Who could say no to giving three hours to their childs school over nine months? Thats what the founders of the parent volunteer program Three for Me reasoned -- and they discovered once parents got a taste of volunteering, they were eager to keep coming back. Included: Tips for starting a Three for Me program.
Asking parents to volunteer can be tough. But ask them to commit three hours over nine months to their children's education, and most would sign up.
That's the secret behind Three for Me, a national parent volunteer organization founded by two Indiana moms. By asking parents to pledge just three volunteer hours a year per child, they have generated more volunteers and volunteer hours than they thought possible.
"So many parents want to be involved, but don't know how," said Dee Keywood, one of the Three for Me founders. "For schools, if they are looking for ways to increase parent involvement, that truly benefits children, then Three for Me is something to look at."
About 8,100 schools and 4.5 million parents now are involved with Three for Me, according to Keywood. The National PTA recently adopted the program, and parents from U.S. Department of Defense schools, as well as Canada and New Zealand, have expressed interest in signing on.
Keywood and Thompson also now spend time traveling to other districts to train parents and educators in how to use Three for Me -- a starter kit also is available on the Web site -- all without pay. The organization has received some grants, but functions on a budget of less than $5,000 a year.
"We're doing everything we can to promote it in the state," said Dr. Stephen Heck, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals. "It addresses our concerns about the decline in parent involvement in children's learning. One of the best aspects is that it asks for systematic commitment to the child -- I think three hours is small enough that anyone can do it."
Keywood and her friend, Kris Thompson, gave birth to the idea for Three for Me in 2003 while flying home from a National PTA convention. "We heard about the importance of parent involvement, but had no ideas about how to go about it," Thompson told Education World. The two women, who had met at a T-ball game, were both involved in the PTA at their children's school, Mary Frank Elementary School in Granger, Indiana.
"We started out thinking of asking people for 100 hours -- hey, when we dream, we dream big -- then got it down to ten," Thompson said. "We wanted something [a name] that would rhyme -- we thought of Three for Me -- me being the child -- and it stuck."
The school's principal at the time was excited by the idea. "He was the only man in the school besides the custodian," Thompson added. "He wanted to get more dads involved."
SIGNING THEM UP
Thompson and Keywood decided to ask parents to sign a pledge card for three volunteer hours, and provide them with a list of possible volunteer opportunities. They kicked off the program at a back-to-school picnic in the fall.
After parents signed a pledge card and indicated an area of interest, a parent committee matched them up with a project and kept track of the hours. Parents who completed their three hours had their names posted in the school.
In that first year, 525 parents signed up, doubling the number of hours of parental involvement. The number of volunteer hours by dads also doubled. Three for Me has since spread to other schools in the district.
Many parents, in fact, indicated that they had wanted to volunteer, but did not know how to get started, said Keywood. "Often they said they didn't feel welcome [at the school] or didn't know what to do," she said.
Keywood and Thompson also found that once they connected parents with the school, many went beyond the three-hour commitment. "The first year, parents averaged 15 hours, even though we'd asked for three," Thompson said.
In Three for Me's first year at Mary Frank, 2002-03, parents logged 4,108 volunteer hours. At the end of 2003-04, the total was 8,232 hours. The number of hours for 2004-05 still is being tabulated, but the number should exceed 10,000, said current principal Deb Hildreth.
"It's different from just saying, 'You need to help with homework,' which is a broader range that parents might find overwhelming," Dr. Heck noted. "This can be a catalyst for expanded participation."
Parents who cannot come to school also contribute, by working on projects at home. "We have parents who create flashcards or do computer work," Thompson said. "When kids see this, it tells them school is important."
Parents have taken over responsibility for many activities at the school, Hildreth said. "We've had parents run our photo day, work with students individually, do art projects because our art teacher has been cut, run the yearbook, and help in the library, with PTA programs, and after school programs."
Barbara Klump, who now is the president of the Mary Frank PTA, said now that Three for Me is set up, it is an easy program to maintain.
"It's time-consuming at the beginning of the year, but runs smoothly the rest of the year," Klump told Education World. "We are very fortunate to have a very dedicated parent group, and a lot of that is due to Three for Me. We have so many different committees going on.
