Number of parent volunteers in the classroom low, yet vital these day

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 15 2011 12:34 a.m. MST

Suzanne Walker, volunteer and Midvale Elementary PTA president, works with third-graders Karen Manzo-Garcia, Isai Maya Reyes and Ibrahim Issa.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Enlarge photo»

LAYTON — Imagine inviting 800 people to come to a dinner party with only two volunteers to help serve the food.

That was the predicament last week for Chelsi Dall, PTA president at Ellison Elementary.

She sent out an email two days before the "Parents and Pastries" event, begging more parents to volunteer for an hour Tuesday morning. Six members of the PTA board ended up stepping in to save the day.

"Parents are really enthusiastic to help out at the beginning of the year," Dall said, "but by this time, parents are getting burned out."

In fact, half of the members of her PTA board are not planning on coming back to the board next year.

Nationally, the number of parents volunteering at schools is waning. In places like Prince William County, Va., some schools are requiring guardians to commit to a certain amount of volunteer time each year. And in San Jose, Calif., there was a proposal last summer that would have required parents at one elementary school to donate at least 30 hours of volunteer work during the year.

While the number of parents who sign up for the PTA has held steady over the last several years, fewer members are actually volunteering to help in schools, said James Martinez, the National PTA spokesman. "What you have is perhaps less parents volunteering and parents volunteering less time, but other parents are volunteering more time," Martinez said. "What happens is those extra-involved parents that have the time, they end up volunteering more to fill that need."

The economic downturn may be one factor, as many parents are working longer hours at jobs that pay less than before the recession. Other parents are having to take on a second job or go back to school to find work, Martinez said. Family dynamics have also changed over the last several decades, Martinez says, meaning fewer families have one parent that stays home full-time.

"I don't think parents are volunteering less because they don't want to," Martinez said. "I think it's because they can't."

Kelly Williams, a mother of three kids at Indian Hills Elementary in Granite District, is a full-time attorney. She said she would love to help out more at school, but because she works up to 60 hours a week, she doesn't usually have time.

"It's a huge, huge commitment," Williams said of the PTA. "And so having to choose between working full-time for a paycheck or working full-time for my kids education, I am just grateful that other people are able and willing to do that."

But what she doesn't give in time, she gives in money to book sales, the school carnival, the spaghetti fundraiser, the classroom fundraisers and more. "At the end of the day I don't know that it would cost me that much more to do private schooling," she said jokingly. And other parents around the U.S. seem to be opening up their wallets to do the same. Martinez said fundraising has risen quite a bit this year. "Every year, districts and schools are asked to do more with less, and budgets are unfortunately being balanced on the back of parents," he said.

But with cuts in school budgets, the need for parent volunteers has also risen. Schools need parents to run art programs (which are often the first things to get cut at schools to balance budgets), to be hall monitors, to watch over recess, and, especially in Utah where class sizes are large, to be teacher's aids.

Dall said some of the classes at Layton's Ellison Elementary have as many as 35 students in them. And having parents volunteer in the classroom, especially in the younger grades, really helps.

Tammy Thomas, a 6th grade parent at the school, said she helps with her daughter's reading groups every Thursday. She has six children who have all attended public school, and she has tried to volunteer in each of her kid's classes. Ironically, Dall said the parents of larger families tend to volunteer more.

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