Parents, grandparents, alums, and community members provide a big assist to Shaker students and their teachers, when they volunteer their time and talents.

By Jennifer Proe
Mercer Elementary's Marybeth Eakin (second from left) with volunteers (L- R) Ruth Mayers, Susan Taylor, Sylvia Cooper.

Mercer Elementary’s Mary Beth Eakin (second from left) with volunteers (L- R) Ruth Mayers, Susan Taylor, Sylvia Cooper.

Throughout 32 years of teaching at Mercer Elementary School, Marybeth Eakin has welcomed dozens of volunteers into her classroom to work one-on-one with students on their reading skills. Some are the parents of children currently enrolled at Mercer. Others are grandparents.

Ruth Mayers, SHHS ’70, is a lifer. She says, “I started out at Mercer as a student 60 years ago, and I never left the building.” All three of her adult children and three of her five grandchildren attended Mercer. She still lives in the Mercer neighborhood and loves attending the annual flag raising and lowering ceremonies, the clap-outs, and Halloween parades. But most of all, she loves giving back to her community by staying plugged in as a volunteer.

“There’s nothing more satisfying than watching a child learn to read,” says Mayers. An added bonus? “When you work with young children, and view the world through their eyes, it keeps you young,” she declares.

Sylvia Cooper, whose granddaughter attends Mercer, also volunteers with Mrs. Eakin’s first-graders. Cooper started out as a Lomond student and graduated from Shaker in ’69. After retiring from her career as a teacher and principal in Bay Village, a special “Grandparents Day” at Mercer drew her back to the classroom as a volunteer.

“It’s a great way to stay connected with my granddaughter, and for her to see that as we get older we can still give back and help out,” says Cooper. “It makes me feel good; it’s a reward for me. I love seeing the students’ progress as we work on a skill.”

Mercer parent Susan Taylor finds working with students on reading skills, one-on-one at a table in the hallway, to be much more her cup of tea than, say, chaperoning a field trip. “I like that I can really get to know them as individual students,” she says. “I’ve seen such remarkable progress, and I love when it clicks with them.”

Making Deep Connections

Keith Langford, the District’s Family and Community Engagement Coordinator, knows that the members of this community have much to offer Shaker students and their teachers, and has made it his mission to tap into this wealth of knowledge and caring.

Keith Langford, Family and Community Engagement Coordinator for Shaker Schools

Shaker Schools Family and Community Engagement Coordinator Keith Langford

“So many of the fantastic events and learning programs in the Shaker schools happen only because of our committed volunteers, and we are always looking for more help,” says Langford. “We have volunteer opportunities for social and academic events, during the school day, in the evenings, and on weekends.”

To help match volunteers with those needs, Langford manages a volunteer signup database at shaker.org/volunteer. One such effort that relies heavily on volunteers is Woodbury’s Repeated Reading program. Woodbury staff members Renauta Griffin, Kim Harris, and Pat Rashid train up to 20 volunteers each year to work one-on-one with fifth- and sixth-graders to improve their reading fluency. Students read the same passage aloud with a volunteer three times in one week, as the adult checks their progress and coaches them for improvement.

“Our volunteers are wonderful, selfless, and earnest workers who go above and beyond just reading with our students,” says Griffin.

The volunteers often make deeper connections with those students, who look forward to their arrival each week. Two who have particularly enjoyed making those connections are Mike Schiavoni and Pamela Watts, both of whom are retired human resources executives and parents of former Shaker students. Schiavoni, whose grandson attends Onaway School, enjoyed volunteering so much that he recruited several fellow Plymouth Church members to the program.

“I describe this program as a win-win-win,” says Schiavoni. “It’s a win for the students who improve their reading skills, it helps the teachers by supplementing their efforts, and it’s rewarding for the volunteers.” He plans to re-enlist this coming year.

Says Watts, “I’m a people person, so I like the one-on-one contact with the kids and seeing their growth. Their skills, confidence and self-esteem are improved so much through this program.” She loves working with the same small group of students each week, and has requested to work with them again next year if possible.

