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No Child Left Behind

George Best’s deep blue eyes have the spark of a 20-year-old on a mission from God. The 70-something-year-old stood in the hallway of West Hills Elementary School Wednesday morning just outside the school’s library next to a stack of books, fiddling with his hearing aide. Although Father Time has affected Best’s hearing, he hasn’t affected Best’s spunk or drive in life: he consistently volunteers at the school five days a week for three hours a day.

Best decided early on in life that he was going to leave his mark on the world, he just didn’t know how.

His answer came as a young lad in the Merchant Marines, when Best failed the first engineering test he ever had to take.

“I just told myself, ‘George, you’re going to have to do better than that,’” he said. And then he hit the books, beginning a life-long love of learning.

Now, he volunteers his time at West Hills Elementary as a tutor of all trades, hoping to share that love with the children he comes into contact with every day.

He, and the other some 60 volunteers at the school, are making a difference. A big one. At a time when the Bremerton School District is facing tougher regulations than ever before, every little bit helps.

The federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 2001, also dubbed No Child Left Behind, raised the stakes on education. The ESEA is broad-based, sweeping education reform that basically states every child in the public school system, including students in the special education curriculum, must make progress every year. The progress is based on the individual state’s standardized testing.

In the state of Washington every student must make progress on the Washington Assessment of Student Learning. The law allows for a small percentage of special needs students to use an alternative assessment. The eventual goal is for every student in the state who must take the WASL to score 100 percent —both reading and mathematics — by 2014.

Six years ago, when West Hill’s Elementary School’s WASL scores were announced, the news was nothing to cheer about. Only 32 percent of the fourth-graders who took the test met the state standard, said Donna Gears, West Hills Elementary’s volunteer coordinator.

Based on that data, the school applied for a $25,000 grant from the Washington Reading Corps program, which was created by the state in 1998 to help kindergartners through six-graders learn to read.

The program paid for materials and decorations for a reading room at the school. It also funds six volunteers from AmeriCorps to help out at the school. Although currently there are only two of the six working because the federal budget has not yet been signed; the school can only afford two until the federal funds come through.

In addition to the AmeriCorps workers, the school has a partnered with practically every organization under the Bremerton sunshine, including the Bremerton Rotary, Bremerton Kiwanis and the Naval Station Bremerton, to bring volunteers in, Gears said.

The school is now in its sixth year of the program, and the proof that it works is in the pudding. Last year, 74 percent of all fourth-graders who took the WASL met the state standards.

The school uses an aggressive mix of the Washington Reading Corps program and community volunteers to tutor children who have fallen behind in math and reading.

About 100 children file into the volunteer’s reading room every day for half-hour one-on-one tutoring sessions. Once the tutors are trained, the students who are struggling with either math or reading are called out of their classes to receive one-on-one instruction.

During a Wednesday morning session, long-time volunteer Myrna Corwin helped fourth-grader Cheyenne Denton with a Dr. Seuss word search.

Denton began volunteering at West Hills in February 2000. She has had two children go attend West Hills and has a third currently enrolled, Sarah, a second-grader.

“There’s a specific feeling about this school. I feel like I’m part of a family,” Corwin said. “It’s always been that way.”

Corwin, who is bi-lingual, is trying to get hired within the district and knows that volunteering will give her a better shot, but that is only part of the reason she volunteers.

“School is such an important part of their lives. It makes me feel good that I am here to help them,” she said. In addition to feeling the gratification every year when the WASL scores come back, Corwin said it is a neat feeling to go to the junior high school her oldest child attends and recognize some of the students there as some she tutored in grammar school.

For Joyce Cowdery, mother of second-grader Max, volunteering is a way to stay in touch with her child’s teacher and to become involved in her son’s education process. Cowdery has been a volunteer at West Hills Elementary for about nine years, when her daughter was a student there.

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