Step inside any public school these days, and you’ll likely see parents working alongside the staff.
They’re running arts education in some schools, coordinating major fundraisers, setting up school assemblies and planting campus gardens. The deep budget cuts of recent years have left a void, and an army of parents is trying to fill it with donated money and time.
The California State PTA estimates its members volunteered about 20.6 million hours last year, up slightly from 19.8 million hours two years earlier. Nationally, observers have seen a similar trend. VolunteerSpot, a company that helps organize volunteers, mostly in schools, has seen figures skyrocket in the course of a year. The site logged 2.25 million volunteer hours in 2011, up from 750,000 in 2010.
Help us do more.
“We really saw a big rise in parents volunteering in 2010, when the reality of the budget crisis hit,” said Karen Bantuveris, VolunteerSpot’s founder and CEO.
Educators say parent volunteering makes sense on multiple levels. Not only is it sorely needed, but researchers also have shown a link between parent involvement and higher test scores and better school attendance.
Some schools are getting creative in the ways parents can help. At Dianne Feinstein Elementary School in San Francisco, parents are given a checklist of 26 volunteering opportunities, ranging from answering the phone while the school secretary takes her lunch break to writing grant proposals and updating the school’s website.
“The traditional way parents think of volunteering is helping in their child’s classroom,” said Liz Isaacs, the school’s PTA president. “But there are so many ways to participate for working and nonworking parents.”
Isaacs said the goal is for parents to find their passion and help in a way that’s meaningful to them. Some parents with special expertise help enhance the instruction by sharing their knowledge of art, engineering and gardening during class. The teachers stay in the classroom, and it allows them to work with smaller sets of students.
San Diego mom Christine Groves helps frequently at her children’s elementary school – teaching art lessons, organizing a spelling bee, overseeing fundraisers and coordinating school library visits.
“We have daily volunteers at the school. You have to these days,” said Groves, who estimates spending 30 to 40 hours a week working as PTA president at Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary School.
Parents at the school volunteer in excess of 5,000 hours annually, helping run art classes, coordinating fundraisers that pay the salary of a choral teacher and organizing school assemblies. Parents run the art lessons with a DVD-based curriculum that teaches students concepts and techniques through many mediums, including chalk, paint and clay. They visit each grade at least once a month with a 90-minute lesson.
“The kids love it. The teachers love it,” Groves said. “We have a contingency of parents who are very arts-oriented and feel it’s important to provide these lessons, as well as math, reading, history and science.”
California State PTA President Carol Kocivar said she has seen parents step up to fill many gaps left by the budget ax.
“If there’s an area that’s hard hit – whether it’s art, music, a reduction in the number of counselors or a loss of librarians – PTAs are helping meet that gap,” Kocivar said.
Some schools are reaching out to dads to help with everything from camping trips to spring-cleaning projects. Laurence Cheng, a father of two, has pitched in with school maintenance projects at Commodore Sloat Elementary School in San Francisco. The volunteers have done everything from helping to build a storage shed to painting a fence, installing new computers and weeding the school garden.
“We want a school everyone can be proud of and feel comfortable in,” Cheng said. “The biggest goal is to build a sense of community and have everyone reinvest in the school.”
But as the budget cuts continue, some parents wonder whether their level of service is sustainable. Some acknowledge hitting a burnout point, as they are asked to do more every year.
San Carlos mom Katy Linn says she got to a point where the e-mails, calls and endless projects felt intense.
“I felt like if I’m going to work this hard, I should be paid for it,” said Linn, who volunteered as an auditor for the PTA at White Oaks Elementary School. These days, the mother of two is more strategic about her volunteering. She limits it to about two hours a week, organizing a tutoring program and helping coordinate special parties and events as a room parent.
“I try and pick something that I care about, that will help the students in some way,” Linn said.