SALEM — During her inauguration this month at Collins Middle School, Mayor Kim Driscoll made an appeal on behalf of the public schools, which are working hard to remove the stigma of a Level 4 designation given to Salem in 2011 as one of the state’s under-performing districts.
“We are gathered here in this place for a reason,” Driscoll said. “To signify to all, with unmistakable clarity, that our primary focus in the years to come will be ... Salem’s public schools.
“And this charge is not simply for our School Committee and school leaders. We must all together devote ourselves to this end. This is a community mission.”
Although there has been community involvement since the public schools got the Level 4 designation two years ago, the focus sharpened last fall when the School Department hired its first community volunteer coordinator.
From a small office in Collins Middle School, Yvonne van Bodengraven has been recruiting volunteers to help in a school system with many children from low-income families and homes where English is not the first language.
A key focus of the turnaround plan is raising MCAS scores, but van Bodengraven’s mission is broader — which is why her door is open wide.
“I’m looking for anyone who wants to give a hand,” she said. “Any amount of time, any skills ... anything someone has to offer.”
If someone contacts her, van Bodengraven said she will match the person with a volunteer role.
Van Bodengraven has been to PTO meetings, ice cream socials, a Salem Partnership meeting, a citizenship ceremony at the Bentley School, a senior center luncheon and other events to spread the work about the need for school volunteers.
In a few months, she has signed up 20 volunteers who have pledged to give a few hours each week. They range in age from 22 to 90 and are doing tasks as varied as working one-on-one with children in classrooms to making math playing cards for a class. One home-bound volunteer assembled a scrapbook of school photos. A retired teacher is mentoring a new teacher.
Susan Abelson, a Salem resident and retired school adjustment counselor, saw a notice about volunteers on the Salem Schools District website. Even though she spent her entire career in the schools, Abelson was back this week, listening as children read to her in a grade 1-2 classroom at Saltonstall School.
“I wanted to do something meaningful,” she said during a break. “It really is meaningful, whether you’re an educator or not, to see a child grow in their skills and to support a teacher.”
For Superintendent Stephen Russell, this is one more tool, one more way to impact children and, along the way, academic achievement.
“We want to raise the level of children’s experience in our schools, and bringing in more adults has to help,” he said. “It’s not only the academic achievement piece. In some cases, it’s a listening ear or somebody to attend a kid’s basketball game or spelling bee.
“There are many ways to help, and we encourage folks to give us a call or reach out with an email, and we’ll put them to work.”
As volunteers will discover, this is a program that gives back, the superintendent said.
“Not only does it make a difference to the kids, I believe it also makes a difference in the volunteer’s life when they are able to contribute in a productive way to a child’s success,” he said.
As a sign of the program’s importance, a volunteer coordinator has been named at each school to help match volunteers with a teacher or staff member.
Van Bodengraven stressed that she does not want to change or hurt any of the volunteer programs underway. She is here to find roles for new volunteers, she said.
Although in its infancy and, at the moment, focused on elementary schools, the goal of this new initiative is to recruit a corps of volunteers who can help teachers and staff in a variety of ways. School officials are convinced there are a lot of adults in Salem, and beyond, who can make a difference.
“We’re not waiting for folks to come to us,” Russell said. “We’re going out and finding them.”
Tom Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Want to help? To find out more about volunteering in the Salem Public Schools, call Yvonne van Bodengraven at 781-584-2146 or email email@example.com.