Martha’s Vineyard schools tap community members as resource

Two pilot programs in the works will tap Island residents who have excelled in a personal and/or professional way to be volunteer speakers and mentors for the Martha’s Vineyard Public Schools (MVPS).

Rolfe Wenner of Edgartown came up with the idea for the programs as a way to utilize members of the Rotary Club and First and Third Thursday Club, to which he belongs, and other Island organizations as a resource for Island schools.

In one program community volunteers would serve as speakers in MVPS schools, and in the other program as mentors for students interested in particular careers or fields of study.

“I think it’s a great idea,” superintendent of schools James Weiss said. “Any way we can involve the community in our schools is a win-win for everyone.”

Mr. Wenner, a retired school superintendent from Connecticut, said he and school administrators initiated a program to connect schools and communities through a speakers’ bureau. It included community members with a variety of backgrounds and experiences who volunteered to speak in the schools to students of all ages and grades.

Since Mr. Wenner and his wife Sara retired to the Vineyard in 2007, he said he has been amazed by the backgrounds and personal and professional experiences of Islanders he meets. It occurred to him that Island schools could tap into a rich resource of speakers that could supplement the curriculum.

After he pitched the idea to his fellow Rotarians, Mr. Wenner met with superintendent Weiss and MVRHS principal Stephen Nixon in the fall to discuss the speakers’ bureau concept. He also suggested that Rotarians could establish a mentor program to partner volunteers with students with similar interests.

Mr. Weiss suggested that a mentor program would fit in nicely with the high school’s existing senior project program. The program allows graduating seniors who have finished required courses to work on a project of their choice their last semester, with guidance from a teacher and mentor from the community.

Mr. Weiss said some students find it difficult to decide on a topic. Mr. Wenner suggested that Rotarians could help initially by providing a list of ideas. Once students pick a topic, the Rotary mentoring committee would then meet with school staff to match up students with mentors to their interest.

After the meeting, Mr. Wenner received the go-ahead to pilot the programs in the upcoming months. Mr. Weiss emailed a letter from Mr. Wenner to school principals about a month ago to inform them of the new speakers’ bureau and to explain how it works.

“In creating a speakers’ bureau, the intent is to supplement and not supplant the existing program or curriculum,” Mr. Wenner told The Times. “The intent is not to develop ‘career day’ type programs, but to provide untapped resources for the schools.”

Based on previous experience, Mr. Wenner said he found that schools received a large number of requests from outside groups and individuals for programs or presentations. and that too often such requests promoted specific interests not related to curriculum.

To guard against that, Mr. Wenner recommended in his proposal for the speakers’ bureau that all requests for speakers would be generated by school staff and relayed by school principals to him. He in turn would match up with a topic with a speaker.

As the point of contact, Mr. Wenner said he would meet with all volunteer speakers to review the guidelines, teachers’ expectations, appropriateness of activities, and suggested time limits for presentations.

Mr. Wenner already surveyed the Rotary Club and other organizations and came up with a list of 21 Islanders who have volunteered to speak to students on a variety of topics and issues.

Some of the speakers and their topics include Paul Watts on how to avoid credit problems after high school; Fred “Ted” Morgan on what it was like to be a paratrooper in WWII, Edgartown town government, and the role of the U.S. in world affairs, past and present; Hans Van Steiger on the future of nuclear energy; Michael Loberg on how the field of chemistry will affect the future; William Little on how to develop a business on the Internet; and Dr. Arthur Spielvogel on the latest advancements in cancer treatment and research.

Although many of the topics may be more relevant to middle and high school age students, Mr. Wenner said the volunteer speakers told him they could tailor their remarks for younger students.

“I would attempt to work with individuals in determining that their comments would be age-appropriate.” Mr. Wenner said.

His goal is to get the pilot speakers’ bureau and mentor program up and running this school year.

“Our hope is that this spring, the programs will really take off, and then we can expand them with more volunteers from the Island community next year,” Mr. Wenner said.

For more information, contact Mr. Wenner at 508-627-8988.