Before accepting his position as volunteer coordinator for Jefferson High School, Daniel Capuia spent several months finding out where students needed help.
"I saw how students reacted with teachers and each other," he said.
He also saw 90 percent of students in one math class fail. In the end, only about three students showed up for the final exam. That's when he knew the school needed him.
Now entering his second year with the volunteer program, Capuia saw a very successful first year. He was able to bring highly skilled professionals into Jefferson, jump start a mentor program and help tutors connect with students who needed help with their studies. Now, he's looking to increase participation in the program and is looking for people in the community to help Jefferson's students.
Capuia — an Angola native, Jefferson graduate and PSU student — has taken on this project for no pay and has given himself at least three years to nurture the program.
"If it wasn't for the kids, I couldn't do this," says Capuia, whose wife Alicia is also a mentor. "Growing up, I remember my parents paid for me to go to school. It's a blessing to have an education that's free."
Looking for a way to give back to the community in which he lives, Capuia "didn't jump into this blindly." After Mayor Potter's much publicized residency at Jefferson last year, community interest in the school has increased – as has a program to get city employees involved in a school that has long suffered from low test scores, dropping enrollment and ever changing administrators.
He said he was wary of his former school, with its history of inconsistent leadership. Only after talking with Principal Dr. Cynthia Harris did he agree to make his three-year commitment. But he says only time and adequate community investment in his program will see it become successful in the long run.
Teachers, he says, are still a bit skeptical. Many teachers, he says, are fairly silent about his program, but he does have a few who have welcomed his help.
"I don't think they can afford to disappoint students anymore," he says about past programs that have come up short. "It's worse to promise something and not deliver."
The tutoring program aims to provide teachers with a relief from their often overcrowded classrooms. Tutors usually come to the school on their own time and allow students to come to them in the community room if they need help.
"We had tutors almost everyday helping students," Capuia says.
This year, he hopes to double the number of mentors to 20, expand the availability of science and math tutors and others who can lend their experiences to Jefferson students. Capuia wants to hold several field trips this year to help nurture that intellectual curiosity in science and math – including to Washington, D.C. – but much of that depends on funding and the availability of volunteers.
Kevin Watkins, the vice president for PNGC Power, volunteered his time last year to speak to students about careers in science and engineering.
Watkins, whose mother and brother attended Jefferson, says he hopes he can motivate students to train in his field – renewable energy.
"My broader goal is to get more and more young people into science and math," he says.
While some volunteers spend time working one on one with students about specific problems they have, Watkins was more interested in reaching a larger audience. Watkins, who leads his company's engineering department, says he spent several lunch periods speaking to classes about career opportunities in renewable energy. He talked about his company's projects in ocean wave energy, a landfill gas energy project near Corvallis and other opportunities in renewable energy.
"Part of it is getting kids engaged," he says. "Ultimately, it comes from them to get involved."
One of the most successful aspects of Capuia's program is the mentors, many of whom have doctorates or high level expertise in their given field. After a background check, mentors are paired with students who have signed up for the program. They are given students that share similar interests and allowed to form their relationship over several sessions at the school. After that, it's up to both the mentor and student to enhance and grow their relationship, although Capuia says he gives mentors a list of recommended activities to ease the burden of planning on the mentors – many of whom lead very busy lives. The program requires a one-year commitment from mentors and students, and he is looking for 20 mentors this year.
Nate Waas Shull, who is coordinating a pilot program to get city employees involved in youth volunteer efforts, is a mentor for a Jefferson student this year. Of the 10 city employees involved in the volunteer program, three volunteer at Jefferson.
"The impact of a mentoring relationship is both short term and long term," he says. "I saw him get into some really positive things this year."
Waas Shull has a paintball event planned soon and he also introduced him to the CAMPFIRE USA program, which allowed the student to learn a number of outdoor activities.
"I pushed it in front of him," he said. "There's more positive stuff in his world now. But he was a great kid before this too."