Volunteering at school can make a big difference in your child’s education. Here’s how.
When the COVID pandemic struck the world by surprise in early 2020 and schools shut down, direct communication between schools and parents became not just a nice thing to have, but essential. What was happening, who was sick, and what form would school now take? All of this needed to be communicated clearly and calmly.
Around the world, teachers and families found ways to stay closely in touch. Parent/school communication actually increased during the pandemic.
New research shows that direct parental involvement helps improve learning in amazing and unexpected ways. Now that kids are back in school, parents shouldn’t lose those connections. One great way to stay connected: Volunteering at school.
HOW LOCAL FAMILIES ARE GETTING INVOLVED
The PTO for Liberty K-5, a Spanish-language magnet school in Shadyside, organized a Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) event celebrating the lives of deceased friends and family.
“In advance of the event, our teachers worked with the kids to create ofrendas (altars) with their loved ones’ photos and mementos,” says Liberty K-5 parent Elaine Vitone. “Then, the night of the party, we put them all together in one giant ofrenda (offering placed in an altar) — that’s really the main event. It’s a moving experience that brings our school community together.”
Traditionally this event is a potluck dinner, with families volunteering to bring dishes. Although the event was catered this year (for COVID safety), “parents pitched in for set up, clean up, and everything that had to happen in between: serving food, working with the kids at the craft tables,” Vitone says. “We had crafts galore! Skull masks. Luminarias. Paper flowers. Paper butterflies. And at each craft station we had an explanation of the symbolism behind the element.
At Pittsburgh Greenfield PreK-8, parents help out with the “Turkey Trot,” where parents and kids do “fun runs,” obstacle courses, games with the Playful Pittsburgh Collaborative. Along with “turkey” decorating, there’s even a pie-throwing booth fundraiser.
At Minadeo Elementary in Squirrel Hill, the PTO organizes Maker Nights, where kids and caregivers can work on craft projects together. (These events are deftly combined with a brief PTO meeting). And at New Brighton Area School District in Beaver County, a new program called “A Boy, A Ball, A Gym, A Man” invites fathers or father-figures to the school gym on a weeknight or Saturday to help the boy they’re raising learn to shoot hoops, while casually talking about their stresses and commitments to family and friends in their lives.
The crucial first step for caregivers is to reach out to teachers.
“It’s always about communication,” says Emily Schantz Pocratsky, a former Pittsburgh Public Schools teacher with two children at PPS. “Your teacher is your partner, right? So you always communicate and ask the teacher what they need — before you just assume they need, like, 80 glue sticks, because they might not.”
Schools tell us that volunteers are always needed. So how do you get more involved with your kids’ school? Here are some places to start:
- Always, always check in first with your school’s PTO, PTA (Parent-Teacher Association) or PCO (Parent Community Organization). These organizations usually have a committee that organizes volunteers.
- If you have an elementary schooler, offer to become a “room parent” for your child’s class.
- Dream up your own idea for an event, fundraiser or other initiative and offer to organize it.
- Check directly with school sports teams or clubs to see if help is needed, and what kind of help is needed.
- Ask teachers and administrators directly how you can support them.
JUST BEING THERE MAKES A DIFFERENCE
Volunteering at school doesn’t have to be complicated. It can be as simple as preparing a meal or attending a field trip.
“We have a large ESL (English as a Second Language) population and a lot of diversity, so we ask parents to prepare food from their culture and share in an International Feast,” says Lara Evans, a teacher at Pittsburgh Greenfield. “Around the fall and winter holidays, I invite parents to participate in our activities such as carving pumpkins, helping students cook food for a Thanksgiving feast, and making Gingerbread houses in school. Some students, as well as their parents, have never carved a pumpkin and always enjoy experiencing this together.”
Another project for Evans’ third graders involved a family-and-class trip called “The Macaroni Boy Strip Stroll.”
This tour of the Strip District “supports our novel ‘Macaroni Boy,’ set in Pittsburgh’s Strip District,” Evans says. “The kids love having their parents (be) part of our activities. It means a lot to the kids when their parents enter their world at school.”
Evans has found that “reaching out and inviting parents makes them feel welcome,” she says. And “engaging parents in activities, as well as student learning and educational goals, leads to increased student academic success.”
Volunteering at school can also be a great way to help struggling families in your community.
“We do food drives and deliver food every month,” says Pocratsky “Families can sign up through an online form through our PTO and then we deliver to school families’ homes. We started that last October. So we’ve delivered 250 boxes. Like for our November box, it’s going to be breakfast-themed, so we’re collecting shelf-stable breakfast items.”
Schools all have policies about safety clearances, so you’ll just ask how it works at your school and get those forms filed. For example, Pittsburgh Public Schools’ clearances can be found here.