PARENTS WANTED: Openings for volunteers at all schools. Many opportunities are available. Compensation: Countless rewards, including enhanced dialogue between parents and teachers, improved student behavior, and greater student commitment to academic achievement. All parents please apply.
Kevin Walker, a parent of four school-aged children and a former presidential campaign organizer from St. Louis, Missouri, has always been active in his children's schools. He has continued to volunteer at a neighborhood elementary school after his youngest child moved up to the middle school. Walker knows first-hand the difference a volunteer can make.
In 1991, Walker combined his commitment to parent-school volunteerism with his professional campaign experience to create Project Appleseed, a nonprofit organization. The organization helps schools and parents promote parent volunteerism by distributing the Parental Involvement Pledge (See sidebar.), parent self-assessment evaluations, and a list of 37 volunteer opportunities at schools.
The pledge really works, Walker maintains. At first, he thought it was a little hokey. The success of Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) convinced him, though. If it worked for MADD, Walker thought, it might work for schools too.
The reason the pledge has been effective is that parents have a variety of ways to help at school. Many parents say they are too busy to sit through meetings, so they don't volunteer because they don't want to commit to joining a school organization, Walker explained.
"The use of the pledge removes the barrier to parent involvement," Walker said. Schools can purchase a parental involvement tool kit from Project Appleseed or download the pledge from the Web site. Some schools use the Project Appleseed pledge, and others use it to help create their own school pledges.
Walker credits this approach for being particularly effective in many economically disadvantaged school districts. Some parents may feel they have nothing to offer or feel intimidated by the school. There is something for everybody on the long list of ways parents can help out at their children's school. Some activities Walker suggests parents could volunteer for at school include the following:
So far, the Project Appleseed campaign has been very successful. As of November 15, National Parental Involvement Day, nearly 3 million parents had signed the Project Appleseed pledge, Walker said. The goal is to recruit 5 million parents by the end of the school year.
The benefits are numerous when parents become active in their children's school. "When parents volunteer, teachers feel they have an ally in the parents, and that dialogue benefits the kids in the end," Walker told Education World. "Children learn that school is important enough for their parent to be there. Why else?"
Increased parent participation plays a very important role in school discipline, Walker said. "The whole tone changes when parents get in the picture. When teachers tell parents these kids are becoming uncontrollable, a different conversation takes place when parents get involved."
Tiffany Buck, a parent of two school-aged children in Casa Grande, Arizona, liked the pledge. An active parent volunteer for many years and now the PTO president at her daughter's elementary school, Buck took the online pledge so she would be more informed about its approach. She plans on showing it to the school principal and introducing it at the next PTO meeting.
"Taking the pledge made me think 'outside the box' in terms of how parents could be involved," Buck told Education World. "Just because we don't see them [parents] at every meeting doesn't mean they aren't somehow involved somewhere else."
Buck places a high value on parent involvement in schools. "This is something we all have a responsibility to do," she said. "It's important to our school, our community, and our country." She is exploring the pledge as another way her school can attract more parents to fulfill that responsibility.
Walker tells about a parent in Centerville, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, who found the parent pledge through the Massachusetts Department of Education Web site. That town's school council adopted the Appleseed concept as a school-improvement initiative.
The majority of parents in that school district signed the pledge. "Students, teachers, and parents have a new enthusiasm," said Olive Chase, a parent and school council member, in a letter to Walker. "We have cleaned up and planted our courtyard, started a school-wide enrichment program, and had 400 parents show up to celebrate our tenth birthday. It just goes on."
Not all schools welcome parent involvement in activities other than the traditional bake sale, though. Initially, some parent-teacher organizations perceived Walker as bashing their organizations.
"In some cases, educators feel they are losing control when parents get involved," Walker said. "When a parent says, 'I am an owner of the public schools,' some educators feel threatened."
Pat Aylward, of Watertown, Massachusetts, has found that true at her daughter's new elementary school. A longtime volunteer, she recently signed the online Project Appleseed Pledge to show it to her daughter's PTO as a way of increasing parent involvement. The new school principal hasn't exactly rolled out a welcome mat to parents, she said.
"At the elementary school, the PTO has always been very active, but since we have a new principal, things have changed," Aylward explained. "I was interested to note that the Appleseed Project speaks well of parental involvement, and I am frustrated with our new principal because he does not exactly promote this. In fact, he turns parents away with his patronizing attitude.
"I think that in some ways, it could be a double-edged sword for the teachers," Aylward told Education World. "It may appear that we are looking over their shoulders, and they might feel that they are under a microscope. Often, however, I find myself caring for other people's children and supporting them in their schoolwork, thus alleviating some of the extra burden the teacher must have. There is definitely a balancing act to volunteering. We are welcome, but unwelcome."
Bringing parents into the schools as volunteers has an added benefit -- it helps build cohesive communities, Walker maintains. When entire neighborhoods show up on a Saturday to clean up school grounds and plant flowers, barriers in communities break down. People come together, face to face, he notes.
Walker recalls the neighborhood presence in the North section St. Louis City, where he grew up. When he moved to the suburbs as an adult with his own family, he found that the neighborly presence he experienced growing up was missing, especially in the suburbs.
Walker is very proud of Project Appleseed's success. A real boost came from President Bill Clinton. Walker was invited to the West Wing of the White House to discuss Project Appleseed's parent pledge six years ago. President Clinton endorsed the pledge, and it became part of the statutory provision for school reform under the reauthorization of Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Schools Act of 1994. The law requires Title I parents to sign a learning compact, which is an agreement that includes schools' and parents' shared responsibilities as equal partners for student learning.
Diane Weaver Dunne
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