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Beyond the Classroom

Outreach to Teach: The Grass is Greener

—Kristen Loschert

A honeymoon cruise to the Grand Cayman Islands or resurfacing asphalt at an elementary school—which would you choose?

For newlywed Erica Jarmon, a first-grade teacher at Gotwals Elementary School in Norristown, Pennsylvania, it was a no-brainer.

 “I got married two days ago,” Jarmon said, “but when I heard Outreach to Teach was coming to our school, I had to stay.”

“I’m so proud that a fellow teacher and NEA member postponed her honeymoon to give her students a better school,” said Clemson University junior Kelly Bowers. The South Carolina student was one of an army of volunteers who turned out for Outreach to Teach, the school renovation program that has been a popular RA event for more than a decade.

This year, more than 300 NEA members—including Student, Retired, Higher Education, and Education Support Professionals—worked together to transform Gotwals inside and out.

Volunteers grabbed mops, paintbrushes, hammers, and shovels to clean the school, paint murals, decorate bulletin boards, and put up retaining walls. Meanwhile, Yvette Rios, set designer for the hit daytime show Rachael Ray, turned a lackluster teacher’s lounge into a stunning retreat. But for Gotwals principal Maryanne Hoskins, the most critical renovation was the landscaping that transformed 20,000 square feet of hard asphalt into a soft, verdant lawn.

“The thing that first struck me when I came to this school was the concrete playground with weeds growing through the cracks. Now the children have a safe place to play and learn,” said a grateful Hoskins, who has future plans to add outdoor weather and music stations.

“Grass is safer,” echoed Clayton Schrader, a senior at Washburn University in Kansas who volunteered to haul dirt and lay sod in 90-degree weather. “I heard that the kids kick balls over the fence so they have an excuse to touch the grass on the other side.”

This kind of landscaping doesn’t come cheap—$100,000 was spent, compared with the $60,000 to $80,000 Outreach usually averages per school. A sizeable contribution from Volkswagen of America and serious fundraising by the Pennsylvania State Education Association helped provide the funds to make Gotwals safer and brighter.

“We’re here today,” said NEA President Reg Weaver, “because students and school employees deserve to learn and work in clean, cheerful surroundings.” They’ll be able to do just that thanks to the hard work of all the volunteers, said NEA Student Chairperson Anthony Daniels. “They’re creating an environment where students can learn—in and outside of the classroom.”

At the end of a hot, sweaty day, after Outreach volunteers had put down their paintbrushes and parked their wheelbarrows, Erica Jarmon didn’t regret trading a tropical sunset for the smiles of the neighborhood students exploring their new playground. It was worth it, she said, for the looks on their faces.

A Proud Tradition of Reaching Out

Student members at Michigan State University understand the value of helping their community. Each year the university’s Student Program conducts a local version of Outreach to Teach, organizing student volunteers who fix up a local school in Lansing. This spring the chapter will celebrate the project’s fifth anniversary.

“It’s become something that MSU takes a lot of pride in doing,” says Tracy Szutkowski, MSU Student chapter president. “We want our members to know there is more to life. . . .You have to go into the schools and learn about them. We’ve developed this as an opportunity for them to see what it is like to work in an urban school.”

What started as a project solely of MSU now draws Student members from multiple universities in the state, says Szutkowski, who also serves as the Student Michigan Education Association chairperson. MSU’s efforts inspired Central Michigan University and Saginaw Valley State University to organize their own Outreach projects last year. 

“Those that do not have an Outreach program feel they do not have the manpower to do it on their own, so they help out with other chapters’ events,” says Szutkowski. “If several chapters worked together on a similar project the results would be immense.” Last year, 130 Student volunteers spent nearly eight hours cleaning, painting, and decorating Fairview Elementary School.

Maintaining open lines of communication between the planning board and the volunteers became the greatest challenge, Szutkowski says, and admits that the group also waited too long to begin its fundraising efforts.

This year, Szutkowski and her team contacted area businesses for donations early. Szutkowski also has worked to create a stronger bond between the Student chapter and its partner school, Bingham Elementary.

The MSU students worked with representatives from the elementary school to identify community partners to involve in the project and even organized a family fun night so teachers, students, and their families could meet the MSU volunteers.

“Any chapter considering doing something like this should give it a try,” says Szutkowski. “The feeling you get when all is said and done significantly outweighs the stress you felt during the process.”

Soaring High

Your chapter probably already has great ideas for member recruitment. Next step: get them funded! NEA SOAR grants (Student Organizing Assistance and Resources) support projects in four areas: urban institutions, minority populations and historically minority campuses, community colleges, and future high school teachers. Application deadlines are August 31 and January 31. Student chapters working with local UniServ units receive priority.

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