A Year with VISTA

Hi. My name is Sebastian Downs.  I’ve been serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA with Boston Public Schools Facilities Management for the last year, and as my service comes to a close I’m excited to highlight some of the projects I’ve been involved with and resources I’ve developed.

My official title has been “Boston Green Schools Volunteer Management Coordinator.” As such, I’ve been doing a lot of work coordinating volunteer projects and leading green initiatives throughout the district. This year alone, BPS has leveraged over 4,500 volunteers, who served a combined 23,000 hours, amounting to over $620,000 in leveraged labor! This value does not even include the thousands in resource and supply donations for projects across the district.

In helping support many of these projects, I’ve been able to get out to many of the schools, meet some great community organizations and learn about ways that schools are leveraging volunteers. To help streamline the volunteer approval process and encourage more projects to take place, I abbreviated and consolidated the volunteer project forms in superintendent circular FMT-17 Facilities Volunteer Projects and I created some new (and hopefully helpful) resources for volunteers that include, school garden specifications, volunteer paint specifications, and a tool loan form to help support projects in Boston schools.

One of the biggest volunteer resources we’ve developed over the past year is targeted towards the schools themselves. Working with the Advancement and Partnerships department, and some key community partners, we developed a volunteer project database.  This is where school administrators can register specific projects (tutoring, painting, murals, etc) and seek volunteers to help them accomplish their goals. Large volunteer management organizations can access this database to find projects that fit their needs. This process does not guarantee that schools projects will be completed, since it depends upon finding volunteer groups to fill the request, but it creates an outlet to request projects so that all administrators can have their voice heard. Within eight hours of launching the database we had over a dozen project requests; within two weeks we had over fifty. Now, community partners are actively working to address the projects on the database, and the form is still open to administrators with a need in their school.

In addition to my role with volunteer management coordination, I had the privilege of working with the Planning and Engineering department to green BPS building designs, especially for the  Haley School in Roslindale, which is expanding  into eight new modular classrooms this winter. As a result of collaboration with various facilities staff, BPS will be receiving a high-quality building that will meet the schools needs, while being conscious to reduce water use, energy consumption, waste, and potentially harmful chemicals. The project is now underway and we’re all looking forward to a finished product that we can be proud of.

Another rewarding aspect of my service was working with the Boston Schoolyard Initiative (BSI). As some of you may know, the Boston Schoolyard Funders Collaborative, which has been improving Boston’s schoolyards and outdoor spaces through the Boston Schoolyard Initiative, closed it’s doors after 18 fruitful years. While there was a lot of great work achieved in all that time, including revolutionizing Outdoor Classroom design, and renovating 88 Boston schoolyards, the ongoing work was not yet finished. Part of my role involved working with the dedicated organizations and individuals who made the BSI possible, to transition the work over to BPS. By coordinating the Schoolyard Leadership Committee and working with various stakeholders inside and outside of the department, we were able to create a protocol for identifying and addressing facilities related needs in our schoolyards and outdoor spaces. Additionally, we’ve leveraged professional development resources for teachers – encouraging the use of our existing outdoor infrastructure as a rich learning environment. Again, the work is not finished, but with the support of interested stakeholders we can continue to advance the important field of outdoor education in Boston Public Schools.

Some final projects that I hope you can all appreciate include content on this very website. The calendar and Flickr photos that you see (and hopefully enjoy) to the right of this post were added to the website, as well as many pages I’d encourage you to explore, including the Volunteer Projects, Green Apple Day of Service, Grants, Outdoor Education Map, and more. The Green Schools Newsletter will continue even in my absence and so I encourage you to sign up to receive BPS green schools news under Newsletter.

Through these various roles, I’ve had opportunities to learn and grow professionally. I’ve also been able to work with incredible individuals who care so much about bettering the Boston Public School system. As I move forward into the next stage of my professional and personal life, I’ll take the experiences I’ve learned here at BPS with me, and I can only hope that whatever comes next has just as much to offer.