Archive | March 2009

volunteering with a mission.

Despite the icy winds outside, over 70 people chose to spend their Saturday morning in a high school cafeteria. On March 14, representatives from Austin Partners in Education, the St. John’s Neighborhood Association, YoungLife, Austin Stone Community Church and Reagan High School spoke with the volunteers about the needs within the school and community, as well as guidelines for working with the students.

These volunteers make up just a small pool of over 300 people who responded to a video that was shown at Austin Stone Community Church several weeks ago. The video talked about the situation Reagan High is facing and the help that the teachers are needing. After the 2008 TAKS exams were scored, Reagan High was ranked “academically unacceptable” by the Texas Education Agency along with 2 other high schools, 2 middle schools and 6 elementary schools in Austin ISD. For Reagan High and Pearce Middle School, these ratings mean that a decision may be made soon about the future of their campus.

Michael Madison, the new Volunteer Coordinator at Reagan, has offered up a menu of tutoring options for anyone interested in helping out the students.

Volunteers can:

.. “Adopt a Teacher” by helping a classroom with a range of projects including tutoring, behavior management or just making copies.

.. help students prepare for the upcoming science and math sections of the TAKS exam.

.. assist students after school Monday through Thursday from 4:20-6:00pm.

.. come on Saturdays to tutor students from 9am – 12pm.

Volunteers are also being recruited for “Beautify Reagan Day” on Saturday, April 18.

The overwhelming response from the Austin Stone has come with a new spirit of service. Many times, we have found that volunteers become frustrated or discouraged if they are not given clear roles and guidelines or if their experience does not meet their expectations. According to Mr. Madison though, these volunteers have come to this opportunity truly willing to help in any way possible.

Classic mentoring has proven to be more difficult in high school than in younger grades. Though many volunteers are willing to be a positive role model to teenagers, it can be hard to convince the students of the benefits a mentor can offer them. We have started encouraging volunteers who are interested in mentoring high school students to get involved in other ways at the school or within the community. As some volunteers at Reagan have found, you can get to know students very well through tutoring without the pressure that comes with sitting down for your first mentor meeting. Once students see that volunteers are really there to support and help them, they can become more comfortable and may talk to their tutors about what is going on in the personal lives.

I am very excited to see the progress that is going to be made at Reagan High in the next few months as these volunteers pour into the students and teachers. The St. John’s community as a whole is becoming a model for a new relationship between neighborhoods and schools. No matter what happens when the next round of TAKS scores comes in, I think that a real difference is being made in the lives of these students and the staff at Reagan.

If you are interested in becoming involved at Reagan, please sign up here for the volunteer opportunities listed above: Austin Partners in Education – Reagan High.

Time for TAKS!

This week, students across Texas took the reading portion of the TAKS exam. For many, Tuesday was the culmination of months of preparation during regular class time and after school. Over the last few years, I’ve seen a different side of standardized testing that I never experienced growing up. For me, the yearly exam (then called TAAS) was just another routine. I didn’t know anyone who stressed over it, and my teachers only went through a few days of additional preparation outside of our regular lessons. (For a full TAKS schedule, please visit the Austin ISD website.)

When I came to Austin in August of 2007 though, I saw another side of the exam. I had never known that closure was an option for schools whose students did not score high enough on the TAKS exam until I learned about the situation at Johnston High School. Now that I am more familiar with the requirements and the circumstances that several schools are facing in Austin this year, I have a very different perspective of how mentors can support their students through this difficult time.

One school that is facing scrutiny because of their test scores is Becker Elementary. We have had a few mentors at Becker over the last two years, but in January I received notice from Drew Houlihan of the Austin ISD Leadership Development Center about an effort to match all 3-5 graders (approximately 84 students) at Becker with a mentor.

After an initial request, Austin Energy was able to sign up 20 new mentors for Becker Elementary. Another 6 mentors came from Austin ISD departments and throughout the community. During an orientation, Drew helped the new mentors understand the situation at Becker: Becker is currently rated as Academically Unacceptable (year 1) by the Texas Education Agency. The AISD Leadership Development Center is supporting the students, parents, administrators and teachers at Becker in the effort to improve their academic rating. During an initial needs assessment, the LDC and the Becker community identified the critical need for students, especially in grades 3-5, to connect with an adult role model. The pressures of the accountability system are widely felt inside the walls of Becker. The purpose of the mentors at Becker is to give students an opportunity to escape those pressures, even if it is for 30 minutes per day. By serving as mentors, adult role models provide the students at Becker with a forum for supporting and encouraging their “mentees” to reach their goals and to have an avenue for exploring interests outside of the academic world.

Now that TAKS season has begun, I really feel that mentors at all schools can provide an opportunity for their students to focus on something other than exams. Some students will want to spend their visits talking about the stress they feel and the concerns they have for their school. Other students may want to use their mentor meetings to discuss other goals they have outside of academics. At every grade level, students are very aware of the pressures their teachers and principals are facing during TAKS season. It can be easy for students to feel that their value is only measured by their scores on a standardized exam. Mentors can allow students to show their strengths in new ways and can help students understand that they are valued regardless of their performance on the TAKS.

One mentor who has been working with her student at Becker since early in the fall has seen a real “breakthrough” with her student this week. Another mentor who just had his first meeting last week said that his student opened up right away about what he was going through. It seems that during this stressful time, students are really depending on their mentors and relying on them for support and guidance.

I think the following quote doesn’t just apply to the mentors at Becker, but shows how communities and schools across Austin feel about the support mentors are providing for their students:

“The Becker community and the AISD Leadership Development Center want to express our sincere gratitude to those who serve as mentors. With your support and assistance, we know that each and every child will be highly successful in all that they do this year. Thank you for your commitment to our school and for serving as positive adult role models for our students.” — Drew Houlihan, Assistant Director of AISD Leadership Development Center.

Best wishes to all of the students who are taking the TAKS test!

Becker Elementary is still in need of 15 more mentors!

If you are interested in mentoring a student at Becker Elementary,
contact Christin Alvarado at