Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children
Photo: Alyssa Haywoode for Strategies for Children

Last week, more than 100 early educators, K-12 teachers and administrators, nonprofit community leaders, advocates and philanthropists gathered at the Boston Children’s Museum for Strategies for Children’s third Leading the Conversation event: a panel discussion titled “Designing and Implementing Effective Volunteer Efforts Focused on Literacy.”

Planned by Kelly Kulsrud, Strategies’ director of reading proficiency, the panel focused on shifting the paradigm and changing the conversation around creating high-quality volunteer programs that make a measurable difference for children’s literacy development.

Designing effective volunteer programs “is an issue that is gaining momentum here in Boston [and] across the states as well as nationally,” Carolyn Lyons, CEO and president of Strategies for Children (SFC), explained as she welcomed the event audience.

During her own welcoming remarks, Carole Charnow, CEO of the Boston Children’s Museum, said, “We know that it’s this high-quality bond between adults and children that really provides the best possible outcomes for kids.”

This event is part of SFC’s “Leading the Conversation” series, which delves into the recommendations made in “Turning the Page: Refocusing Massachusetts for Reading Success,” a 2010 report commissioned by SFC and written by Nonie Lesaux, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

The Panel

“We know that in the U.S. over 62 million people have volunteered. And about 7.9 billion hours have been devoted to community service in 2012, according to the national Corporation for National and Community Service,” Kulsrud explained in her introductory remarks. She framed the panel discussion by asking a key question: What should “we collectively keep in mind” to ensure that volunteers have a positive impact on children’s literacy?

Literacy Challenges: Patrick Corvington, Senior Fellow, the Campaign for Grade Level Reading

 Corvington started out by sharing troubling statistics on reading, including the finding that 90 percent of African-American boys from low-income families are not reading proficiently by the fourth grade. As the Campaign for Grade Level Reading explains on its website: “White male students are three times more likely to be reading proficiently in the fourth grade than their African-American peers and more than twice as likely as Hispanic boys, according to a data analysis by the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT Data Center.”

Without these reading skills, children fall further and further behind. “What’s tragic about this is that by the time a kid is 10 years old, you can almost map out his future,” Corvington said.

“But do we really need more volunteers? I don’t think we do,” Corvington explained, pointing out that the country’s 60 million-plus volunteers far exceed the number of children living in poverty, some 16 million according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

What organizations do need, Corvington said, are systems and structures to support and create high-quality volunteers who have been screened and trained, and who have the capacity to focus and meet the commitments that they make. And when they don’t meet these commitments, nonprofit managers have to have tough conversations about finding other ways for flagging volunteers to contribute.

“Volunteers are critical to this field,” Corvington said, but relying on them “only works if you get the right kind of volunteers, if you manage them properly, if you train them properly, and you deploy them in a way that makes sense.”

Designing an Effective Volunteer Program: Joan Kelley, Harvard Graduate School of Education Research Associate at the Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group

There are a lot of volunteers helping children with reading in school districts, Kelley explained. And volunteering provides beneficial ways for parents and community members to engage in children’s educations.

“But unfortunately we realized, as we looked at all of what’s currently happening in Massachusetts, that we have the volunteer dilemma,” Kelley said, outlining common pitfalls in volunteer programs, among them:

 • small pools of volunteers who rarely reflect the cultural and linguistic diversity of the children they work with

• disorganized volunteer activities that aren’t planned until the volunteer arrives, leaving teachers scrambling to figure out the volunteer’s role and task

• untrained volunteers working with children who need skilled professionals

• volunteers who “over-promise” their time and commitment

 To help address these problems, Kelley shared a few key points:

• recruit diverse volunteers

• generate a plan that outlines volunteers’ roles and responsibilities

• deploy volunteers in ways that free the time of experienced professionals

• explicitly link the volunteer’s activity to children’s literacy learning

• organize on-going support for volunteers

• monitor and evaluate volunteer programs to make sure that they benefit children

Volunteer programs should focus on impact, Kelley said, ensuring that volunteer efforts are worth everybody’s time.

More of Kelley’s points can be found in two memos produced by Harvard’s Language Diversity and Literacy Development Research Group. One covers the design of effective volunteer programs; the second looks at how to implement these programs. (Both are part of a series of “Lead for Literacy” memos.)

Implementing a Volunteer Program: Shannon Langone, Program Director of Springfield College AmeriCorps, Massachusetts Reading Corps

Langone explained that when she started working at Springfield College’s AmeriCorps program, it was a large program with 100 members, but she wasn’t sure about these volunteers’ impact.

As she thought about reorganizing the program, she asked, “What are the needs of the community? Because that’s the first thing you have to think about when you’re designing a program.”

