When students need more one-on-one assistance or small group instruction to master a skill, Paradise Valley Unified School District teachers know they can count on Volunteers in Paradise to help students be successful.
For the past six years, the program has recruited, supported and trained community volunteers, including many retired teachers who have provided regular academic assistance and mentoring for students, said Dr. Jim Lee, superintendent of the North Phoenix school district that serves more than 32,000 students.
Volunteers in Paradise assist teachers and students one to 10 hours a week for an entire school year, serve as caring adult role models for students and become an important part of the school, Lee said.
Each semester, 25 to 30 Paradise Valley Community College and university students in teacher preparation programs serve in the VIP College Corps, providing instructional support for teachers, serving as positive role models for students and gaining valuable classroom experience with students.
“I love the VIP acronym for our volunteers, because they are so very important to so many of our students,” a teacher said. “The attention, caring, kindness, and support of our VIPs has made a huge difference for our students and enables our teachers to meet the needs of each child.”
Many VIPs return year after year to work with the same teacher, and have become strong advocates for their teachers, schools and public education, said Julie Bacon, a Paradise Valley Unified governing board member who co-founded the program with Laurie Smith, a parent leader who later became VIP Coordinator for the district.
Video by Brooke Razo/ASBA: The Volunteer in Paradise program
How Volunteers in Paradise started
For many years, leaders of the United Parent Council serving Paradise Valley Schools had wanted to engage people in the community to help students achieve, Bacon said.
So Smith and Bacon approached Lee with their idea for Volunteers in Paradise, then spent a year researching successful volunteer programs, talked with principals and teachers about what they wanted and developed volunteer training and support.
“Everything that the volunteers do is driven by the classroom teacher,” Bacon said. “Our mission was always to increase student achievement.”
After receiving feedback from eight people who went through a pilot Volunteers in Paradise program and the teachers they worked with, Smith and Bacon made adjustments.
Volunteers in Paradise launched in Fall 2013 with 16 VIPs who helped students 33 hours a week at two schools, then grew to 74 VIPs assisting students 183 hours a week at seven schools last year. This year, 101 VIPs work with students and teachers at nine schools, Bacon said.
In the 2015-16 school year, VIPs provided academic intervention hours equivalent to 9.5 full-time paraeducators valued at $235,249 annually, Lee said.
Paradise Valley Unified’s Volunteer in Paradise program won one of Arizona School Boards Association’s Golden Bell Promise Program Awards.
ASBA will announce the winners of this year’s Golden Bell awards at the annual conference Dec. 13-14 at the Arizona Biltmore.
What teachers and volunteers say about the program
Teachers and VIPs are surveyed at the end of each school year, and their responses are used to improve the program, Bacon said.
“The volunteers love the ability to work with kids, and to see their growth and progress,” Bacon said. “The volunteers come away with how hard our teachers work and how much pressure there is in our schools, and they become unbelievable supporters of public schools.”
While most volunteers continue to work with one teacher year-after-year, one volunteer who had developed a positive relationship with a student in foster care followed that student to the next grade, Bacon said.
Another volunteer who worked with an English Language Learner who became proficient at speaking, reading and writing English by the end of the school year has become a specialist working with English Language Learners, Bacon said.
“Each year, 100 percent of our teachers have reported that students benefitted from working with VIPs, and that academic achievement increased due to the additional intervention given throughout the year,” Lee said.
Teachers cite improved test scores, but more moving tributes include the reluctant learner whose teacher says works harder for his VIP than he does anyone else and the third grader who was behind when he transferred in midyear but quickly caught up to his new classmates, Lee said.
One teacher said, “Every student who sees one of my VIPs has made growth this year in all aspects of reading. They also thoroughly enjoy and feel special to get the 1-on-1 attention the VIPs provide.”
A fifth-grade teacher who has VIPs help with math intervention had 2017 Average Growth Percentile scores 20 points higher than the district average, according to Steve Jeras, the district’s director of assessment.
Another teacher said “It is especially heartening, and a testimony to their caring and abilities, that students never felt stigmatized when pulled from class for extra help. In fact, many kids look forward to these sessions and would ask to work with our VIPs.”
“It can be a challenge to find people willing to work with fifth graders and math,” the teacher said. “It is clear to me that both Carol and Don know the subject matter thoroughly, are very good at making meaningful connections with my students, and dedicate themselves fully to this partnership. With a very few exceptions, our students were able to show mastery of all 10 foundational math skills chosen for our Professional Learning Community emphasis.”
Also, the two schools that launched the VIP program have AzMERIT passing rates above the district average, Lee said.
“Teachers love the consistency and the caliber of volunteers who come in because we have a fair amount of retired teachers who just miss the classroom,” Bacon said. “The teachers love the ability to rely on someone and the support. The encouragement that they get from the volunteers has been a really beneficial side effect as well.”