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THE GREAT AMERICAN TEACH-IN // A wish list for our schools

They use their own money to buy art supplies and books. Their feet, knees and backs ache by the end of the day, but usually not enough to keep them from bending down and giving a hug.

Sometimes they feel as if they're completely overwhelmed. Sometimes they see things that break their hearts. But they're always back at their desks the next morning.

To teach.

Today is Great American Teach-In day, when teachers arrange for people in their communities to come into the school and talk about their jobs or their life experiences. It's a reminder that education is a continuing process that works best when entire communities _ from business men and women to seniors whose kids are grown and gone _ take an active role.

Each school has different needs. Some have local businesses that help fill the gaps left by budget cuts. Some struggle just to get a handful of people to show up at a PTA meeting.

The thread that links them all is a need for help _ not just one day a year, but as often as possible.

Here are the stories of five educators _ four teachers and a principal _ and how volunteering has affected their jobs.

Money can't buy time

The doors had been open less than two hours Thursday morning, and Willene Givens was already up to her elbows in the business of running an elementary school.

One of her pupils, a little girl, had been traumatized by the gunfire and tear gas from a disturbance the night before and needed counseling. A worried parent of another pupil was on the phone, demanding to have her child transferred to another school.

For the past 13 years, Givens has been the principal at Lakewood Elementary School in St. Petersburg, one of the oldest schools in the county. It is also only a few blocks from the area where most of the recent racial unrest occurred.

Inside the cafeteria, while the staff got ready to serve lunch, Givens pulled up a chair and talked about her kids. Most of the school's 340 pupils come from single-parent families, she said, and about 85 percent qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches.

"Our kids also move around a lot," she said, "so they need someone to help stabilize them. We'd like to have people come in to read to the children. Or have the children read to them.

"You have to remember that, with so many kids coming from single-parent families, mom or dad is usually tired when they get home at night. Sometimes, they're just too exhausted to read to their kids."

For many of her kids, the school on Sixth Street S is a haven.

"This is the best part of their day," Givens said. "You see starlights _ glimmers of moonbeams in their eyes when they're here.

"But the teachers and I need help. To have that human one-to-one contact is critical, because it's what you do for the child, not how much money or programs you have.

"All it takes is to come in and fill out a volunteer card. We can place the person immediately. And it can be anybody. We have a lady who comes in and teaches painting. She's confined to a wheelchair and she feels bad most of the time, but she loves it.

"You see, every person has a gift and a talent that can be shared. Even if it's only one hour a week. It's as simple as telling us what you'd like to do.

"Or we can come to you. It does the kids so much good to go places and do things. If every business could take 10 kids and show them around for a few hours, that's a gift that doesn't cost much, but it pays off in teaching the kids that what they are learning is connected to what they're doing. Many of the kids have never been in a big company and seen what goes on.

"Funding is important," she added, "but this is about more than money. It's about looking a child in the eye and encouraging them, giving them a warm touch every step of the way. Kids who do well get that. Kids who don't do well don't get that.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is that money can't buy the good that a volunteer does."

Their door is open

For the past seven years, on the first Saturday in December, Calvin A. Hunsinger School in Clearwater staged the Run For Santa, a 5- and 10-K race to raise money for the school, which is an exceptional education center for emotionally and behaviorally impaired children in grades K through 12.

"It was our only fund-raiser for all the extra things teachers buy for their students," said Sharon McDonald, a teacher at the school. "We usually raise between $5,000 and $10,000.

"But we couldn't get a corporate sponsor this year, so we lost the race.

"The school is for kids who had a difficulty making it in regular education classes," McDonald explained. "Some have attention deficit disorder, some have chemical imbalances, and we have some kids with fetal alcohol syndrome. So they can't go door to door.

"A lot of people think we get lots of money from the school board. We don't. Many of our teachers supply their classroom with money out of their own pocket. I'm one of them. I've bought arts and crafts supplies, folders, books . . . things that should come out of the budget.

"Our students are not required to bring paper, pencils, folders and other supplies to school, so we're getting to the point where we cannot efficiently and effectively run our program without community support and involvement.

"I'd like to give my kids something at Christmas time, but. . . ."

When the school opened six years ago, it had about 100 pupils. It has since more than doubled in size.

"Our typical child comes from a single-parent family, the mother works, the child is most likely on the free or reduced lunch program, and they probably haven't had many cultural experiences," McDonald said. "They're very appreciative of anything we can do for them."

Never is that more apparent than during the holidays.

