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School Volunteer Cheat Sheet

Here's the Metro Parent guide to help parents pick the best position for you – one that shows you support your kids, their school and your other priorities!

Across the nation, but especially here in budget-beleaguered Michigan, schools have relied heavily on parent volunteers to fill the gaps caused by shortfalls in staffing and funds. But lately, parents who are feeling their own personal squeeze due to the economy are pushing back on the commitment.

"I still want to help out," says Diana Cleghorn, a Shelby Township mom of twin grade-school boys who's dialing back, "but I can't do as much." In her case, she's picked up a part-time job since her husband lost hours at work.

Whether parents are PTA veterans or classroom helper neophytes, finding a position that offers meaningful service to the school and fits your skills and life can be challenging. Here's what to consider to find the right match.

What volunteer jobs are there?

Classroom parent. Fundraising committee chair. Party planner. PTA president. Library aide. One-to-one reading helper. Building liaison. The possibilities can be overwhelming – and downright confusing!

Do the words "Room Parent" strike fear in your heart? Get tips on tackling the task here.

Usually, the first chance to learn about volunteering is at back-to-school night, aka curriculum night or welcome night. You'll likely see sign-up sheets for various jobs and committees. A rep from the school PTA may give a brief intro of the committees and needs. Other parents, teachers and school administration are typically here to answer questions, too.

In the first few weeks of school, look for fliers or emails about parent get-to-know-you events. For example, some host a morning coffee meeting to orient parents and get out info about volunteer opportunities. Other schools may have an evening sponsored by the PTA to go over what's needed.

At Jack Harvey Elementary School in Sterling Heights, principal Nicholas Russo spreads the volunteer news via monthly newsletters and automated phone calls home. He recommends that parents approach their child's teacher with questions. While the teacher may not know the answer, he or she will know how to connect parents with the right resources.

Where are volunteers needed?

Russo says elementary school is prime time for volunteers. "Kids at that age want to see their parents, too," he says. "In the upper grades, we try to encourage more independent behaviors, so volunteer time does diminish."

Early grades usually offer lots of options – particularly in the classroom. Parents can help teachers grade workbook assignments or guide kids one-on-one in reading assignments and projects. And, Russo notes, children look forward to seeing mom, dad, grandparents and other caregivers at school.

Fed up with fundraisers? Get some tips on cool fundraising alternatives here.

Debbie LaFontaine helped every week in her oldest child's kindergarten class. "When I started volunteering, I didn't really know anyone very well at the school," says LaFontaine, a Canton mom of three. "By volunteering on a regular basis, I got more familiar with what was happening at the school and within the PTA; then, I could pick and choose what fit in my schedule."

That eventually led to a two-year stint as Plymouth-Canton Community Schools council president. LaFontaine agrees younger grades need more help, but that doesn't mean opportunities stop after that; they just change.

In middle and high school, she encourages parents to look into volunteering time at the library or computer labs. PTA committees often need help, too. Or get more involved at the district level.

How can I fit it in?!

Whatever your circumstances, making time involves effort – especially with other kids in tow. Some teachers will allow younger siblings to tag along, but you should check with your child's teacher first.

Getting organized for the school year can create more time to squeeze in volunteer efforts!

"Pace yourself and figure out how much time you have and where you want to spend your time," LaFontaine says. And if you sign up and then find you just can't do it, let someone know. "I can't tell you how many times someone would sign up for something and then just drop off the face of the Earth."

You also can contact your child's teacher about volunteer needs that don't require time at the school. Principal Russo has three children. "When it comes time to donate items or do projects at home, I help out," such as buying things teachers may need for the classroom.

"I send emails to my children's teacher every couple of weeks to keep those lines of communication open and to see if there's something I can do," he says.

Don't be shy about introducing yourself to administrative staff if you have skills you think they might need, Russo adds. You never know when your talents in, say, carpentry or graphic design may come in handy!

Why volunteer?

"The best benefit of volunteering is seeing the smile on your child's face, having them know that they can depend on you being there," says Shaton Berry, president of the Michigan PTSA. "You're connected: You're building a relationship with your child's school."

Russo believes that the "success of the kids really is hinged on parent involvement."

Volunteering is more crucial than ever to southeast Michigan schools as budget cuts have often increased teachers' workloads without adding extra help. "In our library, the media specialist is now in charge of teaching classes all day, cleaning books, checking in and out books," says Russo. "In the past the media specialist had an assistant; now parent volunteers help."

Plus, when kids see it's a priority for parents, they gain an appreciation for both school and community. Says Russo, "The by-product of volunteering is kids see community service as a crucial piece of anything being a success."

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