company of children.

"I like to keep a pulse on what's going on in the school," says Anita Schmitt, who is the mother of a student and a volunteer at West Vancouver's West Bay Elementary School.

"Having the opportunity to improve the kids' environment, dealing with a variety of issues and people and being able to accomplish things keeps me motivated," says Schmitt, who has been involved in everything from barbecues to beautification projects in her five months as a volunteer.

For the most part, teachers and staff members welcomed volunteers and former lines of demarcation between parent territory and teacher territory were relaxed, Brown says. Some union members opposed the use of volunteers in principle because of the threat to jobs.

The presence of volunteers in a school represents a significant increase in workload for principals as individuals must be matched to tasks, run through criminal records checks and their performance monitored and recognized, Brown says.

Despite the additional work, most principals saw voluntarism as a way to help their school survive budget cuts and reduce dependency on government.

Brown hopes his findings will inform educators, school reformers and policy-makers. His book includes recommendations such as funding volunteer co-ordinators to attract additional resources to the school.