Springfield had challenges: a 53 percent graduation rate, a 10 percent dropout rate; and only 40 percent of children reading proficiently by third grade.

Rather than experiment, Langone decided to look for successful existing models.

“So we decided to go to Minnesota in February – or was it December?” she said, laughing about the cold, and explaining that she went to visit the Minnesota Reading Corps program, which places more than 1,000 volunteers in the state’s public schools each year.

Langone highlighted two key characteristics of the program design. First, literacy experts designed Minnesota’s data-driven program. And second, the program has a strong structure of support. This includes a master coach, program staff, and internal coaches who work on-site in educational settings to ensure that volunteers are implementing the model with fidelity.

Langone has implemented Minnesota’s pre-k model in Springfield Public School classrooms, Head Start programs, and at Square One, a private preschool provider – starting with 12 tutors in six classrooms in the 2012-13 school year, and expanding to 20 tutors in 14 classrooms this year.

Because volunteers are well trained, they aren’t a burden for teachers, Langone said. And because the curriculum is supplemental, it enhances children’s experiences with developmentally appropriate activities. One example is using waiting times such as standing in the bathroom line to sing a rhyming song or play an alliteration game.

“We’re not just trying to assess 3-year-olds… We’re embedding it into the day in a socially and emotionally appropriate way.”

Volunteers in Action: Elizabeth Miller, Master Literacy Coach of Massachusetts Reading Corps

Miller talked about the power of volunteers who take “ownership” of their work with children. As a master coach for the Massachusetts Reading Corps, Miller observes volunteers in action. She recently saw a college student who was working with a young boy. The volunteer said: “‘I just can’t wait to see what happens in the spring,’” because she’s been tracking the boy’s progress and using teaching tools that would help him learn more vocabulary words.

This volunteer didn’t have a background in education, but the intentional and robust training enabled her to make informed, effective decisions that helped a child succeed in measurable ways, Miller said.

In addition to learning the supplemental curriculum and aligned tutoring strategies, volunteers are also trained to do social/emotional relationship building with the children they work with.

Relationship Building Explicitly Linked to Literacy: Mary Gunn, Executive Director of Generations Incorporated

 “We really decided as an organization that we wanted to have an impact on children’s literacy that we could measure,” Gunn said of Generations Incorporated. What that meant was an intentional focus on literacy training and on recruiting volunteers who could make and keep their commitments.

The program has 250 volunteers over the age of 50, although, Gunn says jokingly, “Some people lie about their age just to get into the program.” Half are AmeriCorps members, the other half are volunteers who do not receive stipends.

To become more effective, Generations looked at literacy research and developed relationships in the Boston and Revere public schools to ensure alignment. That meant working with school officials and understanding the specific goals of individual schools.

To keep things running smoothly, Generations has a management program that screens, trains, places, and most importantly, supports volunteers. “Training once in September isn’t enough,” Gunn said. Volunteers get ongoing support once they’re in schools. The program runs in nine Boston schools, three Revere schools, and four community-based after school programs. Each building has a team of 15 to 20 volunteers and a team leader who is also a volunteer.

“Our volunteers are our strongest anchors in the work that we do.”

Volunteer Commitment: Patricia Larts, Volunteer at Generations Incorporated

After working for two years as a classroom volunteer in Boston’s William Monroe Trotter Innovation School, Patricia Larts is currently a volunteer team leader managing 14 older volunteers, although, she adds, “Mary has said ‘older’, but I use ‘seasoned.’”

Volunteers are committed “because we are aware of the statistics that Patrick has talked about,” Larts said of Corvington’s presentation. The Trotter school’s volunteers come from the local community, and, “We have a couple of volunteers who have gone to the school that they volunteer in.”

“We do become part of that school.” In addition to their classroom work, some volunteers attend school events or go on field trips.

Larts works to build relationships with principals, teachers and volunteers “so that we can be one in the school.”

Sharing feedback from two volunteers ages 79 and 83, Larts said, “So I asked: Why are you here?” The answer: “I’m here for the children because I do want them to be successful. And the other part was: for me, so I can keep my mind and I can keep my body going.”

Asked about the issues she sees at her school, Larts said the challenges is “getting more volunteers to be in the classroom.”

Q & A: More Ideas for Implementation

During the question and answer session, panelists offered a range of advice for designing effective volunteer programs. One theme was finding creative and more intentional ways to engage parents, including outreach to parents at church and in healthcare centers. Another theme was ensuring that volunteer programs are placed in settings where educators genuinely want the help, and making sure that the classroom teacher knows the volunteer’s skills.

As the panel members explained, volunteer programs can be an extremely useful tool in supporting children’s literacy outcomes – but only if they are thoughtfully and intentionally run.

To find out more about this event, please contact Kelly Kulsrud at Photos of the event are available here.