Parent volunteers help teachers with tasks after paraprofessional cuts

When teachers at Cedar Ridge Elementary School need a favor, they know to go to the media center’s storage room.

There they fill out a request slip for someone to sharpen a dozen boxes of pencils, laminate articles or cut out 30 paper pumpkins for their class’ art project. Often the next day the project will be completed, waiting on a shelf for the teacher to pick it up.

Just like that.

“It’s like magic little elves in the back room,” said Debbie Johnson, the PTO volunteer coordinator at Riverside Elementary School, where a similar workroom began two years ago, setting an example for the rest of the district.

Grovetown’s Cedar Ridge is launching its first full year of the Parent Work Room, where volunteers come to do extra tasks and projects teachers are too busy to deal with. The idea is to help teachers who became shorthanded when the Columbia County school system cut 70 paraprofessionals from classrooms to deal with budget cuts this year.

Cedar Ridge volunteer coordinator Hannah Carroll – who converted the storage room into a creative space – turned to Johnson last year for ideas on how to start the Parent Work Room at her school.

What she came up with was a system that helps teachers, rewards parents and enriches the student experience.

Teachers bring supplies and instructions to the workroom and place the items in a plastic bin with their name tag attached. The project usually has a due date and can be anything from tearing worksheets from a book or filing or coloring.

Volunteers come in at their leisure, take on the project and log their hours in a book so Carroll can display the records for the school to see and appreciate.

“It has a huge impact on the children when you come in and they see you – it’s like you’re part of the school,” Carroll said. “At the same time, teachers get help with projects they just don’t have time to do themselves.”

Kindergarten teacher Gina Hall said that before the workroom was created, she would have to take projects home to finish after dinner or before bed.

Because the remaining paraprofessionals are ideally there to help with instruction, the parent volunteers can step up to do the behind-the-scenes chores.

“It allows us to spend more time working with the kids and have the parents on the projects,” Hall said. “I’ve had them cut out reading games, flashcards, laminate different things. … It’s a relief. Definitely.”

The workroom will only grow, Carroll said. Right now there are shelves of paper clips, glue, notecards and other supplies, which parents can take to a table in the media center to use.

She said she hopes her room inspires other schools to duplicate the idea.

After Johnson started her workroom in 2010, she was able to recruit almost 300 volunteers at the 700-pupil school and log 630 projects last year.

“The simplicity of this is parents can come work in this space when it’s convenient for them, they can take the projects home and just bring it back,” Johnson said.

Both women said they hope their workrooms inspire more parents to become involved in their child’s education, which is often an intimidating task.

Carroll coordinates volunteers and completes projects in between raising two children and going to school full-time online. Johnson has used her management skills as a former Nutra Sweet plant engineer and nonprofit co-chairwoman to help organize her school’s volunteers.

So, it is possible.

“It’s a conversation that goes on all the time – how do you get people involved and cross that threshold?” Johnson said. “This is not the black hole of volunteering like ‘If I say yes to one thing, they got me.’ Parents are scared of that. If you have one hour for the whole school year, that’s fantastic. We’d love to have you.”

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