I’ve always been an active classroom volunteer at my daughter’s elementary school, but last year, as the changes with the Nevada School Wellness Policy started rolling out and I heard the desperate call for new board members on the school’s parent-faculty association, I decided that I wanted to be more involved in the goings-on at the school. The position of Communications Chair of the PFA (or, as your school might call it, PTO, PFO, PTA, or some other such thing) was available—perfect for me, a freelance writer and editor—so I threw my hat into the ring and was voted in.
It has not always been an easy row to hoe, I’ll admit. I am the liaison between the school’s parents, families, and teachers and the association members who bother to show up at our monthly meetings to make decisions that affect our school—usually just our five-person board, one or two teachers, the principal, and, if we’re lucky, two or three other parents. Hardly anyone knows we exist, and far fewer get involved. I keep track of our membership and contact list, create a monthly newsletter, and beg people to donate or volunteer at our numerous fundraising events.
One of these events is a special one in my heart, and I know of no other school that does it (if yours does, please let me know, as I’m curious): the back-to-school barbecue. Held one evening the week before school starts, the event offers students and families an opportunity to come and reconnect with friends and teachers, meet their new teachers for the upcoming year, and purchase a really cheap dinner and even sno-cones for the family. It’s also an opportunity for folks to sign up for or renew their annual membership to the PFA.
This is always a frustrating task for me. You wouldn’t think getting people to register their families for $10 a year, for an organization that not only pays the annual salary for the PE teacher but also raises funds for needed school supplies, equipment, and services, would be so difficult, but every year it is. Many folks simply don’t see the value of it. This was summed up for me by one woman who, upon my asking if she wanted to sign up for the PFA, asked me, “What do I get for my $10?”
I’ve literally never had anyone ask me this. I mean, this isn’t Target. Her question made me realize that she viewed this $10 as a purchase, not an investment—but what was she buying? What commodity does this organization have to offer? What did she want, a cookie? And why would she pay us, when what we offer is given to her for for free?
I went on to explain that she would be added to my contact list of members and provided with valuable information about upcoming fundraisers and school events, and she’d be the first to know about our efforts. It sounded weak to my own ears.
“But…doesn’t the school already send that info out?” she asked me.
I was stumped. Yes, they do. But how can I explain the benefits of what we do to a person like this, who commodifies even a nonprofit school organization that benefits students and teachers? I mean, first, what’s wrong with a parent who does this?
I can rant all day about this.
Instead, I’ll tell you just 10 things she’d get for her $10 (and there are others not listed here). Here’s exactly what you get for the minimal investment you make in a parent-faculty association:
- Smarter, more engaged kids. There’s plenty of research out there showing that parent involvement in school helps to make children successful. They enjoy enhanced social functioning and fewer behavior problems. This includes high-quality and frequent communication with teachers and involvement in school functions and activities. Not only that, but it characterizes parents’ values and attitudes about education and their aspirations for their kids. In other words, if you show you care about your kids’ school, it helps them to care more, and thus do better than they might otherwise. I mean, that’s worth $10 a year, right? To me it is—we could stop right there, but here are 9 more reasons, for you folks who are as yet unconvinced.
- A PE teacher (or other otherwise-unpaid but vital resource). Our school’s PFA pays the salary of the PE teacher—a licensed gentleman who costs us several thousand dollars a year to give our kids some much-needed physical activity (the only activity some get), but whom we could not pay otherwise, thanks to slashed funding for such things at the district level. Yes, it sucks that schools can no longer fully afford “luxuries” like PE teachers, computer labs, library books, and music programs. Should schools be paying for PE teachers? Absolutely. But let’s face facts, folks, they aren’t, and you can sit around griping about it or help out. Think about this: Our school has about 550 students enrolled right now. Imagine if every one of those students’ families paid a $10 PFA registration fee each year. That alone would give us $5,500 dollars, going a long way toward helping us satisfy our commitment to the PE teacher, with the rest of fundraising going immediately to other priorities—Computers! Chairs! iPads! Which leads me to #3…
- Well-stocked and appreciative teachers. Here’s a sampling of the little stuff that means a lot that we have been able to purchase for teachers in the last year—stuff they’d otherwise have to buy themselves because no funding exists for them elsewhere:
- Chair-back pockets to hold students’ supplies, for those who use tables instead of desks
- A computerized program and accompanying materials for the school counselor to use in helping students’ emotional development
- Stools so that teachers can work with groups of students around tables
- Books to help cross off teachers’ library wish lists
- Money into an account to help teachers with their supply wish lists
- Funding for a Solace Tree program aimed at helping grieving children and families
- Subscription to IXL, a tremendous computer program used as a supplementary resource by teachers at all grade levels for reinforcing reading and math skills
These things totaled roughly $5,000—again, imagine if everyone paid that PFA registration fee.
