When the students in Monica Jones’s seventh-grade classes at Shaw Junior High School in Washington, DC, received among the highest achievement scores in the city, she got a call from the schools’ deputy superintendent. He wanted to know the secret of her success.
“I told him it was the involvement of parents,” she says. “I could have taken credit, I suppose. I could have told him about my lesson plans, how often we go to the library, how I have them write essays, or even how the students inspire me. But really, I know in my heart, if I did not have the support of the parents, my students would not do so well.”
That’s just what research on student achievement shows. Children are more likely to get A’s, to enjoy school and to go on to ex)liege when their parents actively participate in their education. One of the most meaningful ways to do that is to get involved in the schools themselves. “When my daughters see me going to school and writing letters to make their schools better, they see that Dad is really concerned about their educations,” says Robert Hall, a single father of three daughters in inner-city Philadelphia and president of the parent ass(relation at Thomas K. Finletter Elementary School. “It shows them we can effect change in our community.” Declining school budgets and concern over educational quality have made parental involvement more crucial than ever. “It’s important to be active on the larger issues that affect our children’s schools,” says Vicky Bostick, a resident of Missoula. MT, who is on the board of the statewide Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and has been involved in her children’s schools for 12 years. “I now think more about the big picture, and I lobby state legislators. That’s a big change for me.”
These days, though, the time crunch is on: The majority of mothers with school-age kids are in the workforce, and Americans in general are working longer hours–which means less time for hands-on helping. PTA membership is just over half what it was in the 1960’s, when there were fewer students in the nation’s schools.
Many schools are now trying to accommodate the schedules of working parents: seeking out volunteers to read to kids at the start of the school day, before office hours; scheduling special classroom performances or parent-teacher conferences in thc evening instead of the middle of the day; and setting up weekend projects in which the whole family can participate, such as planting a school vegetable garden or cleaning up the playground.
There’s also been some movement on the part of government and business to make things easier for parents. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) is sponsoring a bill, Time for Schools, which would expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to give working parents time off each year for school-related activities, such as parent-teacher conferences. And Mattel, the toy manufacturer, already allows employees to take up to 16 paid hours a year to participate in events at their children’s schools in addition other vacation and personal days. If your company doesn’t provide such flexible scheduling, it’s up to you to lobby your employer. Even if your company is unwilling to institute a specific policy, your supervisor may be amenable to providing time off on an individual basis.
If you want to help in your children’s schools but haven’t figured out how, here are five ideas to get you started.
* Volunteer in the classroom.
Whether you’re helping a small group with reading or making photocopies for overburdened teachers, your children will love to see you in class, at least when they’re in the lower grades. “It’s surprising how much you can learn about the school anti the kids just by being there and walking through the halls,” says Kim Quirk, mother of two in Richardson, TX. She works at Texas Instruments, which is practically across the street from her children’s school, so she’s been able to volunteer regularly and take part in special events, such as choreographing a dance for first graders: “They did a number from Singing in the Rain. I had so much time,” she recalls. “I feel part of the community there.”
* Keep the school looking good.
Children naturally perform better, just as adults do, when they have a pleasant and upbeat environment. Last year, parents and students at Willard Elementary School in River Forest, IL, worked together to plant hundreds of tulip and daffodil bulbs on the school grounds. “The kids loved it, and in the spring the bulbs were just lavish,” recalls Jean Meister, mother of a first and third grader at the school. “It was a great payoff.” At Bryant Elementary School in Seattle, parent-volunteers helped the children create a giant mural of jungle scenes in the front hall.
* Bring in the experts.
Parents in Missoula, MT, are in the midst of developing a program to help kids learn about the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which passed near the city on the historic Oregon Trail. Working with teachers, they’ve found local experts on beadwork, leather-making, and even taxidermy in an effort to bring history anti social studies alive for the kids. “This sort of project gets everyone excited and makes everyone feel they are contributing something important to their children’s education,” says Bostick.
* Join committees.
In many schools, parent-teacher committees help determine school budgets and policy. The Seattle public schools, for example, encourage parents to participate in “site councils,” which have input on setting and implementing policy. The nature of parental involvement varies from school to school. At the city’s Roosevelt High School, for instance, parents helped screen candidates for school principal. They also got involved in planning the budget and, at one point, launched an extensive campaign to raise money for school supplies.
* Help create special programs or new facilities.
At Seattle’s Bryant Elementary School, a group of parents prepared a grant proposal asking the National Science Foundation to fired a science center. The school now boasts a giant lab on its second floor, where kids can learn about everything from chemical reactions to hatching flogs. Thc program worked so well that other Seattle public schools have now replicated it.
Finally, always keep a close eye on classroom assignments to see what you can contribute; you may have a job or a hobby that relates to what the children are learning. By the same token, you don’t have to have any special credentials to lend a hand. “I have parents of all backgrounds helping here, from professionals to those who never finished high school,” says Jones. “They help with everything from carpooling to teaching a swim clinic to helping the students produce their own magazine.”