Bridging the gap between students of different races and economic classes has been a goal of many public school systems for several years. As educational funding remains tight in our region, schools must get creative and look for other resources to accomplish this goal and raise student performance.
One place to turn: the retired and working professionals in various fields in our communities who are willing to volunteer on a regular, long-term basis to help our next generation succeed. What we’re lacking is an organized system that school districts could use to recruit community volunteers and match them with receptive teachers.
In 2012, I decided to retire early and become involved in public education as an unpaid volunteer. With advanced degrees in mathematics and computer science, and experience both as a college math professor and an IT professional, I am well aware of the mathematical knowledge needed for a successful technical career.
I specifically wanted to work with teachers and students in an environment where resources were limited and needs were high. My search led me to Cleveland High School in Seattle, where the academic program was transformed several years ago to focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) for all students. At Cleveland, nearly every student takes a math class and a science class each year. For the past two years, I’ve spent most school days assisting math teachers and working with students on their math assignments both in class and during tutoring sessions.
I’ve made several observations during my time at Cleveland. The students are mostly present and attentive, but their foundational math skills are not strong. The teachers are hard-working but struggle to cover the required subject matter in depth because of large class sizes and the students’ weak basic math skills. In many cases, student study habits and academic focus are lacking. One factor here is that many students do not fully understand the opportunities enabled by education and are not motivated to exceed in the classroom.
Volunteers can help address these problems. I’ve been able to assist teachers in their overloaded classrooms, enriching subject material with personal expertise and helping students on their assigned work. Students whose parents did not go to college are now asking me about careers as a college professor, aerospace engineer or software professional.
Utilizing volunteers in schools is not a trivial undertaking. Volunteers must clearly understand that teachers own their classrooms and are responsible for the results. Teachers must determine how to incorporate volunteers’ knowledge and skills into their classrooms and lesson plans. For a large-scale volunteer program to succeed, schools or districts need to build volunteer recruiting and orientation programs and encourage or reward teachers who participate.
I have encountered obstacles and frustrations during my volunteering experience, but these pale in comparison to the rewards of seeing students get excited about learning. After writing and performing a rap on pre-calculus topics, one class even gave me a nickname: Dr. Cool Dude.
Education is critical to our future as a nation. If it takes a village for our students to succeed and excel, we need to engage the village’s resources. Certainly there are plenty of other cool dudes out there willing to help our next generation.
Jim Fernandez is a retired IT software professional and volunteer in Seattle Public Schools. He holds a Ph.D. in mathematics and a Master of Science degree in computer science.