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Forcing Parents to Volunteer at School

Isn’t it enough to feel guilty for missing a PTA meeting? For not chaperoning one single field trip in the past 24 months? For avoiding eye contact with this year’s room parent?

Apparently not. Some schools want to give you a bad grade for your lack of involvement at your child’s school. Still another wants to require you to devote a certain amount of your time to it.

One small school district in Northern California has a plan in the works to introduce mandatory volunteerism (huh?) to the parents and guardians of its students. They’re not the first.

The New York Times reports that San Jose’s Alum Rock Union Elementary School District is working on a proposal that would make each of the 13,000 families in its district complete at least 30 volunteer hours over the school year. The district was inspired by the success of another area school that actually graded parents on whether they contributed to the classroom.

A trustee explains that, by requiring the volunteer hours, they’ll be creating a strong culture of giving to the school. It’s a noble goal, but mandating help is hardly the way to go about it. Some 88 percent of the district’s students are poor. Some of the parents likely work two or three jobs, and now they get to add volunteer hours to their stressful lives?

Of course there are enforcement issues — how can they really compel the parents to pitch in? Kick the child out of school? Flunk Mom?

The Times talked to an education expert about the compulsory giving who says the districts have misunderstood how parent participation pays off.

“It’s really simplifying what we know about what really helps children learn,” said Ingrid Seyer-Ochi, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education. “That’s having parents who see themselves as learners and as having something to contribute to their children as learners.”

Not every parent underwent the great American educational experience of student councils and prom committees, PTAs and spring carnivals. School can be a negative, intimidating place. Showing up at school to pitch in isn’t necessarily natural, and unless someone’s running a pretty tight show, it’s not always clear what needs to be done — and how. Also, some adults have no interest or talent or skills to offer the neighborhood school. (I know, I know, not nice. But it’s true.) Plus, there’s the not-trivial matter of one’s personal rights.

Moreover, this policy seems to burden single parents — big surprise — who would have to contribute the same number of hours as a two-parent household. Also, those with a grandmother or grandfather and aunt or older siblings to help? Big advantage over the loners. Who is going to keep an account of all this?

Rather than forcing parents to fill out a time sheet, why not offer workshops to get parents to be more active participants in their children’s learning in many different ways: reading with their child 30 minutes every day, playing math games, checking homework. Why not approach that mom or dad who seems to know everyone? Tell her to start a PTA and give her support, show her the ropes.

Would that mean overlooking the freeloaders? Maybe. But school is for kids, not adults. Enticement is one thing, inducement another. Who would want to manage the adult who is set against helping? Don’t the schools have enough on their plates chasing down homework from kids?

What do you think? Is it about time someone made these parents step up? Or would you get downgraded in such a program?

Photo: washingtonpost.com

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