Too Busy for Bake Sales?
How you can get involved in your children's school
By Gale Pryor
You know the routine. Every week the notices and newsletters come home from school in your children's backpacks announcing school activities and events - and every one needs volunteers to make it happen.
The library needs volunteers to check out and re-shelve books every morning. The computer lab needs parents to help out every afternoon. The third grade pilgrim project has asked for parents to help cook the Thanksgiving feast. The second grade apple picking field trip won't happen unless 12 parents can come along. The school needs a new playground, and someone has to raise the funds to pay for it. And you can't say yes to any of these requests because you're not home during the day. Heck, sometimes you're not even in the state during the day.
Parent volunteers, however, make the difference between an average school and a stellar school, and can be the driving force in turning an under-performing school into a model for excellent education. Rose Feinberg, Ph.D., the principal of the Burbank School, a K-4 elementary school in Belmont, Mass., says, "The quality of what we can provide children is very much impacted by the degree to which parent volunteers can provide their time and support." Like Burbank, most schools have a core group of parents, the PTO regulars, for whom school is the focus of their energy, whose faces are familiar sights in the library, the computer lab and on field trips. Does the school really need you, too?
Yes, say the schools, the PTO regulars and education experts. Parent involvement is about more than about keeping library books properly shelved. Not only does parent participation ensure the quality of schools, but it makes a real difference to your own child. Children of parents who are active in their school do better academically on average than the children of parents who do not participate. Tim Sullivan, publisher of PTO Today, admits that "there is chicken and egg question about the effect of parent volunteerism on children's success. Does parental involvement have a direct effect on children's ability to succeed - or are the children of parents who tend to get involved more likely to succeed anyway? Sullivan points out that it doesn't really matter. "Clearly, the child who sees his parent at school, investing time and effort, knows that his parent values what goes on there, and therefore the child will, too."
Your child's school also needs you because the goals of parent volunteerism have changed dramatically in the last decade. As school budgets are slashed, what was once considered an expense to be paid for by the school or the local government have now been redefined as extras left for the PTOs to fund. "If our library is going to buy any new books this year at all," says Susan Polit, the mother of a 7th grader, "they're going to be paid for by the PTO." Increasingly, school systems depend on PTOs to provide basic classroom supplies.
As a result, PTO activities have gone way beyond bake sales. The average PTO raises and spends $20,000 a year, says Sullivan, and many have annual budgets of as much as $50,000. Top private school parent associations may have six-figure budgets. An effective parent group today demands high level skills in fundraising, community outreach and cultural enrichment. In short, it needs the skills and expertise you bring to your professional responsibilities every day.
So how do you contribute, and when? Here are ways in which you can support your children's school:
Ask. Call your PTO president and ask how you can help. Describe the skills you can bring to the group. Are you a marketing executive? They need your help promoting the spring book fair, the winter auction and other events. Are you a nonprofit professional? They need your help to take their fundraising to the next level, and keep more of what they make. Are you a CPA or in finance? You can help them better organize the books and make their capital grow. Do you work in the arts? You can help find talented artists, authors, and experts to visit the classrooms to bring to life curriculum units. Do you work in politics? Help the school find ways to reach out and connect to its community. All of these contributions require more expertise than actual hours, and can be accomplished with phone calls and memos rather than days off from work.
Find one event or program you can call your own. Eileen Litch works full-time in publishing and decided that she could best contribute to her children's school by running the annual spring book fair. She spreads the planning work out over the full year, delegates whole sections of responsibility (publicity, refreshments, etc.) to her committee members, and takes a few days off from work the week of the fair to pull it all together. "The key to making it work for me is being the chairperson of the committee so that I can schedule our monthly meetings when I can make them, even if that means meeting evenings or Sunday afternoons," Litch says.
If taking on a whole event or throwing yourself into fundraising is undoable, know that any help at all is appreciated and needed. When the average PTO membership accounts for just 20 percent of the parent body, "if every parent gave four to five hours of their time a year," says Sullivan, "there would be a huge increase in parent involvement."
Treat the school and the parent body as your community center. More than any other institutions in modern American lives, our places of work and our children's schools connect us to other people and to our community. Working mothers, however, often miss out on the social aspects of having a child in school because they don't cross paths with the other parents as much. Deborah Sloan, a marketing director, volunteers in her first-grader's class several times a year and knows the school principal well but, she says, "I can't help but still feel a bit out of the loop - perhaps because I'm not meeting the other parents when my son has play dates or when he's picked up from school." She has found that "knowing other parents keeps me better informed of what's going on, so I've been trying harder to get to know them by inviting them for dinner or planning for my son to see his friends over the weekend when I can spend a bit of time with the parents."
Sullivan concurs, "In a fast-paced world getting involved in your children's school is a great, old-fashioned way to stay connected." Whether a little or a lot, the time you spend working for your child's school pays big dividends, for the school, the community, your child and you.
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