Volunteers buoy teaching curriculum at Port Townsend school
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Volunteers Anita Snell, left, and Mary Weeding, center, plan a schedule with Grant Street Elementary School Principal Mary Sepler. -- Photo by Charlie Bermant/Peninsula Daily News

By Charlie Bermant
Peninsula Daily News

PORT TOWNSEND — While teachers follow a strict instructional curriculum at Grant Street Elementary School, a cadre of volunteers provide backup that results in better understanding of the material.

About eight volunteers participate in classroom activities every Tuesday and Thursday, listening to the kids, reading to and with them, and providing an individual learning experience.

“We have many different programs that run on volunteers’ steady commitments,” said Mary Sepler, the school’s principal. “It provides a connection to the family unit that is different from a teacher.”

The volunteers are a diverse group that contains all ages that represents different aspects of the community, Sepler said.

Anita Snell, a retired teacher who supervises literacy efforts, said the one-on-one interaction is a valuable part of the learning process.

“The volunteer’s aren’t evaluating the students,” she said. “They sort of become an aunt or an uncle or a grandfather or grandmother that are reading to them and guiding them along the literacy path.”

While volunteers support all levels of education — including physical education and library help — the two main areas are literacy and mathematics, with Snell and Mary Weeding, respectively, taking the lead in these two categories.

“I love math and I hate to see kids not like math,” Weeding said.

“When I looked at test results I decided I don’t want to live in a community where we are failing our kids and if they need some additional help I want be there to change that.”

Snell and Weeding are affiliated with the American Association of University Women, or AAUW, which provides funding and materials for the program, although they are not paid for their time.

“All of this is in addition to the classroom math program and is a huge resource for us,” Sepler said.

“The volunteers are incredibly dedicated and consistent so it becomes an important supplement to our regular instruction.”

Every third-grader gets access to a small backpack he or she can check out from the library that contains instructional material as part of the ALEKS (Assessment and LEarning in Knowledge Spaces) program, with about a third of them getting individual instruction on an as-needed basis.

“Third-grade math is the point — if you don’t have a pretty solid number sense you are sort of headed downhill and it only gets worse,” Weeding said.

“It can be made up but needs so much more attention, the child’s confidence in being able to do the problems decreases and it just gets harder and harder and harder.”

Weeding said the volunteers seek to make the instruction relevant.

“If we can show the kids the real world application of what then it will certainly help the motivation, so that’s our task,” she said.

Added Snell: “We provide increased adult attention and feedback for students so they can develop perseverance needed to solve their problems.”

Sepler said the school is always looking for people with various educational backgrounds and skills who can commit to volunteering on a regular basis.

All volunteers are subject to a background check before they are allowed contact with the children, she said.

For more information or to volunteer, phone Sepler at 360-379-4535.

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Jefferson County Editor Charlie Bermant can be reached at 360-385-2335 or cbermant@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: March 22. 2014 6:12PM
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