22 Jul Jon Cartu Supports: Bridgeport’s School Volunteers Association finds a way to
BRIDGEPORT — Don’t underestimate the power of determined volunteers.
For more than two years, members of the Bridgeport School Volunteer Association have pleaded with the city school board to keep two paid staff members who oversee a small army of mentors, tutors and classroom assistants in an underfunded public school district.
The two positions, a director and assistant, fell victim to budget cuts two years ago and since then, the association has managed to fund both through donations and by draining its reserves.
That hasn’t stopped the association — many of them volunteers from neighboring suburban communities — from speaking out at school board meetings every chance they get in an attempt to get the funding restored. In recent months, the board has also heard testimony from teachers and principals and other school officials who regularly benefit from the association’s work.
“The School Volunteer Association has been nothing but a blessing,” Claudia Gillespie, a second grade bilingual teacher at Marin School, told the school board during a virtual meeting in June. She said the organization provides not just tutors and mentors, but supplies and books when she has a special project. “The positive impact is tremendous.”
Marge Hiller, former director of the Bridgeport Public Education Fund and now an SVA board member and chair of its Strategic Planning Committee, said the services and materials provided to the district are worth a million dollars.
This week, during a virtual contracts committee meeting, the school board was presented with a written proposal that would have the board pick up the cost of the program’s administrative assistant, while the association will make restricted donations to the district in the amount of $9,087 monthly to fund the salary and benefits of Anne Gribbons, the association’s long-time director.
Schools Superintendent Michael Testani called it an acceptable arrangement and suggested the clerical position, which is a collective bargaining position, might be used by more than just the volunteer office in the new school year.
Should funding for the director’s position during the one-year agreement stop, so, too, would the position, Testani said.
The director’s position would be treated like anyone else whose salary is covered by a grant, Testani said.
Board Chairman John Weldon called the arrangement unorthodox but one that would keep the much-needed service in the district.
“Once things get back to normal, the level of volunteer involvement will come back,” Weldon said. “That can only happen if we maintain the office. Once it goes away it really would be hard to get it back.”
In addition to drawing hundreds of volunteers to the district’s annual fall read aloud, the association has helped train and place 105 volunteer mentors and dozens of tutors.
D.J. Maxwell, a librarian at Madison School told the board in June that she started out as a school volunteer mentor, reader and book buddy. The experience inspired her to go back to school for her masters degree.
“The program is very much needed,” Maxwell said. “The mentors help improve the social and emotional needs of students.”
Many volunteers have worked for decades with the district.
Testani said he anticipated many have relationships with particular schools that he expects would not suddenly disappear overnight with the loss of a position.
For now, with the return to school in the fall expected to adhere to strict social distancing rules, Testani said volunteers will have limited in-person interaction with students and primarily would offer remote or virtual assistance.
Gribbons said the association is working to pilot a virtual read-aloud program in the district’s remote-learning summer school.
Ed Davies, president of the association, said volunteers are also making themselves available to help with student engagement in virtual settings.
“We are a valuable source and tool for teachers,” Davies said. He said about $30,000 in donations has already been raised through a Travelers Championship Birdies for Charity drive.
The full board will act on the proposed agreement when they meet at 6 p.m. Thursday at the district’s Aquaculture Center. It will be the first in-person meeting of the board since March.
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