Monday, May 9, 2016

I was participating in the online discussion in the community I frequent when someone asked this question, Does it make sense to try to get your child to a highly ranked elementary public school? Do scores matter?
Does School Community Matter?
This question made me think of our elementary school that is a reasonably highly ranked school and carries the title of California Distinguished School. Is it test scores that make it a desired school or are there other parameters contributing to it? And the first thing that came to my mind was not test scores even though they are definitely higher than average even in our county, not to mention the state of California. Instead, I thought of an incredible community of parent volunteers that we have and all the things that they do.

What Can Parents Do For School?

One obvious advantage of living in a more affluent district is that parents have more to contribute to fund raising efforts. I heard that in some districts of our area fund raising can get pretty aggressive with higher expectations on the amount each family is expected to contribute per child. Our school takes a more relaxed approach but still collects about $50K per year through direct charitable contributions that are often matched by high tech companies that many parents work for. The other half of income for our home and school club comes through various passive fund-raisers and events that are organized throughout a year. All these events are run by parent volunteers:
  • An annual theater program.
  • A yearly Halloween event with games, auctions, food, etc.
  • A Father-Daughter dance and a Mother-Son movie evening.
  • An auction where parents donate various prizes - from movie tickets to ski passes to spa packages.
  • A yearly spring walkathon event.
Those (and some others) are revenue generating events, but our parents also run many things that do not generate income, but improve learning environment for all kids in our school and require many-many hours given to kiddos of our school:
  • Class parties for each major holiday with games, food, and gifts for teachers.
  • A school garden that was transformed from a dirt patch that was sitting on our school's property 5 years ago into a thriving year-round outdoor learning lab.
  • An engineering club for older grades.
  • Art Vista - a special program run by our parent volunteers for every grade level where kids get introduction to different artists and different styles.
  • Anti-bullying and character development program - Project Cornerstone.

Where Does Money Go?

Since our home and school club has an operating budget of about $100K a year, we can support many programs for which school itself has no budget. Our home and school club works closely with our principal to decide which projects to support. Some money are allocated to support a program called Accelerated Reader where kids take tests on the books they read and earn points that they can later redeem for prizes and books. But most of budget goes towards curriculum and technology purchases - this is how our school has 1 Chrome book for two students and iPads for younger grades - most of budget to buy all these gadgets came from home and school club. It's a bit ironic, because this technology is usually funded by less affluent districts for their schools, but in our case it's not, and, basically, parents make sure that their kids have equal access to technology in school. 

Why Does It Work?

In my mind, this parental involvement really differentiates a successful school from a less successful one. To make this work, you need to have a critical mass of parents who are able and willing to spend so much time in school - that usually means stay-at-home moms. However, in our school many people who work also get involved in special projects that require less time commitments or weekend work. For example, many working parents are helping out with monthly Art Vista or Project Cornerstone sessions or with garden. All this has little to do with students' test scores but a lot to do with parents' focus on their children's learning environment. Improving this environment, being present in classrooms and on campus, coming together as a community is what makes our school great.

Can You Do It Too?

Perhaps your school does not have such an active parent community as ours, but... it has to start somewhere. Every year gives an opportunity to make a difference in your children's learning environment, and perhaps you can make a commitment to at least help a little bit more or even take a more active role in your parent organization. The good place to start is to check if your school and its parent organization has Facebook presence or inquire when the next meeting will be. In our school, the last home and school meeting of the year is a very important one where the budget is set for the next year and vacancies are filled for many jobs that require volunteers. Perhaps you can attend yours and see if your talents can be used next year to make your school a better place.

Your Turn

If your child is not homeschooled, how you contribute to their school?
Why parents make such a big difference in school rankings?


maryanne @ mama smiles said...

We donate money, time, and resources to our school - and we are lucky to live in a commmunity where our school receives a lot of outside funding.

Ticia said...

Wow! I worked in lower income schools, and that is a crazy budget. We were struggling to get parents to even sign up for the PTA or anything like that.