When the school year began and you buttoned up your precious ones against the fall chill, kissed their cheeks and sent them off with the latest back-to-school goodies, did you make a silent vow that, this year, you would get more involved in your child’s school?
More than likely, you’re next thought was, “What time is it?” Most days, after rushing to work and then home again, you can barely keep both eyes open for dinner and homework duty. Visit the classroom? Volunteer? How can you possibly find the energy or the time?
Decades of research make it clear that parent involvement makes a huge difference. A recent study by the Michigan Department of Education found that when parents are involved, students have higher grades, test scores, and graduation rates. So how can you be involved in your child’s school if you work full time, are on a tight budget, or are a single parent? Family time is already at a premium. What’s left?
Kia Ellis is a single mom who’s found the right balance. “I have to be realistic about what I can and can’t do,” says Ellis, a curriculum consultant. Ellis’ son Cole is in Pre-K, and she’s learning to navigate the tricky waters of full-time work and conscientious motherhood. What’s worked for her is finding a few weekends a year to volunteer at school fundraisers. She also takes a paid personal day to chaperone at least one school field trip a year.
Getting involved in a sustained and meaningful way takes practice. Like Ellis, you should be realistic about your time and what you can comfortably manage. If you’re wondering how to wrangle a few quality hours out of an already-packed schedule to give to your child’s school, here are some tips to get you started:
Take your pick: Back-to-School night, parent-teacher conferences or PTA. The list can be endless, especially at the beginning of the year. Meetings are a perfect way to get involved, even when your energy’s flagged after a long work day. Back-To-School night, in particular, is a great opportunity to meet your child’s teacher or teachers. If you missed it, don’t fret. School meetings in general can really maximize your time. They’re a prized place to meet other parents.
Suzanne Edwards has two busy boys in Los Angeles schools, one in high school and the other in fifth grade. When her new job as executive director of a nonprofit maxed out her time, she got strategic. She volunteered to be the “Parent Communicator.” At Back-to-School night, she gathers parent information and later creates a class directory. She says it takes about five hours to compile all the data into booklets that the school sends home to participating parents. “It’s like a phone tree of sorts. I can finish it any day or night that works with my schedule and it’s really easy to keep up after that,” she says.
Joining forces to fundraise or help out with school projects is priceless, even in middle and high school where parents are sometimes less involved. You can decide later what you can and can’t do, but in the meantime, why not just jump in? It’s a step in the right direction.
Volunteer When You Can
You don’t have to sign up to be the official room parent in order to volunteer. It isn’t an all-or-nothing proposition. Simple things including chaperoning a class field trip, tearing out a class set of perforated book sheets, labeling nameplates, stapling papers sent home with your child or sorting materials for science experiments can really help out. Have an hour a month to do drills with the math team before school? Maybe 30 minutes after school to paint sets for the school play? Every bit of help can go a long way with your kids and school personnel.
Donate Classroom Supplies
Many classroom teachers pay for common household items for class projects and room organization out of their own uncompensated pockets. Some teachers have a wish list for the year. If yours doesn’t, simply ask! On trips to the store, consider buying an extra box of tissues, hand sanitizing gel or plastic Ziploc bags and sending one to school every month or so with your child. Sometimes kids’ families can’t pitch in their share for field trips or special events. Can your family kick in a little extra? If so, don’t just ask once a year. Ask every couple of months. Teachers really appreciate it.
Pick Your Cause
At least every quarter, schools have a fundraiser or a national celebration. Be clear about your time limits, and then contact the principal or the PTA volunteer coordinator to see how you can help. Your passion for a cause such as Earth Day, multicultural awareness or the annual science fair will help with follow-through. Visit online resources such as www.ptotoday.com and www.pta.com for fun and practical fundraising tips.
Keep in Touch
Are you on a budget? Is your schedule so squeezed that you can only manage to get your child safely to and from school, help out with homework and collapse into bed after dinner every night? Never underestimate the impact of a brief phone call or email to your child’s teacher. Accept your limits. Then, throughout this school year, keep in touch. Ask how things are going with your child.
The U.S. Department of Education’s Partnership for Family Involvement in Education assures parents that any level of sustained involvement can make a world of difference. You might not be able to spend actual time in your child’s classroom, but your presence will be felt nonetheless. And after all, that’s what matters most to kids, large and small.
Latanya West spent more than 13 years as a teacher in Pasadena, and now works as a freelance writer.