By Brittany Gray
Over the course of the last three months, I have participated as a volunteer in an after-school program at Harwood Elementary School in Rigby, Idaho. After a school shooting May 6, 2021, the district saw fit to create an after-school help program, designed for early prevention and strengthen the children within the district. The shooter was a student of Rigby Middle School. To prevent this from happening again, there was a council held, and the idea they ran with was what we are now seeing today.
The after-school program’s mission statement is “At Harwood After School, we value kindness and respect while we strive to build a stronger community through quality instruction for all learners in a safe environment.” To accomplish this, the program includes stem classes, tutoring, activities, and dinner for the students. My project came down to a few crucial points that shaped the entire experience. Volunteer assisting with the program curriculum and being a watchdog for any abnormal behavior in students, viz., bullying, tendencies towards solitude, or children who don’t seem to eat enough.
The general purpose of my project was to have hands-on experience in a new field that will help me develop new communication skills and make a difference in young children’s lives. My objective was to help the community, gain personal empathy, strengthen my listening and observation skills. I also planned on developing stronger data visualization skills by analyzing volunteer surveys that each volunteer completed after working their volunteer shift to identify needs for the students. Unfortunately, the survey was discontinued. This was due to privacy reasons.
Harwood Elementary is a Title 1 school that receives federal funds to support the academic achievement of the students. It is considered a Title 1 school because 40% of the enrollment of students come from low-income households. Learning this fact made me want to help these young students even more. They have faced the trauma of the shooting this past year and many of them need extra help in the classroom, have no place to go after school, or are alone after school due to parent(s) working in the household.
The survey for the volunteers was discontinued but I continued to compile my own observations. Throughout 50 hours of volunteer time, I spent 33 hours fully interacting with the students. I observed several themes of behavior and broke them down into four different categories: bullying, student’s withdrawn, conflict (arguments between students), misconduct (misbehaving or a disturbance in class). Below is a graph of my findings. The top issue I saw was students arguing which is a normal conflict that at an early age. They do not know how to resolve disagreements yet.
I observed 21 instances of bullying. These were counted as a student was being bullied by another and it was caught. This was just after school hours, one day a week. In these instances, I either engaged in defusing the interaction or immediately got a teacher to resolve the situation. There are many more instances of bullying that can only be prevented by educating children well, and even then that won’t completely stop it.
I saw misconduct 11 times as shown in the graph. Misconduct meaning students were misbehaving in class and repeatedly ignoring a teacher’s corrections. In this category, students would get to the point disciplinary measures were applied to them. Having to sit by themselves, not being allowed to participate, or, as last case, be sent to the office.
The last category I observed was student withdraw. I saw this six times where a student was disengaged with other students and did not want to participate in the classes and activities. I reported this data to the program’s intern.
Challenges Encountered In Completing the Project
A challenge I faced early in the project was the surveys volunteers were completing were discontinued. This was due to privacy reasons and a disagreement that occurred between the school district and the sponsors that gave the grant for the after-school program. This hindered my ability to help identify clear needs of the students that was observed from all the volunteers. As a result, I am not able to provide data results from my volunteer work other than my own observations that are depicted in the graph above. After the discontinuance of the survey, my project shifted from heavy data analysis to a community outreach experience.
Another challenge in my community outreach project was learning how to help the students. Working with youth in a public-school setting was new to me. It forced me to grow as I intervened in student conflicts and bullying. One day I was doing activities in the gym with students, and I noticed a girl was very withdrawn. I approached her and just sat with her. She immediately broke down into tears and shared problems with which I personally could not help. It was heartbreaking to see a child so young in so much pain. I reported the information to one of the teachers so they could handle it. It was a challenge not knowing how to help.
On another day a student faked punching me in the face as a joke and then five minutes later I saw him push a girl into a wall. I immediately walked over stopped the interaction and addressed his behavior. This was all done when the teacher’s back was turned. As a volunteer, I was glad I was there that day to help the girl that was getting bullied. Part of this after-school program is to help identify students that are bullying others so the teachers can work with them to change the behavior. These are just a couple of the many instances where I had to engage with students in difficult situations.
Another challenging part of volunteering was in the tutoring and stem classes where I had to help students behave. There were 11 instances where students repeatedly misbehaved after receiving warnings. In addition to these numbers, I assisted teachers in the classrooms to help students participate in learning activities and complete homework. At this point students have already been in school for seven hours and it can be challenging to encourage them to keep learning so they get the most out of their experience.
The project required two things before I could volunteer. First, I needed a background check and second, I needed to complete training that instructed me on the after-school program’s mission and volunteer expectations. Once these were processed through the Jefferson County School District, I was ready to begin my volunteer service.
The Project Process
A day in my project consisted of the following schedule:
3:00 PM – 4:00 PM Academic Hour/Homework
4:00 PM -5:00 PM Electives/Stem Classes
5:00 PM– 5:20 PM Dinner
5:20 PM – 6 PM Group Games
During this scheduled time, I would assist the teachers and observe behavior that was included in my data results. As the program continued the teachers began to give volunteers more responsibility. I would lead activities, assisted with student pick-up, and run the classroom. This was all new terrain that helped me receive the most out of my volunteer.
An Overview of the experiences
One of the experiences that I had, I recall one day two girls were picking on another boy and causing a disturbance in the class when we were doing an activity. I pulled one of the students aside and chatted with her about her goals and aspirations. Then I did the same thing with the other. Immediately the girl’s behavior improved. They simply needed one-on-one time with a mentor.
Teachers get stretched oh so thin and cannot always meet these one-on-one needs for their students. This experience was rewarding because I could see a clear difference in the girl’s demeanor and in the atmosphere of the room. It also diminished the conflict that was happening between the girls and the male student.
The ideal American family portrayed in the media is not the one often found. For every ideal home, we see two more that don’t fit the mold. Not every parent can be home when their child finishes school and not every parent can be as involved in their child’s education as they might wish. Herein lies the beauty of an after-school program like Harwood Afterschool.
Insights and Takeaways
During my time in the program, I have gained immense respect for teachers and administrators. They care deeply for the students and want them to succeed. For people carrying such a crucial load of responsibility, they are often grossly underpaid and extremely overworked. There is not a lot of equity within the field with the average salary between college professors and k-12 teachers at $61,730. Yet they are deeply rewarded by the work they do.
One of the most crucial roles I performed at the program was to be vigilant in making sure all the students were attended too. To be frank, there are not enough teachers to have this program run. Having another pair of eyes and ears was a tremendous help, and even I wished sometimes there would be more people coming to volunteer.
Another insight I have gained is that we can learn from the youth of our communities. As children, we were put through lessons, designed to familiarize us with the world around us, to learn and understand new things every single day. That learning should not stop as adults. The world is constantly evolving, and with how much technology gets implemented, there is greater need than ever for adults to comprehend and know just what is happening around them.
Volunteering gives new perspective. As we see other points of view, it illuminates our understanding of them. We begin to see people increasingly with a godly view. As real human beings, with real hopes and tangible goals. Just as King Benjamin teaches: “When ye are in the service of your fellow beings, ye are only in the service of your God.”
Service brings joy. Turning outward in the service of others allowed me to see just how different and difficult people’s experiences are. It has truly made me feel blessed and see that others’ problems seem so much bigger than my own, though I know that others would also shirk to have my struggles. I am proud of those children at the afterschool program, and of the teachers that give so much to help. It was a privilege to learn and grow at Hardwood Elementary.