When James Lick Middle School teacher Helana Corda started off the 2015-16 year, her class sizes had increased, school construction was in full swing and PE classes took place right outside her room. She found she had little time to pay individual attention to each student, and she could tell they were having difficulty concentrating.
“I was having such a hard year. I’m seven years in, and this is by far the hardest year I’ve ever had,” Ms. Corda said.
Then, in early fall, the San Francisco Education Fund placed two volunteers in her 6th grade social studies and English classes to provide support each week. Soon, Ms. Corda saw a difference.
Volunteers Eva Chase and Janelle Facchino jumped right in, tutoring students, administering literacy assessments and helping kids get organized. Now, Ms. Corda says her students even look forward to doing schoolwork with their volunteers.
“They get excited every time they walk into the room,” Ms. Corda said. “They say, ‘Yay Ms. Chase is here, Ms. Janelle’s here!’ They look forward to seeing them every week.”
During a particularly busy day in February, sounds of a nearby music class rang through the hallways. Instead of becoming distracted, Eva’s presence and skill for reengaging students’ attention helped Ms. Corda keep students on track.
“She has an eye for it — for which kids are starting to get off task,” Ms. Corda said of Eva, who used to teach middle school and high school-age students in Germany before moving to the U.S. “And she’ll go and sit next to them and help them get back on task.”
As Eva listens to a student read aloud the popular sci-fi novel “The 5th Wave,” she occasionally interjects, asking her what she thinks about a particular passage or seeing if she can anticipate what might happen next in the story. When a tough vocabulary word comes up, Eva will talk through it by describing scenarios. Take the word “liquefy,” for example: “Imagine you have something that is very solid, and then it becomes liquid, the process in which that happens…” she says, before breaking down the process of liquefaction.
“Kids are learning at different paces, and they come in at all different levels,” Ms. Corda said. “So [Eva] does great work one-on-one with kids who might need that extra help or might need one-on-one support so I can then walk around and help out the rest of the kids. That’s been fantastic.”
She said Janelle, a pediatric nurse practitioner, is particularly talented with students who might be having a bad day or struggling with emotional issues. Janelle notices kids who might be having a hard time and sticks by their side, Ms. Corda said.
Janelle likes that she can help Ms. Corda plan complex and interesting projects, such as when students built pyramid replicas as part of unit about ancient Egypt. Kids formed groups of six and had to complete timed challenges, such as building a pyramid in seven minutes or less. Projects like that would have been tough to accomplish without multiple adults to supervise, Janelle said.
For Da’mecha, who was once not so engaged during Ms. Corda’s first period class, having a volunteer has sparked an enthusiasm and excitement to learn.
“Her confidence has gone way up talking with Ms. Chase, and when Ms. Chase is here, she wants to do a lot of her classwork,” Ms. Corda said. “Just having Da’mecha say that she wants to do something —and she’s invested — is really special. Making that the norm for her is, I feel, going to be really instrumental in helping her achieve more of a growth mindset and helping her believe in herself. To have somebody help build up her confidence is huge.”
A big part of the work Eva does with Da’mecha includes empowering her to take on various tasks in the classroom, such helping a tardy classmate catch up or leading a mindfulness session at the front of the class.
“Giving her responsibility, she’s there, she’s engaged and she shows her full personality,” Eva said.
The students deeply trust their volunteers, Ms. Corda said, which can help them work on their soft skills in addition to focusing on their academic course load.
“The kids love them,” Ms. Corda said. “And especially at the middle school level, relationship building is a huge piece. I think it’s the most important piece in terms of getting them to rise to the occasion and really achieve, and that’s been really instrumental in their growth.”
And as effusive Ms. Corda is about the impact her volunteers have made, both Janelle and Eva say spending time in the classroom has given them as much as they give back.
“That’s the biggest part of it – it’s not my job, it’s something I love,” Janelle said. “And I’m able to be present and enjoy working with the kids.”
“The kids showed me how much potential they have and how much I could do just by being there for them,” Eva adds. In volunteering, “I feel a deep connection with the world and with people,” she said.
Even with everything going on this year, Ms. Corda said having caring adults team up with her has helped students achieve their best.
“The San Francisco Education Fund has made a huge difference in my classroom,” she said.
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