New York State School Boards Association

Student-designed software package tracks community service hours

by Merri Rosenberg

On Board Online • February 5, 2018

By Merri Rosenberg
Special Correspondent

Rob Jacoby was frustrated keeping track of student paperwork in his role as adviser to the National Honor Society at Alexander Hamilton High School in Elmsford Union Free School District.

"It was nuts how much paperwork I was doing for an extracurricular activity," he said.

So when the Westchester County district switched to software that allows students to log their own community service hours, Jacoby was pleased.

"It streamlines the process and keeps everything in place," he said. "It takes away the need for carrying around a document."

The software, called Volunteer Access, was developed by two 2014 graduates of Putnam Valley High School. They were similarly frustrated with the inefficiencies of logging their own community service projects.

"We had this community service program at our school that was using a filing system," said Daniel Munson, now a senior at the Macauley Honors College at Baruch/CUNY, where he's studying statistics and quantitative modeling. "If you did service at some YMCA camp, you had to get a supervisor to sign off, hand in the form, and then an administrator had to enter it on an Excel file. It can get inefficient."

His business partner Blendi Muriqi, now a pre-law political science senior at Fordham, said that coming up with a digital approach "slapped us in the face as something obvious. We saw a problem we could solve."

Their customers are mostly in their home territory of the lower Hudson Valley. Elmsford was one of the first schools to try the software. Other districts using Volunteer Access include Putnam Valley, Pelham, Croton-Harmon and Lakeland, as well as some Dutchess County schools. Roslyn High school in Nassau County on Long Island started working with the platform this past September.

School administrators said the reduction in paperwork seems to benefit students and staff.

"With the age of technology students didn't want to be bothered with paper," said Jeannine Clark, principal at Pelham High School, which started using Volunteer Access last fall.

Students can upload their service hours and activities to a dashboard, which are verified by their community service supervisors via email and are then approved by the appropriate school administrators. Students can keep a running record of the work they've completed, and administrators can use the software to ensure students are on track to have enough hours to graduate. In addition, schools can post community service opportunities on an online bulletin board on the Volunteer Access website.

The cloud-based software addresses problems that often plagued administrators using paper systems. "There were problems with students forging signatures," said William Scampoli, a social studies teacher at Putnam Valley High School and now a consultant to Volunteer Access. "With this system, once it establishes the host and puts through to one email address, students don't have to get approval every time. And when students are missing hours, it's much easier to find the students."

School districts pay a dollar per student per year to use the system, with a minimum annual fee of $750.

"The bottom line is schools want to be saving money, and there's a huge financial savings," said Scampoli. "The cost is completely off set by the administrators' hours."

The creators' work on what became Volunteer Access began in 2013. They first marketed the software in 2015. Munson focuses more on the technology side, while Muriqi concentrates on the business and marketing aspects.

Another high school classmate, Lucas Fishbein, now a student at Binghamton University, worked on initial market research and outreach. Munson's father, Jon Munson, a computer science professor at Manhattanville College, helped translate the design into effective code.

One of the first people Muriqi and Munson impressed with their concept was Fran Wills, who had just become superintendent in Putnam Valley after a long tenure in Briarcliff Manor and a stint as a consultant and staff development coordinator at Pace University. She encouraged the students to pursue the idea.

The 2,000 student district has long fostered a culture where administrators, teachers and students work together on curriculum and schedules to technology and sustainability initiatives.

"The program gave students a more effective tool to identify opportunities for service and to give agencies and non-profits a resource for volunteers," said Wills. She found it "exciting" that the technological solution to a problem was found by students.

Just like software that comes out of Silicon Valley, Volunteer Access is a product that evolves with user feedback.

"In the beginning, one of the things I noticed was there was no opportunity to say 'no' to a project," said Elmsford's Jacoby. "When I've spoken to them about tweaks, they've been quick to respond."

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