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Contribute to and Volunteer at Your Child's School Your Way

PTA meetings just don't fit your schedule or your personality? Consider an alternative way to give back, like these Detroit parents.

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Everyone's kids do better when parents are engaged and involved at school. There's a lot of reasons for this – involved parents are more likely to work as partners with their child's teachers, more likely to talk up the school to others and more willing to give of their time to improve their student's educational experience.

But urban schools face some extra challenges to parent involvement. For one, many parents struggle enough just to provide basic necessities that the energy to get involved in school isn't there. Also, parents may work several jobs and nontraditional schedules, lack reliable transportation or not be able to take on the financial burden of parent teacher association dues or activity fees.

The National PTA (Parent Teacher Association) is trying to overcome the barriers to participating in cities with their Every Child in Focus Campaign. Each month, it addresses another issue with suggestions for schools to make involvement easier for every type of family.

"We're trying to bring on those parents to get them more engaged," says Otha Thornton, National PTA president. "We look at different ways of communication, and we are continuing to try to reach out."

It's also tried a lot of tactics to make schools more welcoming to men, Thornton adds, including staging an event with a NASCAR driver dropping off school supplies at a back-to-school event. After all, parent involvement has a more far-reaching effect than on just that one child, he notes. For example, parent involvement can make a real difference in the quality of a school system, which then brings up property values.

As challenging as it can be to find a way to volunteer, Detroit parents are stepping up to make their children's school a better place. Here's how they do it.

Incorporate your job

Deirdre Young is director of multicultural programs at University of Detroit Mercy School of Dentistry. She also runs a program called Dental Imprint that teaches young people in grades 7-12 about careers in dentistry and how they can get there – and then brings them onto UDM's dental campus for a day of activities. She had started doing this on her own time, but approached her bosses at UDM to see if she could start doing it as part of her job. "They were interested in increasing the pipeline for disadvantaged youth or minorities," Young says. "We wanted to focus our efforts to increase the population of dentists in Detroit and serving in underserved communities." Thanks to a federal grant, they are in 10 schools now, all within the city limits.

She suggests anyone who can help young people get started on a career path try to get their company's blessing to do so. Many companies want to offer externships or find other ways to recruit underrepresented young people as a way to cast the widest possible net for talent, she says, and are receptive to ideas parents might have.

Young says this is very meaningful to her because she is a product of Detroit Public Schools, and showing young people just like her the path to a career she has enjoyed and succeeded at is a real pleasure. "It's really exciting to go back to my district and to be of service to a group that was of service to me," she says.

Use your skills

Waldorf School in Detroit assigns parent volunteers as class captains to get the word out about volunteer opportunities. One of those volunteers is Chris Reilly. He's helped with several construction projects around the school, including tearing out the old science labs and replacing the tops of desks.

For him, it's a way to show gratitude to the school's sole maintenance worker by helping make his job easier – and to give back to the school itself because, like many students' families here, they pay tuition based on their income instead of the full price.

"It doesn't matter if it's public or private; there's just never enough money to compensate the people that work with our children on a level commensurate with the level of work they do and the importance of the job that they do," he says. "It's a way of putting gratitude into action."

He says there's also a sense of pride in walking his kids into school every day and seeing something he fixed. And volunteering has created a network of fellow dads – there's a group of six or seven fathers who get together for dinner every month.

"In the end, it tells kids that I value education because they saw that I volunteer," he says.

Spread the word

One of the truisms of raising a family in the city is that whenever two or more Detroit parents are gathered, we talk about schools – where you child goes, where other kids you know go, and have you heard anything about this new charter opening up down the street? In a city where education choices can be difficult, parents know networking and information is crucial. And for schools, the best ambassador is a parent who loves your school and wants to tell the world.

When a school is yet to open, those ambassadors become even more crucial, as there is no track record to point to. Yolanda Nichelle's daughter attends the James and Grace Lee Boggs School, which opened this fall after a multi-year planning process. She was very excited about the school, and did everything from moving desks to promoting it through her social networks.

"I have been really searching for an alternative to education for my daughter for the last two years," she says. "We've been ready for Boggs – when I knew it was opening this fall, I said 'Whatever needs to be done, I am willing to do.'"

The leadership of The Boggs School also made a strong point of asking parents how they wanted to be involved, versus dictating what they needed, Nichelle says. "They were really interested in fostering a sense of community and helping parents feel a sense of ownership over the schools."

It's done that for her, Nichelle says, and she'd advise parents who want to help to approach their child's teacher first, explain their unique situation, and ask how best they can pitch in. "I think that's the best place to start, and it can be as simple as sorting crayons."

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