Brennan Nardi's Column: Volunteers Need (Free) Rides, Too

With funding for free transportation scarce, Schools of Hope is in jeopardy

Published On: Jun 25 2012 03:33:48 PM CDT   Updated On: Jun 25 2012 03:36:34 PM CDT
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By: Brennan Nardi

On the morning of Tuesday, June 5, twenty-four fourth and fifth graders fidgeted at their desks in Room 21 at Mendota Elementary. Ms. B was delivering instructions on the final writing assignment of the year: Pick something indigenous to Wisconsin and write a report on it. Javonna chose the historic state Capitol. Kaleigh picked African American settlement. Kylee went with loons of the north and Alonna with the scrappy scarlet tanager. Chloe took on the mighty badger while Dylan nabbed the ancient sturgeon of the Winnebago. All were wrestling with various stages of project completion: reading and note taking, introductions and main ideas, computer formatting and PowerPoints, feedback and, finally, the big grade.

At the other end of the hallway, past the blue lockers and the Election Day bake sale, a line of anxious recall voters was forming at the 35/36th district polling place, also known as the Mendota gymnasium, where a week later thirty-nine fifth graders would receive their graduation certificates from the principal, a hug from their teachers and a Sacagawea golden dollar from the PTO.

Down the stairs and across from the principal’s office, the Schools of Hope coordinator’s files record the names and hours of the citizen army of tutors who volunteer their time in this north side public school, one rich in social, economic, racial and cultural diversity and all the bubbling and churning humanity that comes with it.

As the neighborhood goes, so goes the school, and not more than twenty years ago Mendota was in trouble. But strong academic and administrative leadership combined with a city-backed neighborhood resuscitation plan rescued it, brought it back on track. Today, like most schools in the district, there are students with the greatest of needs mixed with students who will ace tests and life. My daughter and many of her Mendota classmates will enter middle school ready for the academic rigor. Perhaps more importantly, for the last six years they have honed the soft skills of positive social behavior that I hope will guide them through the rough waters of adolescence. God, how I hope so.

Madison Metropolitan School District superintendent Dan Nerad has characterized the community’s struggle with the achievement gap as “a tale of two cities,” and in my experience he is dead on. That’s why mentoring and tutoring programs like Schools of Hope are so valuable, and so ingrained in our public school DNA. Unfortunately, a critical cadre of SOH volunteers might not return this fall. Every year UW–Madison supplies 900 student tutors who make a real and measurable difference in the lives of 1,000 MMSD students. More than half of the college students rely on a special transportation arrangement with Union Cab to get from campus to their school if it’s off the bus line or if their commute is more than a forty-minute ride one-way.

Funding for the program, which is managed by the Morgridge Center for Public Service, has run out. The Center is looking for $66,000 to plug the hole for the 2012–2013 school year, but even if they find it (and they are soliciting donations right now) they are studying long-term solutions to sustain the program, which costs $120,000 per year. Why? Because according to a poll of students who use the service, only one in ten said they’d continue to volunteer at far-flung locations (which happen to be the sites with the highest needs) if they lost access to free transportation. I get it. I distinctly remember my short stint volunteering in an elementary school when I was in college. I had to find my own way there—on my bike in an unfamiliar city. I lasted exactly one day.

Sure, without subsidized transportation students will lose out on volunteerism and service learning opportunities, but there’s more to it than that. Studies show this kind of experience raises college grades and retention rates, and the impact is disproportionately higher for students of underrepresented backgrounds. Of course, the biggest losers are the children in schools across the city, including Mendota, where there’s a consistent need for extra hands in the classroom, despite excellent teachers and support staff.

If you want to help the Morgridge Center sustain the volunteer transportation program, which serves Schools of Hope as well as dozens of other area nonprofits working with children, the elderly and disabled adults, contact Megan Miller at (608) 262-8446 or mmiller5@wisc.edu.

Brennan Nardi is editor of Madison Magazine.