When Keith Langford learned about Watts’ background as a human resources manager at Nestlé, he found yet another way to put her talents to work: conducting mock interviews with students at the High School’s Innovative Center.

“I helped the students with some of the basics of job interviewing,” says Watts. “It starts with hello, proper attire, demeanor, body language, and posture,” says Watts, who likely interviewed thousands of employees during her 30 years with Nestlé.

Bringing Real-World Experience

Another District-wide initiative that relies heavily on volunteer mentors is the International Baccalaureate Fourth-Grade Exhibition.

Shaker schools volunteer with students

Former journalist Joe Miller working with students at Lomond School.

In this capstone project for the IB Primary Years Program, small groups of students work collaboratively to research and take action on a particular topic. Mentors meet with the students for one hour a week, starting in the spring, to help guide them in the process.

Joe Miller, a parent of four Shaker students and a former journalist, has served as an IB Exhibition mentor at Lomond School for the past three years. He also puts his journalism training to use as an advisor on the school’s student newsletter, The Lomond Wave. Miller likes that his time in the classroom – “being in the trenches” – gives him a different vantage point as a parent.

It also doesn’t hurt that the kids treat him like a rock star when he shows up at school. “It’s great from an ego perspective,” he admits. “I think they like having someone new and different come in to work with them.”

The need for volunteers does not decrease as the students grow older. If anything, mentors who bring real-world experience into the classroom are more valuable than ever. For instance, at a twice-yearly Middle School Design Day, dozens of Shaker parents and community members who work in the STEM fields come in to talk about their jobs and engage students in hands-on activities related to what they are learning in school.

Mity Fowler, who served as co-president of the Middle School PTO and helped coordinate the event with parent Gretchen Witt, observes, “At this age, students are just starting to figure out what they might be interested in. Having parents from all different backgrounds come talk to them really helps them visualize how they might apply that information someday.”

Mentors are also in demand for High School students seeking to explore career options. Dan Bickerstaff, architect and owner of Ubiquitous Design, Ltd. in Shaker Heights, has sponsored several Shaker students over the years for their senior project. Two of those students are now pursuing architectural studies in college.

Volunteers (L-R) Dan Bickerstaff, Mike Schiavoni, and Pamela Watts

Volunteers (L-R) Dan Bickerstaff, Mike Schiavoni, and Pamela Watts

Bickerstaff also volunteered at an after-school program called Making Our Own Spaces, which gives Shaker Heights Middle School and High School students the opportunity to design and build structures to enhance their community. He spent an afternoon helping the kids learn to use power tools and talking to them about what it’s like to be an architect.

“Without a doubt it’s very rewarding,” says Bickerstaff. “I want to give back because so many people assisted me when I was a student.”

Ruth Mayers, for one, would love to see even more community members join the ranks of volunteers in the Shaker schools. “People who support education – that is the most important gift you can give to your community. Grandparents in particular have a lot to offer, and I think we don’t tap into it enough.”

Shaker Schools Want YOU!

Interested in volunteering, but not sure what you’d like to do? Step one is to visit shaker.org/volunteer and fill out a brief online survey. Or call Keith Langford, Family and Community Engagement Coordinator, at 216-295-6268.

Volunteers who work one-on-one with Shaker students outside the presence of a staff member must complete a background check that involves having their fingerprints taken at the Administration Building. The process takes only a few minutes and is valid for one year. Call 216-295-4339 to schedule an appointment. No background check is required for volunteers who are always in the presence of a staff member.

The Parent Teacher Organization (PTO) at each school has volunteer opportunities for every level of interest and availability, both during the day and outside
of school hours. Sign up at Coffee on the Lawn at your child’s school at the start of the school year, or email your PTO president at any time to learn
about volunteer opportunities. Often, no particular expertise or time commitment is required.

For a roster of PTO contacts, visit shaker.org/ptocouncil.aspx.

Originally published in Shaker Life, Summer 2017.