School started for me in May when, as treasurer, I built a student group’s budget and invoice database.
For other parents, the school year may have kicked off even earlier or just last weekend scouring stores for deals during the tax-free holiday.
For thousands of parents, school doesn’t begin when we take the first-day photos then drop the kids off.
The work starts much earlier to make sure the dance team poms are ordered, football gear is ready, band instruments operating, fundraisers planned, PTA meetings set, T-shirts arrive, class supplies available and the clothes closet full.
As school bells resume ringing again in the next two weeks, parents will be needed to do things like assemble book fairs, work the fundraisers, coordinate the school dance, plan class parties and chaperone field trips.
Things just don’t happen at schools. It comes from outside help to keep everything going.
It seems no matter the school organization — big, small, public, private, elementary, high school — volunteers say more hands are needed.
Every group has a nucleus of people who dedicate the equivalent of a part- or full-time job. They need help.
Only 43% of parents volunteer on a school committee, according to a Child Trends report from three years ago.
Lack of time is the most common excuse heard from parents for not volunteering. For some, it’s a legitimate challenge if working long hours or multiple jobs.
But everyone can do something, even if it is sending a side dish for parent-teacher conferene.
Don’t think of school volunteerism as a major undertaking, just take one thing. Promise to give two hours a month.
That’s enough time to work a shift on a popcorn Friday, schedule pickup, sports team meal, band load-in or concession stand. Or to read to young kids or help tutor in math.
Parent groups are usually looking for donations to provide food for events with school staff, class or student organization. Anyone can pitch in a bunch of grapes, bag of chips or tray of cookies.
For every parent who volunteers or donates, that lessens the burden on another parent and makes it better for students and school staff.
This way, no one has to be overwhelmed or get burned out. It becomes a communal effort.
That Child Trends report found significant disparities in how parents interact with their school.
For parents with less than a high school degree, 54% attended a school event or teacher conference and only 25% volunteered on a school committee. For those with a graduate or professional degree, it jumps to 93% attending an event and 65% serving on a committee.
Those disparities have been constant since 1996.
It looks similar for parents who are living in poverty.
About 62% of low-income parents attend events and 27% are on a committee. For higher incomes, 93% attend events and 47% sit on a committee.
For schools with a large percentage of families in or on the edge of poverty, this means taking different approaches to attract volunteers.
This does not mean parents with a minimum education or less money aren’t good parents. It only means they face unique obstacles when it comes to school volunteerism.
The report doesn’t say what is leading to these gaps. It could be parents work odd hours or are intimidated. Maybe they didn’t have a role model for this growing up and simply don’t know how to get involved.
All these reasons can be addressed by shifting meeting times and outreach.
Digital communication has replaced the old fliers-in-the-backpack system. Even email is pretty old-school by today’s standards.
Parents are looking for information to be pushed to them. Think Facebook groups, texting and apps like Group Me and Remind.
Online signup forms take the hassle out of paper communication. Most parents know the Sign Up Genius site pretty well and like the convenience of signing up from their phones or computers.
Still, there is no replacement for in-person meetings and hands-on volunteerism.
The best way to get volunteers is simply to ask. In every organization I’ve served, what got me there was being asked by someone.
People cannot act on something if they don’t know about it.
The Child Trends report predictably found that parent volunteerism tapered off as children age.
From kindergarten to second grade, about 56% of parents gave time to a school committee while about 51% of third- to fifth-grade parents did so.
Only half strikes me as pretty low. But it gets sad in middle school with only 35% of students with a volunteering parent and 32% in high school.
This doesn’t make much sense. As my kids age, I’m getting more anxious about them leaving one day. With a sophomore and 7th grader, that day is approaching too fast.
I want to be around them more just as they want to assert their independence.
By volunteering, I can be closer to my kids in a way that allows them that freedom.
It also shows through my actions the belief in serving the community. By taking off work or rearranging my schedule, they see that as a priority.
I get the added benefit of knowing their friends, school staff and other parents. It widens my social circle.
Volunteering in school provides a front seat to the challenges and triumphs in the school, making me a better advocate and sometimes critic.
A bright spot in the Child Trends report was the overall uptick in involvement within a decade as 89% of parents (kindergarten through 12th grade) attend a general school meeting, an increase of 12%. Other jumps were found among attendance for parent-teacher conference and class events.
Even among committee volunteerism there was a modest increase of 4%.
For the super active and nearly worn-out parents, don’t feel guilty in saying no to things that are truly too much, but ask for help.
Everyone ought to be doing something.
Just a little bit goes a long way: for the school, child and yourself.
Planning the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre history center