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Volunteer life-savers

It’s called “Alphabet Bingo,” a simple game of reading and recognizing letters on a plastic card.

Like the real game that’s led by a megaphone-wielding caller and played by silver-haired ladies on weekends, the goal is the same. Line up matching numbers (or letters) and, when you win, scream the magic words.

And like the real game, those playing inside a classroom at Alta Sierra School are missing a few of their teeth, too.



Only theirs just haven’t grown in yet.

And the caller Thursday was a parent, leading a group of kindergarten students in a game of discovery about their world, one letter at a time.




This is Jason Nelson’s calling, twice a week in teacher Jayne Rath’s class.

He spends up to 100 hours a year in the classrooms of his three children, tutoring, reading, and befriending eager learners.

Rath wasn’t in class Thursday, but that meant little to the 20 or so children clambering around tables reading, drawing and listening.

“If you come into this class most days, it’s hard to tell the teacher from the aide, or from the volunteers,” principal Pat Rath (no relation) said. “Jason is so regular, so steady and so consistent.”

Nelson is one of an army of classroom volunteers crucial in educating Nevada County’s youth. On any given day, volunteers like Nelson, 32, are reading texts, grading papers, leading field trips or readying the glue sticks for the thousands of hungry minds.

Nelson works nights as an electronics maintenance supervisor for NEC, which allows him to spend his mornings with his children in their classroom. The good work paid off, too, when his employer gave the school enough money to purchase two new computers.

Asked why he spends so much time, Nelson, 33, shrugged.

“It’s kind of hard to explain,” he said. “I just enjoy it.”

The variety of classrooms he teaches in keeps the job fresh. In kindergarten, it’s all about reading, cutting and pasting. In fifth grade, they’re discussing fractions and pre-algebra.

“Eventually, you can only do so much artwork,” Nelson admitted.

Scotia Holmes-Sanchez, principal at Cottage Hill School, said the average of 30 volunteers daily help produce an almost equal number of teachers to non-paid helpers.

They are a necessary part of the execution of each school day.

“School would go on, but it certainly wouldn’t proceed at the level it does. The tutoring of students would be diminished without volunteers.

“Even if parents come in once a month, that’s a large number of hours.”

In the Pleasant Valley School District near Lake Wildwood, Williams Ranch principal Sam Schug said he relies heavily on parents and members of the community to work with paid aides and teachers to round out a student’s learning experience.

Some of the volunteers at the small elementary school have been reporting for duty years after their children have left for college and are now parents themselves.

Joanne Flores, a former paid aide at Pleasant Ridge School in the 1970s, back when district superintendent James Meshwert was an eighth-grade teacher, returned a few years ago when she realized she missed contributing to the classroom. Students have changed in some ways, said Flores, grading papers in teacher Nancy Follis’ second-grade class at Cottage Hill School.

“They seem to be a lot more intelligent,” she said.

Angela Otwell, whose son David is in teacher Treece McCutcheon’s kindergarten class at Cottage Hill, said volunteering removes any suspicion or doubt about what her children are learning.

“When they come home, I know what they need to work on,” said Otwell, who has been volunteering since her twin fifth-graders were in kindergarten.

“They love it when I’m in here,” she said, noting that might not be the case in a few years when the teen years set in.

“I don’t go easy on them,” she added. “If anything, I’m tougher.”

Spoken like a true teacher.


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