Opinion: Loss of volunteers hurts Bridgeport schools

A student gets on a school bus in Bridgeport.

A student gets on a school bus in Bridgeport.

File photo

On June 3, School Volunteer Association of Bridgeport’s board of directors reluctantly voted to dissolve the organization and disburse its assets. This action will bring to an end 54 years of service to children in the Bridgeport public schools. More than 1,000 mentors, tutors and classroom readers have provided free services to students at every grade level. Our latest estimates indicated that in recent years these volunteer hours along with thousands of donated books amounted to a contribution to the Bridgeport public schools valued at more than $1 million annually.

The circumstances that led us to dissolution began in June 2018 when, in the eleventh hour of budget deliberations and other draconian cuts, funding for the Office of Volunteer Services was eliminated from the 2018-2019 budget by the elected members of the Board of Education. An emergency meeting of the SVA Board was held and, using cash reserves and endowment resources, we were able to negotiate an agreement by which SVA would fund the retention of the two employees in that office. At the time we believed that it would be a one-year offer.

We were able to conduct fundraising campaigns that extended our ability to fund the office through the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Generous individuals, businesses and community organizations contributed in order to save services that they believed to be essential for student engagement and advancement. Our current decision and action reflect the fact that we are no longer able to sustain this funding model.

The success of the Bridgeport volunteer model has been due in large part to the incredible dedication of Anne Gribbon and Joyce Goodwin. The fact that they were able to function as Board of Ed employees and coordinate our activities from within the district facilitated all of our programs. They recruited, trained, assessed and matched volunteers with schools and teachers. We have been fortunate to work with such devoted public employees.

There is some good news. The SVA board is not abandoning all our programs. We have found homes for tutors with the Bridgeport Caribe Youth Leaders, elementary school mentors with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Fairfield County, and high school mentors and our scholarship program with the Bridgeport Public Education Fund. We will provide these organizations with contact information for volunteers as well as funding to assist with the program transitions. Sadly, Read Aloud Day and our Reading Enrichment volunteers will not continue in their current design. We do hope that existing volunteer relationships with schools and teachers will continue informally.

The loss of the School Volunteer Office within the Board of Education structure is not an isolated tragedy. Long-term chronic underfunding of urban public school districts is not a new problem and it must be addressed. Bridgeport, with a myriad of issues that challenge education achievement, spends less per pupil than the districts of New Haven, Hartford and Waterbury. The student needs are great and the resources inadequate to successfully meet the task. The loss or reduction in recent years of kindergarten paraprofessionals, social workers, guidance counselors and math and literacy coaches is tragic and guarantees poor outcomes. I hope and pray that city, state and federal leaders will do something to stem this tide. The children of Bridgeport need and deserve better.

Ed Davies is president of the School Volunteer Association of Bridgeport’s board of directors.