Kelly seeks college volunteers to serve in St. Paul schools

by Tom Ford

When Claire Reynolds registered for her spring semester courses at Macalester College, she made sure none of her classes were on Tuesdays or Thursdays.

Reynolds, a freshman math major, spends those days at the de Novo Academy, an alternative high school in Minneapolis for students with behavioral or attendance problems.

At the academy, Reynolds helps students prepare for the Minnesota Basic Standards Test, which they must pass to earn diplomas.

She is one member of the large contingent of college students who regularly leave campus to volunteer in local communities.

If St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly’s plan is implemented, Reynolds will be joined by other university students working in St. Paul schools. Kelly said he wants to systematically utilize these educational efforts to ensure St. Paul students can read and stay in school.

“We have tens of thousands of undergraduates, graduates, faculty and alumnus that are anxious to engage in improving our educational system,” Kelly said.

Besides Boston, Kelly said, St. Paul has more colleges and universities per capita than any U.S. city.

Kelly said the presence of so many schools represents an untapped educational resource.

Karin Trail-Johnson, director of community service at Macalester, welcomed Kelly’s plans but said public schools need funding to prepare volunteers.

“The student interest is there, but the schools are understaffed to coordinate volunteers,” she said.

Trail-Johnson estimates approximately 50 percent of Macalester students volunteer in the community. She said approximately half of them work with kids, many struggling in school and growing up in rough environments.

“The volunteers are learning about issues,” she said. “They figure out, ‘Why this kid needs extra help?’ or, ‘How does moving school-to-school affect kids?'”

Trail-Johnson said she hopes the college students won’t be considered merely as warm bodies but allowed to contribute to change.

“I hope Kelly uses the great ideas of college kids to make policy changes,” she said.

Kelly said several programs at Twin Cities colleges and state service organizations already involve students in public schools.

One such program Kelly said he wants to build on is Minnesota Campus Compact, a coalition of 50 college and university presidents who work to keep their schools active in their communities.

Mark Langseth, Campus Compact executive director, said his organization mobilizes students as tutors and provides funding for involvement in literacy and after-school programs.

Langseth said 13 St. Paul colleges are MCC members. Those schools, he said, have strong infrastructures for community service. Most of the campuses have a full-time employee to find opportunities for students, he said.

He said high activity in St. Paul is indicative of a national trend.

“College-age kids are more interested in volunteerism today than any other generation,” Langseth said.

Laurel Hirt, University coordinator for community involvement and service learning, said approximately 1,250 University students participate per year in service-learning classes, in which volunteer work is built into curricula.

Hirt said the University has added approximately 20 such courses during the past five years.

Through those courses, students are able to base assignments and papers on actual experience, fit volunteer work into their schedules and maintain involvement after their classes end, she said.

“A pretty healthy percentage continue to work past their class commitment,” Hirt said.

St. Paul’s Metro State University works with eight neighboring elementary and high schools in activities, including a program in which elementary school students spend a day on campus.

Susan Giguere, director of Metro State’s Center for Community-Based Learning, said almost all the programs help college students as much as the children with whom they work.

For example, Giguere said, students returning from tutoring would discuss how their work relates to themes of social science.

Each year, approximately 100 Metro State students participate in community work, and almost all earn course credit, she said.

Tom Ford welcomes comments at [email protected]