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Beyond the Classroom

A Makeover That Matters

Cynthia Kopkowski

For the past decade, attendees of NEA’s Student Leadership Conference and other pre-RA meetings have devoted an entire day to painting, cleaning, landscaping, and decorating a local school.

This year, nearly 300 student, retired, and higher education members and education support professionals (ESPs) descended on Eccleston Elementary.

The building needed major improvements, and many of its 500 students are low-income or considered to be at-risk academically. Many are from one-parent families or are being raised by a grandparent.

Some old-fashioned sweat equity can pay tremendous dividends for thosechildren, says then NEA Student Chairperson Mandy Plucker, taking a quick break from her seventh year of Outreach to Teach work. “The murals, a fresh coat of paint—it’s amazing what they can do.”

From Small Beginnings

This year’s budget and 300 volunteers are a far cry from the first Outreach to Teach in Atlanta, says Malcolm Staples, NEA’s manager of constituent relations. There were 30 volunteers that year. What hasn’t changed is NEA’s emphasis on educators outlining their needs, he says. “Each project each year has been different,” says Staples, “and we really let them prioritize what they need most.”

There was a glamorous addition to the agenda this year: Armed with a $10,000

donation from Volkswagen and labor from quite a few NEA friends, a designer from HGTV’s new decorating show “FreeStyle” custom-designed and executed a new look for the teacher’s lounge. Gone are the worn carpeting, sagging and mismatched furniture, and inefficient layout. In their place: a zen-like color palate, chic furniture, new appliances, and a layout more conducive to conversation and relaxation.

“It helps you feel like you’re respected,” says Eccleston teacher Michael Holt. “It just wasn’t a very visually happy place,” he said, before adding with a laugh, “Now it’s so nice, I’m worried the kids aren’t going to be paying any attention to me.”

They could be forgiven for being distracted on their trips down the school’s many covered walkways this fall. Five new murals emerged throughout the day Monday. Designed and outlined on the walls by Universal Studios Orlando artists who have had a longstanding partnership with the school, they were brought to life in bright hues by NEA volunteers. Monkeys swung from vines on one wall, while a muzzle of bees buzzedacross another.

‘A Dream Come True’

“This is like a dream come true,” Principal Ruthie Haniff said, nearly drowned out by the banging of hammers from volunteers building new benches where students will gather to read in the fall. “It will have a tremendous impact and boost the morale of everyone on our campus.”

NEA President Reg Weaver and members of the Association’s board of directors and executive committee mingled with volunteers throughout the day. “It’s a wonderful feeling seeing people committed to children having a good place to go to school,” said Weaver.

“It is sad to me, though, that our students and retirees have to come out here to do this. It is the responsibility of the state and the school districts.”

For Oklahoma Student Association member Katy Cook, this year’s Outreach to Teach was both familiar (she’s done three now) and fresh. “You go into it thinking ‘Well, I’ve done it before,’ but every year it’s something different,” said Cook. “At the end of the day, it’s always an overwhelming experience.”


Reaching Out Close to Home

Organizing an Outreach to Teach event at the state or community level can be an exciting and rewarding project for your members. But every successful project needs a great plan. Here are some basic steps to get started:

  • Build interest. One person can’t develop a project alone. Discuss the idea with your chapter leaders and general membership.
  • Research the project. Talk to your chapter adviser and state student organizer to identify potential obstacles. For instance, do you have funding or can you get it? Do you have enough time to organize an event? Identify potential schools as well. Contact local UniServ offices or your state Association for suggestions.
  • Select a school. To pick the best location for your project, consider the following: Is the school principal excited about the event? Do a large number of NEA members work at the school? Does the school have critical needs? Are other community partners willing to help? Could you complete a project at the site in one day?
  • Meet with the principal and school staff. During this meeting, the project coordinator describes the goals of the project and finds out the school’s needs. Develop your project around the school’s priorities. Make sure you involve school maintenance and facilities staff members too, because they most likely will assist your volunteers during the project.
  • Plan, prepare, and organize. Determine what materials you need for your project and how you will organize your volunteers. Regularly contact the school staff, volunteer coordinators, and others involved in the project to stay up-to-date on project developments. Address any other issues you need to complete before project day.
  • Implement your project. Put on your work clothes and get downto business.
  • Follow up and evaluate. Send thank-you notes to your volunteers, community partners, and media contacts. Evaluate how the project went and document any changes you want to make for future events.

Seed Money

Looking for funds to boost your chapter’s numbers? Apply for an NEA SOAR (Student Organizing and Assistance Resources) grant.  SOAR grants recognize NEA locals and state affiliates for their recruitment of Student members. Projects focus on minority teacher recruitment, community college recruitment, and high school future educator programs. Student locals working with UniServ units receive priority consideration.

For more info, contact the NEA Student Program at 202-822-7130.

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