When the Lake Pend Oreille School District was forced to cut $2.5 million from its budget due to state reductions, officials knew something had to be done to help offset the loss.
“That’s about 14 percent of our budget,” said Superintendent Dick Cvitanich.
That’s when Cvitanich and members of Panhandle Alliance for Education, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to support students, teachers, staff and parents of the Lake Pend Oreille School District, came up with the idea of applying for a grant to fund a part-time volunteer coordinator.
“Dick Cvitanich had heard about similar positions in other districts that have proven to be very valuable,” said Marcia Wilson, the executive director for Panhandle Alliance.
The Sandpoint-based Equinox Foundation, which partners with the Inland Northwest Community Foundation to provide a grant program for the benefit of Bonner and Boundary counties, awarded the district $24,800 to fund the position as well as purchase a computer and other materials.
In mid-October Brenda Woodward started in her role as coordinator for the Volunteers and Invested Parents (VIP) program.
Woodward’s first task was to draft a standard application for potential volunteers.
“One of the biggest concerns is safety for our kids,” said Woodward, adding that volunteers are thoroughly screened and in some cases fingerprinted.
Next, Woodward surveyed the schools to determine where the needs for volunteers were.
“I have some really great teachers who have embraced this enthusiastically,” said Woodward.
The surveys revealed that the biggest need at elementary schools was for volunteers to work with individuals and small groups to help them with reading skills.
The need at the high school level was different.
“In the high schools, counselors are looking for help organizing scholarship and college materials,” said Woodward.
Her most unique request so far? Clark Fork High School is looking for a volunteer yoga instructor.
According to Wilson, the goal of the VIP program is to support, sustain and expand the community’s involvement in public education. In order to achieve that, it is necessary to reach beyond the group of parents who typically volunteer.
And that became Woodward’s next step – recruitment.
“I have spoken to several groups, including Ponderay Rotary, Friends of the Library, the National Honor Society at Sandpoint High School, and to several senior centers,” said Woodward, who also sent letters of recruitment to parents.
“Parents being involved in a child’s education is critical,” she said.
Woodward also deemed it essential to connect with those other valuable members of the community – the elderly.
She met with some of the area’s assisted living centers and had a particularly enthusiastic response from Hearthstone Village in Kootenai.
“We have a 98-year-old woman who goes to Kootenai Elementary School once a week to listen to the children in the fourth grade practice their reading,” said Woodward. “The teachers and the kids love her.”
Woodward also wanted to draw on the expertise of retirees or other professionals in the community. One of those stepping forward is a retired electrical engineer who will assist in the applied science class at Sandpoint High School.
Woodward said in addition to budget cuts, the need for more volunteers is a result of an increase in testing that is taking place.
“There is a lot more testing because of Response to Intervention,” an academic intervention program that provides early assistance to children with learning difficulties, said Woodward. “We need to monitor kids to make sure they are progressing academically.”
Woodward, 40, holds a master’s degree in chemistry and has taught at the University of Washington as well as other community colleges in Seattle and New York. She taught for four years at Coeur d’Alene High School, until five years ago she limited her time to volunteering so she could spend more time with her now 11- and 5-year-old children.
While still unsure of the future, Wilson said she hopes the position will continue beyond this academic year.
“Our hope is to continue the program, and we will do what we can to find the funding to achieve that,” she said. “Previously there was no one coordinating so we were losing out on a lot of valuable people having an opportunity to volunteer in our schools.”
Woodward checks in with both the volunteers and the teachers to ensure that it is a good match for everyone. She said in the short time she has been in her position, the results have been exciting to witness.
“Yes, the schools need help, but the people who are volunteering receive just as much benefit,” she said. “It’s a win-win situation.”