And these aren’t all we provided in a year’s time. There’s also the funding we offered to help pay for buses used on field trips, gift cards and raffle prizes purchased to use as giveaways at fundraisers, food to be sold at fundraisers, an old boom box with a tape player that one teacher wanted to use for a learning unit, new iPad covers, headphones for students to work on iPads in classrooms, food provided to teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week, snacks provided to students in 3rd-6th grade during the weeks they took the arduous SBAC tests…
And MORE! MUCH, MUCH MORE!
I don’t need to tell you how critical this funding is to our teachers, and, as a result, our students. But maybe I do? Schools don’t provide all this funding and equipment. Did you think they did? And if parent-faculty organizations don’t buy them, guess who must? The teachers. It’s a sad state of affairs, and we all resent it, but the fact is, Nevada lags behind almost every other state in the nation for its funding to schools. But instead of complaining, at least parent-faculty organizations are DOING something about that. Your membership dollars and year-round contributions help!
- A stronger connection to the principal, teachers, and other parents. One of my favorite aspects of being on the PFA is the bonds I’ve forged with the principal and numerous teachers—who now know me and my child on sight—as well as fellow volunteer and board member parents who also happen to be my neighbors. Our kids have become friends, and we share information and resources with each other. If you think teachers don’t take more notice of kids whose parents are active in PFA activities, you’re wrong. They absolutely do, and I want to have those connections. When my daughter met her new teacher at this summer’s back-to-school barbecue, she recognized the name instantly from my regular mass emails, and I was instantly more memorable and connected to her—and, by extension, so was my daughter. I can’t help but think that will benefit us.
- Insider knowledge about the school and future events. At our monthly meetings, principals and teachers clue us in to what issues or initiatives are coming up, and the whole group is involved in planning events for the school year. We’re the first to know about when tickets will go on sale (we even set the ticket prices!), what food will be available, what kids got into the talent show, what new equipment we’ll need to raise money for, and much more. I like being a person who’s knowledgeable about what’s going on behind the scenes at school. And as a result, my child never misses out on anything fun.
- Career skills and resources. I wouldn’t say I’m now any kind of expert on creating newsletters with Microsoft Word, but I did have to teach myself to do it in order to be Communications Chair. I’ve also had to learn how to create and edit a Google Sites website, how to create an online membership sign-up form, how to find and use a new volunteer online sign-up form, how to draft mass emails and social media posts that get reader engagement, how to write a letter to solicit donations, and more. I am sure all of these skills will be useful to me in my career. Just as managing money, creating spreadsheets, rounding up donations and volunteers, and planning events can be useful to most anyone in the working world (take note, stay-at-home moms looking to beef up your resumes!). And then there’s the networking—having a group of people working side by side with me who now know that I write and edit for a living might just turn into a referral down the road.
- Action, not just talk. One of the reasons I started volunteering regularly in my daughter’s classroom and on the PFA was that I wanted to play a role in my daughter’s education. I make a living by sitting at a computer and talking about a lot of stuff. I write blog posts about school overcrowding and the wellness policy and the overuse of Pinterest at classroom parties. But this gives me an actual opportunity to put my money where my mouth is. I can play a role in making a change. I want my daughter to learn that you have to BE the change you want to see. This is one way I can do this.
- A seat at the table in determining solutions. If I don’t like how the meetings have been at times that didn’t work, or if I didn’t like the way a certain event was run, at least now I can actually voice my opinion and try to steer a new course. We set new ticket prices for several events this year, created two new fundraising events, and set a lofty goal of raising $50,000 to buy 30 new computers for the school. We help drive how money is raised and spent at school. I want to be part of those solutions whenever I can. And if it doesn’t work, hey, at least I tried.
- Your kids’ admiration and respect. My daughter thinks my PFA job is really cool. She gets to know all the news about upcoming events before her friends. She gets to help me sell scented pencils or carnival tickets, which makes her feel very important as she counts out tickets or hands back change. She gets to enter the school early with me, before all her friends, and come to the copy room while I make copies of the newsletter and sometimes chat with her teachers. She’s proud of the role I play at her school, and it only enhances her feeling of community there. If that isn’t worth $10 to you, I don’t know what is.
- Fun. Yes, it can be a lot of work, thankless work, helping run this organization that few parents even notice. But being involved in the various events we plan throughout the year is also a huge adrenaline rush. I’ve made new friends and consider this a social outlet. Part of what makes the school year enjoyable is these little events on the calendar along the way.
Of course, I’m fortunate: I have the time to be involved at this level because I work from home and manage my own schedule. Not everyone can be a board member or come to monthly meetings. You might not even be able to come to more than one or two events during the school year. I get that, believe me. But I don’t think it has to be all or nothing, either. Volunteer for one event. Come to one meeting. Help solicit a donation for the silent auction. Show up to voice your concerns. Lend your talents and knowledge, and you’ll be rewarded tenfold. And so will your school.
I think that’s worth the $10 membership fee, don’t you?