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A New Year 

Cynicism about the board comes easily -- but New Orleans can't afford to give up on its kids.

Three months after the School Board fracas over the alleged move to fire Superintendent Tony Amato, qualifying for the Sept. 18 School Board elections has closed. Voters will decide candidates' fates, and it's likely we'll see significant changes in the board's composition and attitude. But a larger question remains: What can all of us, as stakeholders in the city's future, do to improve the education of kids in Orleans Parish Public Schools?

Amato has an answer: volunteer. Last week, Amato joined leaders of Each One Save One and Junior Achievement to announce a major initiative titled "Act Now For Kids," designed to incorporate volunteers into the public schools. At an upcoming "recruitment expo" scheduled for 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 2, at Junior Achievement Exchange City (5100 Orleans Avenue at Delgado Community College), the groups hope to sign up 2,000 volunteers and mentors for the 2004-2005 school year. (For more information call 949-5252 or 569-8655.)

The Junior Achievement drive has been embedded into the academic calendar for all students in grades K-8. For one week in each grade, Junior Achievement-trained volunteers will teach a course on basic financial, business and economics concepts tailored to that grade level. Through the program, students will be able to meet non-academic professionals and ask them questions. The program's "blitz" approach is unprecedented; no other local chapter has teamed with an urban school system to this extent, says Jack Brancewicz, president of Junior Achievement of Greater New Orleans. Meanwhile, its partner in the effort, Each One Save One, is pairing volunteer mentors with students to meet for at least one hour each week for a year. Like Junior Achievement, Each One Save One offers extensive training and support.

By supporting their volunteers, both organizations have a good chance of succeeding. Without organizational support and guidance, volunteers often turn into former volunteers. Businessman and Committee for a Better New Orleans board member Bill Rousselle learned that lesson in 1999, when he recruited 1,500 volunteers to help prepare kids for high-stakes testing. Four hundred volunteers completed the training, says Rousselle, but those numbers dwindled to just 100 as volunteers confronted rude or indifferent office personnel and administrators -- and a lack of organization at the schools where they went to help. Others at last week's kick-off event have had similar experiences. "Instead of being thanked, you can get treated like a problem," says Brancewicz. The irony, he notes, is that the schools needing volunteer help the most are the hardest to serve -- precisely because they don't have strong parent organizations or adequate staff at the site to support and guide volunteers.

Amato acknowledges that many NOPS volunteers have had negative experiences. That's why he set up the TEAMS after-school tutoring program and appointed Sandra Moses to direct it. The after-school and evening TEAMS program -- or Tutors Educating and Mentoring Students -- is designed to support literacy and numeracy programs in grades 1-8, and is looking for 600 volunteers this fall. Moses conducts background checks and provides training and materials to volunteers -- but hers is a one-woman office, aided by parent liaisons at each school. "We have enough people to walk you through the first day," says Moses. But that's pretty much it. "We just don't have a lot of staff," she says.

Moses oversees every volunteer in the system, including band assistants, coaches and artists. Like so much in the school system, her office is maxed out. That's why local organizations need to look to groups such as Each One Save One and Junior Achievement. There's much more work to be done. A local nonprofit could step in to provide volunteer recruitment, training and administration for some or all of NOPS' school sites. Businesses can adopt individual schools and work with administrators to find a useful role for volunteers. And companies throughout New Orleans can provide release time to employees to volunteer one hour a week in a local school.

This past summer has been a difficult one for New Orleans Public Schools. Cynicism about the board or the system comes easily -- but New Orleans can't afford to give up on its kids. On Sept. 18, voters can make their voices heard. The rest of the year and in years to follow, volunteers can step forward to help build a better district. &127;

Other public school volunteer opportunities include L.S. Rabouin High School (727 Carondelet St.), a vo-tech high school that is seeking individuals with business backgrounds to tutor and mentor students, and the district's new Signature Schools, which offer unique opportunities for professionals in law, business, culinary arts, communications and other fields to share their professional skills. To volunteer at NOPS, contact Sandra Moses at 304-5768 or by email at Sandra_Moses@NOPS.K12.LA.US. In addition, UrbanHeart provides training and support to volunteers at several local schools. For more information, contact Malcolm Suber at 304-3823 or by email at msuber@urbanheart.org.

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