Volunteerism becomes a big boost at Bester

February 19, 2006|By KAREN HANNA


Bingo, fresh paint, new coats, Christmas gifts for every Bester Elementary School child.

From family math nights and nutrition classes to volunteer opportunities, community members have had plenty of reasons to visit a school where parents say they felt unwelcome last year.

Along with bridging achievement gaps, educators on a mission to improve the school say they hope to build relationships.

"I guess we've kind of gone a little overboard with volunteer hours because in the past, we were asked to stay out, and now that we can be (here), we want to be in all the time," said Dorothy Atha, the mother of a fourth-grader and a pre-kindergartner.

As one of the founders of Bester Boosters, a parent group that is working to raise money for a new laminator, Atha is the keeper of the school's volunteer log book, where parents and community members have recorded thousands of donated hours.


From the beginning of the school year through January, more than 249 individual volunteers have spent more than 6,641 hours of their time painting, planting, copying, weeding and reading at Bester, according to Atha's statistics.

In January alone, 89 volunteers contributed 1,301 hours, according to Atha's records.

Not all of the school's volunteers have logged their hours, Principal Kathy Stiles said.

For Good Humor-Breyers Ice Cream workers Rhoda Spencer, Judy Pitsnogle, Larry Lorshbaugh and Sylvia Love, keeping track has not been a priority.

The company's workers adopted the school earlier this year, and volunteers helped tear out dead bushes, repainted the teachers' lounge and collected clothing for children. Workers also have expressed interest in tutoring and mentoring programs still being established at the school, Spencer said.

"No one turned me down, everybody came out to bat and we did our thing," said Spencer, 39, a third-shift wrapper operator from Hagerstown.

Back to school

Atha said that last year, school officials discouraged parents of young children from stopping by. Her daughter, who now is 9, wanted to change schools, she said.

"We were actually thinking about getting a special request so she could go to a different school, and now, I don't have to do that. And it wasn't her teachers - she's loved every teacher she's had since she's come here - it was the stress of ... knowing that mom couldn't just come in," said Atha, who spent part of one morning preparing envelopes for students' report cards.

According to student achievement specialist Shari Palm, the school has had to establish new relationships with parents, since most of the staff was replaced this summer as part of a shake-up to address lagging test scores.

"I think the community had to learn to build a trust in us, that we're here for the right reasons and we're doing everything in our power to bring about student achievement," Palm said.

As a former Fountain Rock and Boonsboro elementary school educator, Palm said, she knew very few people when she started at Bester this year. Her colleagues, many of them first-year teachers, were in the same predicament.

"So, really, this is like starting a new school from the ground floor and building up ... It really, truly is a work in progress," said Palm, who led an orientation Feb. 8 for a handful of community members interested in tutoring children in reading. School officials hope to enlist the efforts of at least 30 tutors for students who are struggling with reading, Palm said.

The program began last week.

So far, 17 volunteers from Rotary of Hagerstown-Sunrise Club have signed up to be tutors, vocational committee chairwoman Kay Hoffman said Wednesday. Volunteers also have come forward from the community, Palm said.

"We're looking forward to this," Hoffman said. "I'm also a big sister through Big Brothers Big Sisters. I think anything we can do for children who are struggling, there's nothing like the brightness in their eyes when they finally get it."

Building relationships

Family and Community Partnership specialist Marie Martin, who oversees outreach efforts at the school system's most impoverished schools through a federal Title I grant, and coordinator Michele Petro, who works at Bester, said the entire community has a stake in children's education.

"It's not only the school building relationships with people," Martin said. "It's the people who are coming in who are building relationships with kids and our families. That's very far-reaching."

Petro not only encourages parents to volunteer, she also visits homes when students are struggling, and she has participated in classes offered to parents.

On a recent Wednesday morning, a small group of parents, mostly mothers, ate donuts in the cafeteria as Tammy Thornton, a Washington County Health Department nutrition and wellness coordinator, talked about children's nutrition. A screen above the stage displayed the subject of the day's discussion, "Common Feeding Problems: Picky Eater???"

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