What's Dad Doing at School? Readin', 'Ritin', and Repairs

With tight budgets and pressing needs, schools stump aggressively for parent volunteers

When her church asked the congregation for volunteers to serve in a local school, Marian Yoder of Charlotte, N.C., answered the call. For four years, Ms. Yoder has spent an hour each week as a "lunch buddy" at Thomasboro Elementary School. She eats, reads, and perhaps plays with a child during lunch.

To Yoder, the importance of volunteering in school is clear. "These children are going to be the grownups of tomorrow," she says. "By helping a child, you help your community."

In Charlotte and across the United States, schools are searching more aggressively for people like Yoder to volunteer as mentors, tutors, and even carpenters. Foundations are also taking up the battle cry. The Institute for Educational Leadership in Washington, for example, is sponsoring "Take Our Parents to School Week" this week in many communities in an effort to raise awareness about the value of parent involvement and community partnerships.

Driving the push are shrinking school budgets, growing student populations, and greater numbers of children who have special needs, language barriers, and family and personal problems.

"Every child, no matter what their background, needs a little extra support now," says Ruby Houston, a family educator at Thomasboro Elementary.

A national goal

The effort goes beyond the local or state level. Parental involvement is one of the eight national education goals signed into law in 1994. Education Secretary Richard Riley recently formed a partnership that includes religious groups, families, employers, and schools to promote community attention to schools. In addition, the Clinton administration plans to focus on student mentoring during the next four years, says Sue Ferguson, chair of the National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education.

The need for volunteers is forcing schools to play a new role. For many years, schools operated as islands, almost shutting themselves off from the community. Now the trend is turning the other way.

"Schools have made themselves parent-proof, and we've got to change that," adds Haywood Homsley, director of COMER, a site-based management program, at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School System.

Still, in many schools the demand for more community involvement far exceeds the response. As a result, some districts are trying to recruit volunteers as aggressively as headhunters search for executives.

Such is the case in Charlotte. While volunteers have always played an important role in the schools, educators are putting more importance on their contribution, as well as that of parents. Partly it's due to a new superintendent, who is trying to link the schools more with the community. The Charlotte Observer also ran an article last August urging readers to become volunteers, which has generated hundreds of calls. Businesses in Charlotte are targeted, too. Over the last four years, the number of partnerships with companies - where employees volunteer in the schools - has increased from 250 to 443 and includes 20,000 workers.

Parents work together

Charlotte also has a new approach to running schools; it recently adopted the COMER system. Used in about 700 school systems, it is based partly on the idea of getting parents to become a much more intricate part of the educational process. In Charlotte, for example, all 48 schools have created parent-support teams, which handle public relations, assist with literacy programs, work with clerical staff, recruit other parents, and participate in decisionmaking.

Shirley Wiley says the new approach is starting to bring results. Ms. Wiley joined the parent committee at her daughter's middle school this year, after feeling frustrated with its lack of resources, a high staff turnover, and poor media coverage. "The first time they met last year there were three parents there; now there are 20 to 30," she says.

This may be in part because the volunteer efforts are moving beyond the bake-sale level. As districts decentralize their authority they are looking for community members to serve on finance and planning committees, for example. "In a sense, they're being called into the schools not for the traditional can-you-accompany-my-class-on-a-school-trip, but in much more substantial ways," says Sara Melnick, director of development at the National Association of Partners in Education.

Parents who rarely stepped into the classroom before are being sought for tasks that range from sorting mail to fixing faucets. "We had a man who had a reading level at the fourth grade who was able to help us put up doors that were hanging off the hinges," Mr. Homsley says. "He said, 'No one ever asked me if I could do this; they always asked if I could help with the reading course, and I can't even read myself.' You have parents who aren't educated, but they have a very strong ability to give to the schools."

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