Volunteers sought for educational initiative

Phil Castle
Business Times

Diane Schwenke

As a participant in a group researching public education and educational reform, Diane Schwenke said she experienced two “aha” moments.

One moment occurred when she discovered the differences in the amount of instructional time students in the United States receive compared to students in other countries with far longer school years. The other moment, Schwenke said, came with the realization that ultimately, public education is a community system to which the community is accountable.

A new initiative involving the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and Mesa County School District 51 addresses both issues in its goal to recruit 500 volunteers to spend an hour a week tutoring elementary school students.

“If we can marshal the force of the community …. I have no doubt we can do it,” said Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the chamber.

Chamber and school officials formally announced the details of the 500 Plan at a Sept. 2 meeting. While the Grand Junction chamber long has worked with the school district in various capacities, the 500 Plan is larger in scope, Schwenke said. “It’s a major leap forward.”

Schwenke hopes to enlist businesses in the initiative to further develop relationships between business and education. At the same time, businesses stand to eventually gain from the effort, she said, in a better prepared labor pool that not only offers more qualified employees, but also encourages economic development.

John Hopkins

John Hopkins, former chief executive officer of Rocky Mountain Health Plans and chairman of a chamber group that came up with the plan, compared efforts to develop a world-class education system in Mesa County to other Grand Valley projects that have resulted in long-term benefits, including the downtown shopping park and junior college world series.

The first step, Hopkins said, is to foster community support. “It’s got to be a community initiative. The community has to embrace it.”

Steve Schultz, superintendent of Mesa County School District 51, said the initiative will add to other efforts by a district that’s closer to offering a world-class education than many people might believe. Speaking at the meeting to unveil the plan, Schultz said, “I’m here to tell you Mesa County deserves a world-class educational system. And I’m here to tell you we will have one.”

Schwenke said she hopes to have the first of the volunteers in place by the second quarter of the school year, scheduled to start Oct. 20. Volunteers will serve an hour a week for at least one quarter.

Volunteers will be assigned to elementary schools, where they will help students on an individual basis or in small groups. Volunteers will initially help students practice their reading, although that could be expanded to math and other subjects.

Volunteers will be sought to work on Wednesday afternoons since that’s an early  release day for elementary school students, although opportunities also will be available before and after school on other days.

Volunteers will receive two hours of training from the school district as well as undergo a full background check with fingerprinting.
Schwenke said the chamber is working to defray the $50 it costs to conduct each background check. Alpine Bank has pledged $10,000 in matching funding, while Bank of Colorado has pledged $5,000. The chamber also is soliciting donations from other businesses and volunteers can offer to pay for their own background checks.

Hopkins said the 500 Plan evolved out of ongoing discussions by a 12-member chamber committee called the Grand Junction Forum. In discussing important attributes of the Grand Valley that sustain the economy, “one of the things that really floated to the top was education,” he said.

A strong educational system constitutes a “critical factor” in attracting new businesses and promoting economic development, Hopkins said.

Steve Shultz

In addition to talking to Schultz and others from the school district, the group met with nearly 40 people in April to discuss what it would take to offer a world-class education that would prepare students to compete in a global marketplace. The group included mothers of young children, parents who teach their children at home, representatives from private and charter schools as well as small business owners.

Hopkins said a number of factors became clear as the group delved into educational issues. The amount of instructional time students receive constitutes an important variable in determining outcomes. Community involvement also is important, he said. “It takes all of us to do it.”

Schultz said public educators face considerable challenges in preparing students for a global marketplace. For starters, it’s difficult to predict what the world will be like in 2023 when kindergartners now entering school will graduate from high school. Technical information doubles every two years and most of what likely will be among the top jobs in 2023 don’t currently exist, Schultz said.

At the same time, the educational culture in the United States has shifted to focus on the needs of all students, Schultz said. In addition to simply covering material, schools must make sure students fully understand that material.

Education also must be flexible enough to adapt to student needs, Schultz said, whether they need additional assistance to master a subject or more challenging coursework. “The traditional instructional approach doesn’t work for every kid.”

Mesa County School District 51 has a range of facilities and programs to meet individual student needs, Schultz said, including extended learning opportunities before and after school and during summers, a middle school challenge program, an alternative high school, a career center and International Baccalaureate program. Two high schools will offer more advanced placement courses. And a new science, technology, engineering and math program will be launched at New Emerson Elementary.

Moreover, the district also works with Western Colorado Community College and Mesa State College to offer additional instruction to high school students.

Still, Schultz said the district is looking for ways to increase instructional time for students, including those who need additional support outside the classroom. And that’s where volunteers could help, he said at the meeting. “I’m going to appeal to your sense of service and community.”

Hopkins said the 500 Plan constitutes the an important first phase of efforts to improve education. “The volunteers, I think, at this point are the very first place to start.”

Phil Castle is editor of the Grand Valley Business Times, a twice-monthly business journal published in Grand Junction. Castle brings to his duties nearly 30 years of experience in editorial management positions with Western Colorado newspapers. In addition, his free-lance work has appeared in a variety of publications, including the Washington Post. He holds a bachelor's degree in technical journalism from Colorado State University.
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