How you can get students excited about school

How many of you have volunteered at some point in your lives? Were you glad you did it?

Right now schools across Maine are looking for 200 volunteers to tutor, mentor, run before- or after-school activities, and help increase parental and community involvement. The volunteers may also create projects, such as summer enrichment or volunteer reading programs.

As part of a $2.2 million AmeriCorps grant, the Portland-based nonprofit LearningWorks is looking for volunteers for six specific schools that are undergoing a concerted effort to improve: Ellsworth High School, Sumner Memorial High School in Sullivan, Spruce Mountain High School in Jay, Carrabec High School in North Anson, and Portland’s Riverton and East End elementary schools.

The volunteers must commit to 300 hours over the next year, and in return they will each receive $1,000 toward college. The volunteers may be any age over 17; older adults can pass the education award on to a relative.

AmeriCorps already has volunteers working in Maine schools, and I talked to two of them recently. Under a separate grant, Alex Bertoni and Kristin Rogers, both 23, are volunteering full-time to turn the REAL School on Mackworth Island in Falmouth into a mecca for service learning.

They are two of 13 AmeriCorps members currently volunteering at the alternative and special education-based school, which serves 60 students in seventh through 12th grade, to push service learning to the center of the curriculum. They make school fun by applying math, history and reading skills to hands-on projects that have meaning to communities.

Though the school for kids with extreme social, emotional, behavioral, and academic needs is just starting year two of the three-year grant, it’s already seeing changes.

It’s a good example of what can be done with an army of well-placed volunteers. All measures of engagement at the school have increased, including attendance and time on task. Students also report they’re enjoying school more, said Craig Haims, who coordinates the AmeriCorps members at the REAL School.

“Our kids who come here are gravely at risk of dropping out of school. One hundred percent of them report that without our school they would not be high school graduates. So we’re getting them invested in engagement and learning, and the results so far after a year are promising,” he said.

Engaging students is crucial. If you can’t get kids interested in what they’re learning, they’re not going to learn much. In a 2006 survey of American high school dropouts, half of them said they dropped out because their classes were boring and not relevant to their lives or career aspirations. For kids with disabilities or emotional or behavioral problems the need can be even greater to keep their attention.

Bertoni of Yarmouth said he wanted to become an AmeriCorps member and work at the school to do something helpful and good. He came after graduating from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland, with a degree in English literature and film studies. AmeriCorps members receive a basic living allowance, but it basically only covers rent.

AmeriCorps volunteer Alex Bertoni, right, is pictured with REAL School student Kamden Berry at a celebration of service leaning in Portland last March.

“I feel like not everybody gets the opportunity to go to college or is afforded a proper education. The responsibility of those who can do that and can afford that is to give back. That’s just my personal philosophy,” he said.

Last year he worked with his students to develop a 10-minute documentary called “Learn.” It tells the stories of the students and explores how service learning has helped them overcome some of their struggles. Now creative and multimedia director, this year he’s developing one-on-one art projects with his students. Their end product will be a portfolio with a strong thesis.

Students do service learning in the morning and then have their more structured classes. In the afternoon, Bertoni helps teach English. He loves the work.

“It’s one of the best experiences of my life,” he said.

Rogers of Portland graduated from Bowdoin College in 2012 with a degree in psychology and Africana studies and a minor in education. She wanted to gain experience working with at-risk students and said she was “really excited to jump in” at the REAL School. She co-teaches social studies.

Last year she helped facilitate a veterans history project. Her students interviewed veterans to learn history from first-hand sources and created video footage. The project culminated with a trip to Washington, D.C., to the Library of Congress where the interviews are archived.

Kristin Rogers, right, is pictured on a service-learning trip to the Library of Congress with REAL School students Emma Bartholomew and Thomas DeRedin.

Some of the students, who come from 18 different districts in southern and central Maine, have special education needs. Others have learning disabilities or behavioral issues. Others have simply not been successful in their previous schools.

The volunteers make it easier to provide one-on-one support, and many of them are young, allowing students to relate. Good volunteers can build relationships with students, which also helps boost engagement.

“I definitely think it allows schools to do some more of this creative planning and to offer some more individualized support,” Rogers said.

Volunteers under LearningWorks’ grant won’t be working in the REAL School, but they will be pursuing similar goals. If you’re interested in volunteering in Portland, Sumner, Ellsworth, Jay or North Anson, call LearningWorks at 775-0105 or email Lynne Davis at ldavis@learningworks.me.

Erin Rhoda

About Erin Rhoda

Erin Rhoda is a writer and storyteller. As editorial page editor of the Bangor Daily News, she writes the newspaper's opinion on matters from Kittery to Fort Kent.