A desire to help small children and get out of the house inspired Billie Stewart last year to become a foster grandmother at Benjamin Davis Elementary.
After Community Action Partnership of North Alabama fingerprinted and ran a background check on Stewart, she was assigned to first-grade teacher Stephanie Pape’s classroom.
School systems across the Tennessee Valley have one consistent rule about volunteers: Run a background check if they interact with students without faculty or staff supervision.
Even with background checks, Morgan County Schools Superintendent Bill Hopkins Jr. said it’s important to be aware of who is volunteering in schools.
“People have been asked not to come back,” he said.
Volunteers are suspended, he said, if they are arrested for a crime. If they are cleared of charges, their volunteer privileges are returned.
“We do allow volunteers without a background check if they are not working one-on-one with children,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins said schools are more skeptical of prospective volunteers than they were 20 years ago, and living in an age of easy information access led to a security increase.
“When I was coaching high school football, we had walk-ins all the time,” he said. “Anybody that wanted to could be a volunteer.”
Limestone County School board member Earl Glaze said parents called him in the past month about concerns that some volunteer coaches at schools weren’t properly certified through the Alabama Association of School Boards. Coaches must complete safety training, including CPR classes.
Two coaches were not certified.
“We don’t have a lot of money to pay coaches,” Glaze said. “Volunteer coaches are instrumental.”
Volunteer coordinator Melissa Dees with Volunteer Center of Morgan County said money for placing volunteers in schools is tight. The organization stopped accepting new volunteers to its school mentoring program because the expensive certification process is as rigorous as it is for new teachers.
A handful of mentors are still active because they have been screened.
“Background checking is the single-most expensive cost we have,” she said. “We’re looking for new funding sources.”
Because mentors spend significant time with students, background checks aren’t enough. The volunteers are required to have two days of training before they start mentoring. They also go through training during mentoring so the center can “get to know them better,” Dees said.
Dees said she has never seen anyone back out of volunteering because of the process.
“Most people who sign up understand that’s part of it,” she said.
Stewart worked as a custodian at Walter Jackson Elementary for 14 years and ran an at-home day care for 22 years before her Benjamin Davis assignment.
“I enjoy kids — that’s the main thing, and I enjoy helping,” she said. “I wanted to get out of the house and be among other people, so I jumped right in.”
She spends more than 30 hours a week at the school helping children learn basic skills, and creating crafts for students and teachers. Her dedication to Pape’s class was recognized last week at the 10th annual Diversity Awards celebration at the Holiday Inn.
Pape said more volunteers are needed in the schools.
“It’s so nice to have someone to be a listening ear to the kids,” she said.
Decatur Superintendent Ed Nichols’ goal is to have 1,000 volunteers in the school system. He said he doesn’t know how many are in the system.
“That’s something we’re trying to figure out,” he said. “There’s such a wide range. We have secondary organizations, like the Rotary Readers, and the volunteer center is involved in our middle and elementary schools.”
Nichols said the system will focus volunteers on third grade. He cited extensive research that suggests third grade is a critical time for academic development.
Austin High Assistant Band Director Clay Sloan said his job would be impossible without the band’s 50 to 60 volunteer parents.
“They deal with all the legwork, so all we have to do is worry about teaching,” he said.
Because he and band director John Cooper are supervising the parents, Sloan said there is no need to do a formal background check.
“We get to know our parents really well,” he said. “If a chaperone tells a student to do something, they are expected to do it. We tell students any time you get in a confrontation, even if you’re right, you’re wrong.”
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