UF students sign up to volunteer in Alachua County schools

LIVIA LEDBETTER

For Regina Tamayo, helping elementary schoolers with reading is one step closer to her goal improving the language skills of kids throughout the world.

Tamayo, an 18-year-old nursing student, is signing up to work with international students in the fourth and fifth grades on their reading comprehension and language skills. Volunteer work is required for one of her classes, but she is excited to do it. She hopes to gain experience working with children now, so she can eventually work as a teacher outside of America.I sat down with her to discuss any obstacles and fears she may have.

Her answer? “No, not as of right now.” As this is her first time volunteering with children, she says she’s simply excited to start working with them.

The Alachua County Schools Volunteer Program has been around since the 1980s, according to Elizabeth Starke, the volunteer coordinator for Alachua County Public Schools. Starke is a calm, confident woman with a reassuring southern accent. She is at every signup event and leads the orientation sessions for student volunteers.

Representatives from the program come to the University of Florida for three days, and Santa Fe for one. Starke estimates that there “could potentially be 10,000 student volunteers at the schools at any one time.”

This year, about 800 students have signed up to volunteer, including Santa Fe students. The majority of the students volunteer to fulfill a volunteer requirement for a class, such as Intro to Education or Exceptional People in Society. Students in a variety of majors sign up to volunteer, with most needing between 10 to 40 hours per week. As I was getting ready to leave, I overheard one student say she needed 70 hours for class – thus, seven hours per week.

Students spend the majority of their time volunteering in the classroom, working directly with the students. However, there are specific rules volunteers must abide by: they cannot be alone with students, supervise a classroom, discipline students or (for older students) contact them on social media. These rules are typical for most public school volunteer programs.

“Teachers are so overwhelmed … [they] could have 18 kindergartners in a classroom, and one has to use the bathroom, some are fighting — Teachers don’t have eyes in the back of their head!” Starke laughs.

The last day for sign-ups at UF was Tuesday, September 6. The Norman Terrace Room held rows of desks with packets carefully placed throughout the rows. There were packets representing each school, and each packet had one page per teacher. The requests ranged from all grade levels, from help with group activities to help one-on-one, from math to language arts.

“We ask the teachers what they want, and students self-select at their convenience,” says Starke. “It is easier to manage this way instead of having 400+ students coming into our office portable.”

However, although signups located on the UF campus are over, students are still welcome to come into the Alachua County Public Schools Volunteer Program office to sign up.

“We never get all of our placements filled.”

Shafantae Desinord likes that the program comes into UF and lets students choose.

“They have all of these options – people can’t say they don’t know where to volunteer. There are lots of resources here.”

Desinord is a 21-year-old African-American studies major, signing up to volunteer as required by her Family, Youth and Community Sciences course. For two hours a week, she will be working with middle school students to improve their reading. She hopes to gain insight on working with kids.

“I plan on signing up for City Year, a nonprofit organization, and I feel like this will be good experience for my future classroom.” City Year is an AmeriCorps program that brings volunteers into rural areas to work with public school students. Desinord would like to work with City Year in Washington.

Despite all of the goodwill, volunteering doesn’t come without its share of anxieties.

“I fear not being able to answer a student’s question,” Desinord says, and is also worried about balancing this volunteering opportunity with working.

Starke says she has seen a decrease in the amount of people signing up to volunteer. It could be because less education courses are offered, or because of the  15 charter schools in Alachua County (charter schools have their own system set up for volunteers), but mostly, Starke thinks, it is because less students are signing up for education-specific classes.

Volunteers are an integral part of Alachua County Public Schools. It is clear that volunteering is a mutually beneficial relationship: students and teachers get extra help, while volunteers get hands-on experience in the classroom. With a recent decrease in volunteers, the 38 public schools throughout the county may feel the loss. With a new school year unfolding, UF students should consider the impact they can make in others’ lives through volunteering and find a reason to give.

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