Willard Elementary School is one of Spokane’s poorer schools economically, but it’s rich in devoted volunteers.
That was made clear to a Washington education auditor who visited the school this week to document its progress in reading among special-education students.
“What I saw, frankly, was pretty amazing,” said Reginald Reid, program supervisor for the Title I Learning Assistance Program with the state superintendent’s office. “I was impressed with the amount of work that these ladies put in as volunteers, and they obviously go above and beyond.”
Willard, which has nearly 600 students, has one of the largest volunteer groups in the school district, with more than 300 active participants, school officials said.
“We feel fortunate to be here and help these kids,” said volunteer Jody Edwards, whose children attended the school. Now, her youngest child is in the eighth grade, but she likes being at the school too much to leave.
Reid was part of a six-person state team that visited Spokane Public Schools for two days to review programs including the Title 1 program. Title 1 schools have 40 percent or more students from low-income families, based on federal poverty levels.
Willard is one of 16 Title I schools in the Spokane district; 76 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.
Reid was prompted to visit the school because special-education students failed to make annual test-score improvements in reading. The federal government judges schools based on test scores of students in 37 categories, including special education.
In a report for the state superintendent’s office released Wednesday, Reid wrote: “High degree of loyalty by parents to school building (Willard Elementary School). The integrity of the building does not discern between volunteers and staff.”
Most of the volunteers have children who attend Willard or used to, but aunts, uncles and other relatives of students are also involved.
Volunteer Aggie Gutierrez, who’s known as Grandma around the school, has grandsons in first and third grades at the school. She puts in about 700 volunteer hours a year.
“I love it here,” Gutierrez said. “I love working with children. I love working with them in the classroom. But I especially like working with them on the playground where I can help them make the right (behavioral) choices.”
She also takes school projects home.
“I like to keep my hands busy,” she said. And “it’s either this or housecleaning,” she added.
Gutierrez also acts as a crossing guard and works in classrooms. Her Spanish has been helpful with some kindergartners this year, she said.
Kelley Arnold, the volunteer coordinator, said the group collectively puts in about 3,000 hours a year. She tries to match volunteers with their passions – math, reading, writing or special needs.
Sometimes the children need more than educational support. The school could be the only place where some get a hot meal or a hug.
“I love the kiddos who have to come up and get their little hug,” said Edwards, who does before- and after-school duty.
Willard Principal Steven Indjgerd considers himself lucky.
“We couldn’t do it without them,” he said. “It takes more than programs for kids to learn.”