In most of America’s schools, grades pre-K through 8, many parents eagerly volunteer help in a range of school programs and activities. In grades 9 through 12, parents still get involved; however, there is often a comparative backing off in parent engagement. To get the fullest advantage of parent participation in school programs and activities, and especially to sustain the momentum into the upper grades—even having upper school students welcome their parents’ involvement—volunteer opportunities need to be substantive, goal-oriented, and clearly defined. Below are five suggestions for ways to foster productive parent contributions throughout the full span of grades pre-K through 12.
1. Define the Parent Volunteer Role Through Policy
A first suggestion is to ensure that a consistent school-wide policy—written or non-written—is in place concerning the role of parent volunteers within the system. All involved including administrators, teachers, parents, and students, benefit from having common understanding about areas where parent volunteers can be especially helpful and contribute significant support. This is also true for establishing the “boundaries” of parent engagement. Having such a policy not only helps avoid misunderstandings and tensions, but also helps generate creative ideas about specific ways parents can make meaningful contributions. Some schools promote parent volunteering through on-campus parent organizations such as PTA groups or Parent Associations. These groups outline general policy, delineate needs, and collect formal lists of special talents and professional backgrounds of those willing to volunteer time and energy in the school.
2. Employ Volunteers in the Library
An area that greatly benefits in numerous ways from parent volunteering is school libraries. Although technology has made inroads into the use of print sources as references and for specific assignments (both supplemental and leisure reading), print sources in libraries are still a vital part of school operations. Cataloguing (particularly computer-based cataloguing), stacking and monitoring of shelves, and basic paper work are time-honored “duties” in which parent volunteers can make meaningful contributions. Volunteer help in this venue takes on added significance in an era when computer labs and media equipment centers, in some schools, have become extensions of libraries. Today, librarians often have to provide computer lab supervision and media center support as well as fulfilling traditional expectations. In addition, parent volunteers can help librarians in organizing seminars and other outreach educational activities for the community at large.
3. Utilize Parents' Knowledge in Technology
With technology increasingly becoming a dominant force in pre-K through 12 grade education (not only in student response to assignments and special projects, but also in teacher planning, record keeping, and reporting), teacher training in sophisticated computer programs and technology skills is becoming a mandate. Summer “tech camps,” afterschool sessions, and free time tech training programs are being initiated to bring and keep America’s teaching corps up to date. Many parents have strong backgrounds in the technology field and can offer invaluable service in helping to design specialized teacher training sessions and, when possible, implement them.
4. Involve Parents in Project and Teaching Opportunities
In some school systems, parent volunteers are the life-blood of a variety of special projects and undertakings—particularly in the present-day environment in which many schools are confronted with unexpected heavy enrollment and thus oversized classes. Special projects may range from helping to build stage sets, collect props, and/or make costumes for all grade levels, including high school theater class productions, to helping portage canoes, or signing on as an extra chaperone for an outdoor activity. Many pre-k and elementary schools would not have adequate playground equipment without the help of parent volunteers involved in the construction.
Taking advantage of parent volunteers’ special talents can offer meaningful experiences for students and the school community at large. Imagine a school where parents with backgrounds in foreign languages that are outside of the regular program, such as Arabic and Chinese, volunteer to teach these special languages in sessions for interested students, teachers, and parents. In another school, a middle school class in global studies regularly seeks out parents who have lived or traveled in countries being studied to share their perceptions of the cultural climate, and other observations, in class sessions dedicated to the individual country under focus. Examples of substantive parent volunteer activities that have been enthusiastically endorsed by students, teachers, and other parents in school communities include volunteer presentations on ocean racing by a parent who is a world class sailor and Cup holder; or sessions in yoga, Pilates, and mindfulness by parents with backgrounds in these areas.
5. Use Parents' Professional Backgrounds to Inspire
An area where volunteer parents can make an especially meaningful contribution at the high school level is in sharing the nature of their employment and professional background. This sharing can be initiated by individual teachers within individual departments and related to specific classroom topics, or within the parameters of well-planned formal school programs dedicated to helping students explore career opportunities. One example of successful planning is establishing a “Career Day” in which parents are invited to share a range of background information on their careers. They would focus on outlining such aspects as the basic nature of their profession and/or specific job, special skills required, professional training requirements, and tips for achieving and sustaining success. Students sign up for sessions that particularly interest them. A follow-up “sharing” session adds value.
Especially valuable for high school juniors and seniors is the opportunity to design and participate in a project that gives them the opportunity to shadow and/or be counseled by a parent involved in a specific area of interest to the student. Students profit by such a program particularly when encouraged to think broadly in this undertaking, whether that pertains to: farming and other agricultural-related options, environmental professions, law, math and science careers, nutrition, fashion design, medicine, politics, business, technology, teaching, and the arts. Having a roster of the parent volunteers’ areas of expertise enables students to find a “match.” The advanced distribution of well-defined procedural guidelines for both students and parents volunteering, as well as the assignment of a teacher mentor to each student participant, help ensure a substantive outcome. Again, a sharing of outcomes can be valuable through formal presentations or informal seminar sessions.
When invested productively in school programs and activities, parent volunteers add energy and fresh dimensions to students’ learning experiences, enable teachers to give more time and attention to individual students, and contribute to the strengthening of parent/teacher partnerships and school community. “It takes a village,” and parent volunteers giving support and enrichment in substantive, goal-oriented, clearly-defined programs can be a vital part of that equation at all grade levels.