Rise of The Volunteers
When UGA students offer to volunteer with the Athens-Clarke County School District, they are practically shoved in the direction of first grade classrooms and the media centers of elementary, middle, and high schools. This isn’t because the school district thinks volunteers dream of helping in these two places. It’s because the district desperately needs assistance in these two areas.
The Money Facts
According to the 2012-2013 annual budget report, the school district faced just short of $9 million in budget cuts for the 2012 school year. Some of the areas that were most affected were first grade classrooms, media centers, and after-school programs. The county reduced the first grade classrooms’ budget by 76,000, high school media centers by 46,000, middle school media centers by 92,000 and elementary media centers by 230,000. Each of these budget cuts results in the same thing—a decrease in paraprofessionals and a scary dependence on volunteers.
Kathryn Martin, first grade teacher at Fowler Drive Elementary School, admitted that she did not even know the true impact of paraprofessionals until she found herself trying to fill their shoes.
To clear up any confusion, paraprofessionals’ full title is paraprofessional teacher. They are who students many times consider teachers’ aides, wannabe teachers, or even hall monitors. They help and support the teachers lead class.
When asked what a paraprofessional was, Principal Robert Hooker of Clarke Central High School responded saying it’s tough to sum it all up:
“They are professionals. They help with everything from discipline to copying papers for teachers. It really changes on a teacher-to-teacher basis because paraprofessionals are the helping hands,” Hooker said. “A teacher may ask them to help out with actually teaching lessons or simply preparing it. They are equipped and willing to do both.”
But the problem is that volunteers are not equipped to do both. And after the budget cuts eliminated over 18 paraprofessional positions, volunteers were asked to fill the teaching aides’ shoes. Kourtland Jones, fourth-year student at University of Georgia, volunteered at several elementary schools. Jones explained that he was trying to offer hands-on help to the local schools, and he didn’t really know what he was signing up for.
“It’s kind of like they just threw me in there with first graders though. And I was trying to be as much help as possible,” he said. “But because I was following behind the teacher I just felt like an outsider trying to fit in.”
Jones said his time helping the first grade team out consisted of assisting the teacher with preparing lessons and activities and one-on-one tutoring with the students. He said that he felt uncomfortable in all positions.
“I am currently trying to find an after-school program to help with,” Jones said. “But it’s hard too, cause fraternity brothers that help are always telling me that less and less kids are showing up to those programs.”
After-school Programs Affected
The shortage in student attendance of after-school programs can be for several reasons. Cyndy Piha, art teacher and fine arts program sponsor at Fowler Drive Elementary, said the shortage in attendance can be due to the end of the year approaching, testing, and/or lack of transportation.
This lack of transportation is due to budget cuts itself. The yearly budget reduced the amount of after-school transportation funding it will provide by $127 thousand. This first reduced the amount of after-school transportation workers and ultimately eliminated after-school transportation.
Piha explained that she has not felt the budget cuts directly affect the after-school programs. And maybe she doesn’t have to. A parent of two kids who attended those after-school programs feels enough of it for anyone to understand.
Mechelle Morgan, mother of Taylor, 10, and Alexis, 8, said the cut-off of Fowler Drive’s after-school transportation services was stressful for her family. Both of her daughters were a part of The Glee Club at Fowler Drive, a club that started off with over 20 elementary school students in 2011.
“When the buses stopped picking them up, we would have to find ways to go get them from school,” Morgan said. “That many times meant riding the Athens Transit to the school, getting Taylor and Lex, and then waiting on the next bus to get home.”
Morgan and her spouse do not have a vehicle and they do not get home until after regular school hours let out. She said she liked The Glee Club because her girls were in an after school program instead of at home by themselves.
The True Problem
The Glee Club’s demise, according to Piha, was due to a lack of volunteers not budget cuts. The fine arts program at Fowler Drive depends a lot on student volunteers, she reasons. “The staff here is just not enough to supports so many interests.” Some of the few clubs that remain amongst the program are an Orchestra and Band club.
Dasjah Bledsoe, UGA student volunteer who led Glee Club felt differently.
“I stopped with the Glee Club because after the school buses stopped providing transportation the kids started dwindling down,” she said. “First 25, then 20, then eight.” One time Bledsoe showed up and only three kids were there, two of which were the Morgan sisters.
“I loved it but it was not fair to me to fight for something that I did not have support for,” she said. “There were times when I had to drive two or three students home, and I don’t even think that was legal.”
Piha and Bledsoe have different views of why the Glee Club no longer exists, but one thing is clear. Regardless of whether it’s to help first grade teachers teach, sort books in the media center, lead after-school programs, or direct school lunch, the staff and support that has decreased due to budget cuts is missed and needed. The dependency on volunteers for an after-school program to exist simply further highlights the extent of the problem.