SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

September 28, 2012

Salem parents, get involved in your school

Leanne Schild
The Salem News

---- — I’ll be honest. I am never excited to see a school fundraiser packet arrive home. My mind races through the faces of co-workers, family and friends who were generous last year.

Soon after I distributed last year’s packet, the Salem school district was designated Level 4 and suddenly everyone was talking about schools. School Committee meetings were jampacked, full of concerned parents with tough questions.

The rally for change was impressive. I never thought I’d be sitting with other Salem parents over a drink discussing the “11 Conditions for School Effectiveness.” What I realized during these discussions is that we parents have a critical role to play in the turnaround. The one condition the superintendent cannot “fix” on his own is the condition titled “Family and School Engagement.”

Decades of research show when parents are involved in education, student academic performance improves. Their children have higher grades, test scores and graduation rates; better school attendance; increased motivation and better self-esteem; lower rates of suspension; decreased drug and alcohol use; and fewer instances of violent behavior.

And the more parents who participate in schooling at every level — as advocates, decision-makers, fundraisers and volunteers — the more students achieve.

National Center for Education Statistics surveys show that attending school meetings and events is the leading form of parent participation in schools, followed by school fundraising activities.

There are parent groups in all Salem schools. Though they go by different names, they have the same goal: to support the schools that educate our kids. Salem’s elementary school PTOs raise between a couple thousand per year up to $100,000. With monies raised, these parent groups support curriculum-based field trips, assemblies and community events at school.

Witchcraft Heights’ PTO recently rebuilt the school’s playground. It also provides yearly scholarships for the top four Witchcraft Heights students graduating from Salem High. Carlton’s PTO fully funded the school’s first all-school play last year. Horace Mann and Bates parent groups do an annual walk-a-thon, which not only raises money but builds community and promotes health and wellness.

All parent groups in Salem work to make all school activities accessible to everyone. Every kid needs to go on field trips and have enrichment opportunities, whether they can afford it or not. Bilingual translation services are offered at most parent meetings, and all offer baby-sitting.

“If you want something done, ask a busy person to do it,” Lucille Ball once said. Often, parents are concerned about the time requirements of getting involved, but what could be more worth our time?

Horace Mann tackles the busy-parents issue with one big fundraiser called the “Mann Event.” This single event often covers the majority of the PTO’s funding needs for the year.

The Bates PTO asks for very small commitments. At the beginning of each year, it sends out a “3 for Me” pledge sheet to new families asking them to pledge a total of three hours per year to PTO events.

Saltonstall offers parent-led enrichment classes called Friday Clubs, which require a combined total of 80 hours of parent volunteer time per week. To avoid making additional demands, they created Buy-Ins. Buy-Ins are small, parent-sponsored events such as wine tastings, baby-sitting, barbecues and French clubs. A parent agrees to host one event, and the majority of funds raised goes straight to the PTO.

Our Salem parent groups are doing impressive things, but better collaboration would allow them to share some great ideas. A good idea can benefit the whole district.

What started as a need for a re-mulching at one Bowditch playground last year turned into a citywide collaboration that got new mulch down at all school playgrounds. Witchcraft Heights started an anti-bullying program that was eventually picked up throughout the district. Schools could collaborate on getting a vendor (such as New England Aquarium) up to Salem and have them present at more than one school for the day. The Salem Education Foundation also brings parent groups together for collaboration ideas. Social media is quickly growing as a method of sharing PTO and school news: Witchcraft Heights, Bowditch and Saltonstall have active Facebook pages.

Bentley recently started a parent-run Facebook page called the Bentley Farm Project. The time parents and students have already spent tending to their new school garden has strengthened their community. More importantly, urban kids are learning about life cycles, ecosystems and healthy eating habits from teachers who use the garden as outdoor classroom space. This is a great example of how parental involvement in a school directly affects student achievement.

Contribute to the success of the district turnaround by contacting your school parent group and asking what you can do to help. And then contact me. I have a fundraising packet here I can’t wait to distribute.

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Leanne Schild has two children in the Salem schools.