Thursday, September 8, 2011

Volunteer Opportunity: Inspiring Minds' early elementary literacy initiative

In the September 2011 issue of East Side Monthly, I wrote about the powerful work that Inspiring Minds (formerly Volunteers in Providence Schools) is doing to improve early elementary students' literacy skills in a very big way across Providence. The link to the article online is here, and a version of it is below. Read one, read both - and then appreciate the teachers and adults in your life who made it possible to do so and consider seriously whether you can contribute an hour a week to make a real difference in a young person's life and learning.


Hey, you. Yes, you, reading this column right now. I’m about to ask you to channel your general good will toward children and your belief that education has the power to transform us individually and collectively into action. Misanthropes should flip the page. There’s nothing here for you.   

Have the cynics moved on? Excellent. For the rest of you, I have a specific proposal: go back to school. The best thing you can do to support meaningful teaching and learning is to spend time inside a school on a regular basis. It’s the only real way to comprehend the opportunities and challenges that confront schools and the people who work and learn in them. A perennially red-hot topic of public discourse, education actually quite difficult to talk about because so many of us already feel saturated with information about schools. We constantly see portrayals of schools in our media. Most of us have put in plenty of time as students. Many of us are currently or have recently been parents of schoolchildren. A healthy number of us have worked in or with schools at some point in our careers. 

The evidence that a thoughtful person can glean from these exposures is meaningful, but it’s not enough to understand the specific challenges of teaching and learning in today’s schools. Schools of all sorts have changed enormously since many of us spent time in them as students. Most parents have some sort of contact with their kids’ schools that generally happens during the trailing edges of the day or one-off events designed specifically to welcome visitors. The only real way to understand the opportunities and challenges that today’s students and educators face is to be with them as often as you reasonably can. 

By dint of reading this column, you have definitively established your bona fides as a non-cynical person who cares about young people, but you may nonetheless be thinking that I am asking quite a lot of you. Just to be clear, I am not suggesting that you drop everything and start hanging out at your neighborhood school. Please, don’t do that. I am suggesting that you consider volunteering with Inspiring Minds (formerly and sometimes still known as Volunteers in Providence Schools, or VIPS) for an hour or two a week helping Providence’s early elementary schoolchildren to become proficient readers by third grade. Without any prior training or skills--with simply the desire to show up on a consistent basis--you can help ensure that children that you work with have the skills they need to become lifelong learners.   

I talked with Executive Director of Inspiring Minds Terri Adelman about “The Time is Now: Proficiency in Reading and Math by Third Grade,” Inspiring Minds’ flagship program that is committed to focusing the powerful resource of adults who are willing to spend time with kids in kindergarten through third grade working on literacy and math skills. Describing the purpose of the program, Adelman said, “Study after study shows that for lifelong academic success, it really matters that kids know how to read by third grade. Until then, their work is to learn, but after third grade, that kids need to use their literacy skills to gain critical knowledge and information. So learning to read by third grade is essential so that our kids are able to do well in school and graduate as well-educated citizens.”   

Driven by the conviction that the best use of its resources--primarily the human resources of volunteers--is to ensure that all early learners are getting the help and support that they need, Inspiring Minds focuses on younger elementary school children Inspiring Minds aims to accelerate the learning of those young students who need extra support. Working in collaboration with the Providence Public Schools in ten elementary schools, the program pairs volunteers with students who have been identified as likely to benefit from added support. During this school year, Inspiring Minds aims to match 800 students with volunteers, who receive training and ongoing support. In future years, Adelman hopes to expand the “The Time Is Now” program to reach students in every elementary school citywide. 

Inspiring Minds volunteers work with students two to three times a week, though individual volunteers can be one member of a team and therefore spend time with the child with whom they are matched once a week. More hours are great, but not necessary. The impact of volunteers’ work is powerful: data collected during prior implementations of the program demonstrate that children who participate in “The Time is Now” program learn 30 percent faster than their peers who don’t get extra help.

An hour a week. Maybe two. I know how hard it is to find that kind of time, I really do, and I acknowledge that not all of us have it. But just consider the clear impact that an hour or two per week working on reading and math with eager young learners can have not only on them but also on you. If the commitment really is too much, and I can understand why for some it may well be, I still urge you to contact Inspiring Minds to offer your help. There are ways that you can participate in the life of a school less intensively, and the organization itself needs support so it can continue to thrive. 

For many of us, the good karma alone is likely enough. In case you need more, you’ll have the opportunity to spend time in a school gaining insight into the lives of teachers and students today that you can get in no other way. We need more citizens with that insight.

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