A citywide organization whose volunteers have logged millions of hours toiling in children’s literacy, enrichment programs in public schools, and encouraging parents’ involvement in their children’s education, began as a dream of a few dedicated, grassroots gladiators in 1956.
In the early 1950s, Clara Blitzer, of the Public Education Association — a not-for-profit created in 1896 as a watchdog over the city’s public schools — traveled to London and discovered that more than 2,000 people volunteered in the schools, supplementing teachers’ work by acting as liaisons between the schools and the community. Blitzer was determined to organize a similar program in New York City.
City public school teachers, after all, needed help. In the years following World War II, school enrollment had increased and teachers were in short supply. Blitzer organized 20 volunteers — all fellow members of the Association or friends — to start the School Volunteer Program to “relieve the teacher of routine, time-consuming and non-professional skills for which he/she had been trained.”
At that time, community members, even parents, were not invited into the schools in any formal way. Blitzer envisioned an organization that could serve as a model of what non-teachers could do to establish a consistent, trusted community presence in the schools.
The School Volunteer Program had its official beginning in 1955 at PS 191 — an elementary school slated to open the following year at 61st Street and Amsterdam Avenue on the troubled Upper West Side in Manhattan. Passionate commitment would continue to be a hallmark of the school volunteers for the next 50 years.
During the first years of the organization, volunteers undertook myriad tasks that supported teachers, students and school communities. Volunteers provided instructional help, particularly in reading, to individual students. During the second year, planning committee members suggested that volunteers could provide more specific services in the schools, especially individual literacy instruction, so in 1957, the organization formalized the efforts under the Reading Help Program.
“We try in every way we can to break through the shell of discouragement for children to whom reading is a chimera. Occasionally we fail, and once in a while we perform a small miracle,” a volunteer commented. Thousands of volunteers have since been trained to provide this and other instructional aid.
In the 1970s, a new program — Early Identification and Intervention — began at Community School 30 in East Harlem to help students struggling to read. The program, founded by volunteers Mary Fisk and Elsie Aidinoff, is still in existence today at PS 96 in East Harlem.
The School Volunteer Program also created programs for high achieving students. In 1985, Ethel Price created Junior Book Talk to introduce students to great works of literature. The program — which is still in practice today — aims to help fourth and fifth grade students learn to ready carefully, think critically, listen, and express themselves clearly. And in 2003, the Book Buddies program was introduced to engage corporate volunteers in literacy instruction for young children.
In 1991, the organization celebrated its 35th anniversary by having celebrities read children’s books aloud at 89 schools across the city — including former mayor Ed Koch. Building on the success of the event, the organization developed the Authors Read Aloud program, in which professional children’s book authors and illustrators visit classrooms to share their work, help children create their own, and offer insight into the writing and publishing processes.
During the School Volunteer Program’s first years, volunteers trained as artists provided art instruction, and those who worked in the theatre helped children create performance pieces. As with literacy, the organization formalized enrichment activities as it became more established.
In 1977, two long-time volunteers and board members, Julie Patterson and Elsie Aidinoff, developed ArtWorks, a program in which volunteers introduce third graders to art and visual literacy, and then conduct guided tours of a museum.
Since the early 1970s, the School Volunteer Program’s high school programs have provided critical academic aid, as well as workplace and college preparedness information to students without access to this support. The current College Planning Program assists college-bound students with college applications and financial aid information. A new emphasis in college planning is early college awareness, designed to encourage seventh to 10th graders and their parents to begin preparing for and learning about achieving post-secondary credentials.
The School Volunteer Program has always been a program intimately connected to the character and conditions of the city it serves.
Until 1970, the organization functioned as an arm of the city’s Board of Education. However, in the early ’70s, a nationwide economic slowdown led to severe financial problems for the city, and it became necessary for the organization to become an independent corporation.
The program has always helped the Board of Education respond to the needs of the foreign-born and non-English speaking children and families struggling to incorporate themselves into the public school system. In 1961, the Conversational English Program was established to help teach children English. By 1966, the program had assisted as many as 3,000 children.
The founders of the organization envisioned it as a way to bring community and school together. Parents had not been allowed to volunteer in the classrooms of their own children. However, many of the volunteers were parents, and volunteering with other people’s children taught them important lessons about their own.
Demand for volunteers increased in the late ’60s as school budgets were cut, and by 1975-76, the organization had determined that its model was highly effective in engaging parents. When parents were invited into schools in a volunteer capacity — whether as a tutor, classroom helper, or office assistant — they became part of the school community. After they began to volunteer, parents were more comfortable talking to their children’s teachers and each other. They became eager for knowledge about the school system, and for advice on how to facilitate their children’s education at home.
In 1982, the School Volunteer Program launched a series of workshops to provide parents with information about school routines, curricula offerings, and instructional approaches. The goal of the program was to underscore the significance of the parent as the child’s first and most important teacher. In retrospect, it seems fitting that an organization designed to help teachers would grow to focus on children’s first teachers — their parents.
Parent education continued in 1994 with the introduction of workshops to help parents in inner-city neighborhoods, and those who may not be literate or native English speakers, to read with their preschool children. This became the basis for the current Family Literacy/Numeracy Project.
In 1999, the School Volunteer Program changed its name to Learning Leaders.
Learning Leaders made it a priority to provide resources for immigrant parents in 2003 to help them be more knowledgeable about — and be active in — the educational lives of their children.
An independent study of Learning Leaders’s programs, conducted by the Arete Corporation in 2003, indicated that after becoming a Learning Leader, parents became stronger supporters of their children’s academic endeavors and became more involved in the school community.
Today, Learning Leaders is considered an expert on parent engagement and 80 percent of its 10,000 volunteers are family members of the children enrolled.
Many committed volunteers have contributed, and continue to contribute, their expertise and passion, as well as countless hours, to the children of the city’s public schools. Their commitment is an inspiration for the next 50 years.
For more information, or to join and support Learning Leaders, visit its website, at www.learni