Portland teacher hopes to connect volunteers with classrooms

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PORTLAND — Simon Williams believes schools should be at the center of every community.

So the Portland Public Schools educational technician, who lives in South Portland, has launched a website called School Square.

Its goal, Williams said, is to make it easy for teachers and community members to connect and foster “more parent engagement, more real-world learning, more mentors and more academic support” in classrooms.

Teachers who use the School Square website can build a profile stating their classroom needs, while community volunteers can build a profile stating their skills and their ability to supply needed support.

With School Square, “Teachers can search for the perfect classroom volunteer and community members can explore opportunities to volunteer in schools,” Williams said. “Our new platform will (also) have the ability to easily register, vet, connect and schedule community volunteers.”

School Square was founded in 2015 as a nonprofit, but Williams said this week that “sufficient funding was not forthcoming. (So), after several months of evaluation and discussion, we determined to convert to a for-profit business model.”

To that end, School Square is hoping to raise at least $25,000 through a Kickstarter campaign scheduled to launch Oct. 22.

“The money will be used to hire a software development company to build our new platform,” Williams said. “And, based on our (new) timeline, we aim to launch our Phase 1 application in several Maine schools in 2018.”

Although it’s been difficult finding funding to support his concept, Williams said, “in our initial 18 months of operation, (we) developed a board of directors and launched (a pilot program) in the Portland Public Schools (with) 10 teachers and 30 volunteers.”

In addition to connecting volunteers with teachers at the click of a mouse, Williams also hopes School Square will eventually allow teachers to easily schedule parent-teacher conferences, provide online permission slips with electronic signatures, and give schools the ability to text information directly to a parent’s cell phone.

Williams called it a “tech company that helps students succeed by connecting their schools with the people of our communities.”

The overall vision, he said, is for “every child to wake up inspired to go to school, feel safe and engaged while there, and leave each day feeling like they contributed to something greater than themselves.”

Williams said he started School Square because he believes schools should be places “where kids develop strong relationships with caring adults, where their talents are discovered and where they learn about the world around them.”

Williams is a Portland High School graduate who earned a bachelor’s degree in physical education from the University of Maine. He also played professional baseball in the St. Louis Cardinals organization and served in Ukraine as a youth development volunteer in the Peace Corps.

“In Ukraine, I lived and taught in a small village,” he said. “The school was the heart of the village and it showed me the power of a community-centered school.”

After returning to Maine, Williams became an ed tech at several of Portland’s elementary schools and also coached boys’ soccer at Portland High.

He’s also served as the coordinator of the Rosemont Mural Project, which provided more than 700 students from six of city schools with the opportunity to create public art.

Williams said School Square is needed “because it has the ability to make connections between the community and schools in a way that businesses and individuals simply can’t.

“By simplifying the process of linking interested community members with teachers and classrooms that need them, it makes these opportunities known to people in the community who are willing to share their time, passion and expertise,” he said.

These connections then offer “a portal to experiences, career paths and education that (local students) might otherwise miss. These connections benefit the community members and the teachers and the students, which benefits the entire community.

“In a time where the resources of school systems and many businesses are strained,” Williams said, “School Square means that the schools and the community do not have to sacrifice the level of engagement among community members, teachers and students for lack of funding or (people power).”

Alyssa Tibbetts is a local attorney and a member of the School Square board.

She became involved in the organization, she said, because it has “the ability to provide students and teachers with broader access to members of the community who have experience that is both relevant to the lessons being taught in the classroom and enhances the learning experience for students in a unique and meaningful way.”

Tibbetts said bringing community volunteers into the classroom “is a great way to teach students about the practical application of concepts and theories. I believe that’s a critical part of the learning process and I support School Square because it offers greater opportunities for teachers to incorporate this kind of education.”

With the Kickstarter campaign, Tibbetts said she’s hopeful School Square will be introduced to a larger audience and enough money will be raised to “build the online platform that will bring School Square from a prototype to a complete program that can be utilized by as many teachers and volunteers as possible.”

This story was updated to reflect that Williams is still teaching in the Portland schools.

Kate Irish Collins can be reached at 710-2336 or kcollins@theforecaster.net. Follow Kate on Twitter: @KIrishCollins.

Using Kickstarter, Simon Williams hopes to get enough financial support to fully launch School Square, which will connect teachers with community members.

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