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Invisible Civil Servants

October 4, 1998
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by Danielle Bussell

            An unexpected thing happened when I put my son on the school bus for the first time. I definitely knew he was beginning the process of entering the world. What I didn’t suspect was how dramatically my job description would expand. Just as he was learning that the world is broader and more complex than our cozy family system, I found out that the work of parenting is far bigger than rearing my own child.

            It started with the conviction that I should get involved in my son’s elementary school, mostly so that he would feel my support, see me in the school and understand that my involvement meant that his education was important. Basically, I viewed volunteering at my son’s school as part of the job of being his parent. I signed up to be a reading buddy for his class (one-on-one reading instruction on a regular basis) and to be a lunchroom aide, which turned out to be everything from teaching conflict resolution skills to mopping up spilled milk. I read my PTA newsletter diligently and worked whatever fundraisers I could.

            The first thing I noticed was the diversity of needs in my son’s classroom. There were twenty-eight students, many from non-English speaking homes, some already reading novels and some not reading at all--and one teacher. I could barely hear myself think in the class, which was really just a modular section of an overcrowded fifty-year-old building that had never been renovated. My son’s school is fortunate enough to have a large and committed group of parent volunteers. I saw the same parents over and over, reading in the hallways, teaching math in the library, and running fundraisers. I began to view these parents as invisible civil servants. It is hard to categorize them. Some, like my husband, were parents who found a way to grab a few hours during the workday to volunteer. Many were mothers and fathers who had chosen not to work outside the home; now that their children were older, they made time to work in the school.

            Parent volunteers do not get paid. There are no tangible benefits, such as health insurance or retirement contributions. Yet, the hundreds of us who have joined this invisible workforce see that what we do is not just a vital and urgent part of parenting our own children, but an essential community service. We support the social, emotional and academic growth of all the children in the school.

            In her discussion of how integral parents are to student success, Kay Luzier, chair of the National PTA Education Commission, said that twenty or thirty years ago, the teaching profession did not “give much credit to the parents’ role.” Now, educators realize “we need all the help we can get.” According to the National PTA, “over thirty years’ research has proven beyond dispute the positive connection between parent involvement and student success. Effectively engaging parents and families in the education of their children has the potential to be far more transformational than any other type of educational reform.” 

            According to Connect for Kids, a child advocacy and resource organization, nationwide K-12 education spending has been cut by $11.3 billion in the last year, and further cuts are likely, given that most states are facing budget deficits. My son’s school district is trying to address a large budget deficit. Consequently, the parents I see daily in the halls of our elementary school are providing individual reading tutoring, math enrichment, and art education. This year our PTA fundraising proceeds will buy maps to replace the outdated ones currently in the classrooms.

            Research indicates that one important factor in the success of schools is the level of parental involvement. Studies also show that schools with a high proportion of students living in poverty have a low level of parent participation. Across the U.S., schools, community organizations and nonprofits have developed training programs for parents who want to learn about effective involvement in their children’s schools.

            That warm fall day when I put my son on the school bus, I began to glimpse what parent involvement in education means, and I have many questions.

            I believe that a huge barrier to parental involvement in education is that the work of parenting is devalued in subtle and explicit ways by our culture and societal institutions. Volunteering, like the work of parenting, is not acknowledged as a vital public service. What changes in our nation’s laws and public policies might improve this situation?

            Should schools expect each parent to volunteer? What has happened in schools that have required parental participation?

            What is the role of businesses in our community? Should they be expected to encourage their employees to volunteer in schools? Should they pay employees for the time they spend volunteering?

            How do parent volunteers balance sometimes competing roles: their desire to assist in striving toward goals set by the school system and their responsibility as owners of the school system to ensure that budgets are well-spent and educational policies and practices are reasonable? (For example, is the implementation of more standardized testing going to result in better education for our children? How much is it costing?)

Copyright by Danielle Bussell

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