"Initially, the PTA might scare them [parents]; they think people will be calling all the time and expect tons of time," Klump added. "Often when they help out, they find out it's fun and it's not scary and three hours becomes ten or 12. Just by getting them to promise three hours it turns into so much more."
Kathy Getz, president of the PTA for the Liberty-Eylau Independent School District, in Texarkana, Texas, said she and other parents were "grasping at straws" to increase parental involvement before being introduced to Three for Me.
"It's the best thing we ever implemented. I can't say enough about it," Getz told Education World. "The reason is that it's so simple it's almost too good to be true. I can't tell you how much smoother the schools are running."
The PTA launched the program in September 2005, and by December, PTA membership had grown from 300 to 500. By next year, the PTA hopes to have signed up at least 1,200 parents, Getz added. Even the superintendent of schools and the mayor signed up and pledged three hours.
"Parents said they were so glad we sent out the cards; they didn't want to just volunteer," Getz said. "We talked to so many people who didn't know how to volunteer without getting in the way People don't mind helping if they know what they can do."
The response has been so positive that the PTA is considering asking some parents to volunteer three hours a month; 50 parents already have made that commitment.
Among the ways parents have been pitching in is by picking up recyclable materials at local businesses and bringing them to the schools, so schools can turn them in for money. Parent volunteers also are freeing up teachers from out-of-classroom work.
"It's a big relief for teachers to have someone do the photo-copying, so they don't have to stay until 7 p.m. to do it," Getz noted. "This alleviates a lot of the time-consuming chores for the schools."
Getz added that she would recommend the program to anyone. "I would suggest every school and PTA implement it. It's never too late in the year to adopt it."
CALLING ALL DADS
Three for Me also helps with a goal many schools have of trying to get more fathers involved. "Schools have found that the presence of dads does make a difference, and this promotes father involvement," Dr. Heck noted.
When Keywood and Thompson first started the program, they asked their husbands why more fathers were not active in schools. Their husbands said men wanted to know specifically what to do, when they could do it, and liked doing things with their hands.
One father-friendly project Mary Frank launched was a pinewood derby, which drew a lot of dads. For those fathers who work locally, Three for Me encourages them to stop into school and have lunch with their child. "Fathers make appointments for lunch or golf -- why not make appointments to have lunch with your child?" Thompson asked.
Mary Frank now has a small committee of men that schedules father/son and father/daughter activities, Hildreth said. "There are about four of them who reach out to other fathers; we can suggest things, but it's really good to ask other dads what they want to do," she said. The school also sends separate mailings to fathers who do not live with their children to keep them involved.
The number of volunteer fathers also increased dramatically in the Liberty Eylau School District. "We have more dads than ever," Getz said. "Some businesses allow dads to leave for a little while during the day [to help at school,] And this is the first time we've had a father who's the vice president of the pre-kindergarten center."
ACADEMICS, BEHAVIOR IMPROVE
Schools also have found the increased parental presence in the schools generated by Three for Me leads to better behavior and better grades. "Research tells us that the first time parents get involved in learning, children's performance goes up by 30 percent," according to Dr. Heck.
Student achievement across the board at Mary Frank continues to grow, Hildreth added. "Behavior also improves. As we get to know the parents, they know me, so if there is an issue, the communication already is there. Parents feel free to talk to me."
After piloting Three for Me at Mary Frank, Keywood and Thompson tracked the academic performance of third graders for two years. The data showed a 14 percent increase in math scores and an 11 percent increase in language arts scores on the state's tests. The number of children passing both sections of the test also increased by 8 percent. "This was the only difference between our school and others," Keywood added.
Bullying also decreased and behavior improved, she said.
Hildreth added that she is sure that all the volunteer hours also save the district some money, "but the real benefit is to the children."
Founders Keywood and Thompson understand that, and are just glad that so many other parents are starting to understand how important their participation is. "We're just two moms, and we just know what it's like to be involved," Keywood said. "And the kids know education is important.
"We both just look at each other and grin," she added. "It's been a great ride."