More volunteers at APS

Volunteer Josephine Díaz works with a student in a first-grade bilingual class at Armijo Elementary School. The Albuquerque school district has seen a 37 percent increase in the number of volunteer applications it has processed so far this year. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Volunteers in public school are not only useful, but necessary, according to Sonja Martens, Albuquerque Public Schools manager of volunteer programs.

And this year, they are stepping up in a big way.

In an effort to recruit more volunteers, Martens said the district has streamlined the process by offering the application online, and that appears to have paid off, Martens said. APS had processed 4,800 volunteer applications as of Nov. 4 – a 37 percent increase over last year at the same time.

Also, the information is now available in both English and Spanish.

Before the online process, prospective volunteers had to go to the school, talk to the principal and get a form. They had to take that form to the district’s central office in Uptown for a signature and then go back to the school to turn it in.

“It was an unwieldy and time-consuming process,” she said. “I think it kept some people away.”

Now, volunteers can fill out the form and submit it online. The information is used for a background check, which costs $12 and is paid when the application is submitted. Volunteers then receive an email saying they have been cleared. They print out the email and take it to the school principal.

The volunteers are composed of a mix of parents, other family members and community members, and not all are in the classroom every day. Some participate in field trips or family nights, although many do devote a set number of hours to a school every week. She said volunteers can give students one-on-one time or help free up the teacher’s time so he or she can work with a student.

“There is so much put on teachers and the school-based staff,” Martens said. “As more demands are placed on them, they don’t have time to pay attention to one student that may need more help.”

Among the schools that rely on volunteers is Armijo Elementary School in the South Valley. Esther Dean, a former classroom teacher, is the school’s parent liaison who is responsible for coordinating the volunteers. She said the school has about 55 volunteers.

Aden Morales, for example, spends almost every day at Armijo. His son, grandson, niece and nephew attend the school. Morales helps out in any classroom he is needed that day by making photocopies or helping the teacher keep the classroom in order.

“I bring them all to school in the morning, and if the teacher needs me, I stay,” he said. “It’s enjoyable seeing all the kids running around happy. They know your name and wave to you. It’s pretty cool.”

Morales said volunteering also gives him a chance to spend more time with his son and other family members. He plays football with them during recess and sees them during lunch.

“I like to joke with all the kids,” he said.

Martens said volunteers can help in a variety of ways, including classroom assistance, tutoring, guest speaking, helping on field trips and at before- and after school programs and joining parent organizations.

The district is now moving toward recruiting more volunteers who have specialized skills to offer, she said.

“I’m just starting to look at skills-based volunteerism,” Martens said.

Josephine Díaz is one of those volunteers whose skills are an asset to classroom teachers. Díaz retired from Armijo Elementary about seven years ago but was asked by one of her former colleagues to come back and volunteer. She volunteers three hours a day, three days a week, in four different classrooms. In one, she works with a first-grade student who is behind on reading. She helps another teacher test each student’s vocabulary at least once a week.

“It’s enjoyable for me because, the thing is, you never know what is going to happen on any given day,” she said. “And if I stayed home, I would just sleep all day. It gets me up and out of the house.”

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