"For a lot of them, there is separation anxiety when they go home for the weekend," McDonald said. "It's difficult for them to leave. And at holiday time, it's devastating. They may not be going home to a Thanksgiving dinner because the food stamps ran out.

"These are kids who need our support, be it either a hug or just listening and trying to understand.

"Our door is always open to anyone who'd like to come and help."

Parental support

Lucious "Jake" Bryant served 25 years in the Air Force before he retired as a lieutenant colonel. He could have spent his retirement on a golf course or traveling the country in an RV.

Instead, he teaches ninth-, 10th- and 11th-grade science at Robinson High School in Tampa. Bryant, 58, has been there 10 years now.

Like many other teachers, he is concerned about parental involvement.

"If I had one wish," he said, "it would be that the parents would be aware of what the kids go through, support them and get involved. Even if it's nothing more than encouraging their kids to take the right supplies to school."

Bryant knows something about involvement. His family lives in Melbourne on Florida's east coast. He usually spends the work week in Tampa and drives home for the weekend. Last month, his 16-year-old son had a parent-teacher conference on a Monday night.

Bryant made the three-hour drive, attended the meeting, and drove back to Tampa.

"I have four kids," he said, "and all of them have been or are honor students. Want to know why? My wife and I show an interest in everything they do.

"We've become a spectator population," he added. "We look at our schools, but we don't get involved. Then we complain about the outcome. But the whole system depends on involvement.

"We have to realize that being in a democracy means we have to be aware of what the issues are and make intelligent decisions. That requires people to be educated.

"And if we don't educate our kids, we leave ourselves open to the possibility of destroying our way of life. We all must go hand in hand and make sure our system is the best in the world."

Help for older kids

No matter whether the involvement comes from businesses or individuals, it usually starts to drop off at the middle school level. The kids are older, so the thinking goes, and either they don't need or want the stimulation younger kids should get.

Freda Abercrombie wants to put that notion to rest. She teaches sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade gifted pupils at Thomas Weightman Middle School in Wesley Chapel, near Zephyrhills.

"People don't volunteer as much in the higher grades," Abercrombie said, "but they are needed just as much. I have a parent who comes in and helps me, and she's invaluable. There's never enough time to do everything.

"Also, tons of kids need reading tutors and math tutors, and I'd love to have my kids go to a business in the community and see a real-life application of what they're learning, to see there's a reason to be learning how to do math and why good grammar is important."

It would help, Abercrombie said, if schools made sure they are volunteer-friendly.

"I know that when I tried to do stuff at my son's high school in Tampa, I felt intimidated. I didn't know who to ask or what to ask. And if I felt that way as a teacher, how does someone who's not a teacher feel?

"I even filled out the volunteer form, but no one ever called me back."

It might take some persistence, Abercrombie said, but the advantages of volunteering pay off.

"These are kids who live next door to you or down the block, and they're either going to affect you now or later.

"They aren't someone else's problem."

Looking for ways to help

There really was a chair underneath all those books and papers. Linda McGeehan was sure of that. Her office is hill upon hill of books and supplies, and yet it's organized. When there isn't much space, you learn to make do.

A few feet away in her pre-kindergarten classroom, McGeehan's 4-year-olds are curled up on their cots.

Community involvement is not hard to come by here at Southern Oak Elementary School in Largo. The school has about 700 students who come from upper Pinellas County and south central St. Petersburg.

But it takes work. Southern Oak has an active PTA. When it was announced at a recent PTA meeting that budget cuts had eliminated a field trip, a parent told his employer the next day. That afternoon, the parent had a check to cover the cost.

"People need to know what you need," McGeehan said. "For instance, I go to print shops and ask for leftover paper. It comes in odd sizes, but the quality of the stock couldn't be better. I filled up the trunk of my car the last time I went."

She also hits stationery stores and supermarkets for donations. "Publix gave us paper plates and napkins and old envelopes," she said. "We have the kids write letters, and now, we have something to put them in."

During the recent election, McGeehan stood outside a polling place and collected signatures to get the Reclaim Education's Share amendment on the ballot in 1998. It would return the percentage of state financing for education to levels at or near those before the lottery, which was intended to enhance education funding. Amendment backers say that 10 years ago education's share of general revenues was 40.3 percent. Today, after deducting lottery dollars, education receives 31.4 percent. And this at a time when Florida's student population is 2-million and growing.

"I know people in the community support education," McGeehan said. "They came up to me and almost grabbed the petition out of my hand, they were so eager to sign it. I was absolutely stunned. I collected 182 signatures in an hour and a half. Only five people didn't sign it.

"So I know people want to help. They just have to find a way."