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.
Another parent at Midvale Elementary, Suzanne Walker, took over the music program this year at the school. She holds a choir class after school twice a week, teaches a class on sexual abuse prevention and helps out in her son's class when she can. She gets paid for working 17 hours a week at the school, but sometimes she's there over 40 hours a week.
"I can see I am making a difference, and I love it," Walker said. "I know if I were to walk away, things would probably still happen. I think some other people would step up, but I like to see the difference I can make at the schools. Yes, I get tired, but the smiles on those kids' faces are worth it."
And research shows family engagement raises student achievement, decreases dropout rate and is cost-effective, according to the 2009 National Parental Information and Resource Center. Similar research shows family participation in education is twice as predictive of students' academic success as family socioeconomic status.
In a national study by the American Public Health Association, superintendents across the nation listed "lack of parental involvement" as the biggest obstacle they faced.
Walker said her school has actually seen a rise in parent involvement over the last decade, though not by much. She said when she first got involved in PTA at the school when her oldest was in kindergarten, there were just a couple of other active PTA members. Now there are about a dozen. The demographics at the school make it harder with more English language learners and parents who both work, she said.
Total, her district parents have logged over 67,000 volunteer hours in the last six months.
Granite School District teachers say they have also noticed a change in the way parents give time to schools.
While a majority of parents are still volunteering, they are doing so for shorter amounts of time in the day and have to be asked farther in advance, said Linda Hansen, who oversees 90 PTAs in the Granite School District.
She said in her last 20 years of working with the PTA, she has seen a continued effort by parents to volunteer, which she says is a priority in Utah.
Sonja Dippie, mother of two, moved to Layton from Mississippi about a month ago. Dippie said she was about the only parent that volunteered at her child's former school, but she said volunteering seems more of a priority in Utah. She said her daughter even told her the other day that she might not have to come in and help out at school this week because another parent was coming in.
"It's nice to get a little break," Dippie said.
This comes at a time in which parental involvement in charter schools is on the rise. Most charter schools require parents and guardians to volunteer.
American Preparatory Academy expects its parents to log at least 20 volunteer hours at the school per year, said Carolyn Sharette, director of the school.
Sharette said there are usually five to 10 parents in the school everyday doing things like serving lunch and reading to the kids during that time, to helping put on academic class activities and participating on the school board.
"They are very important to us," Sharette said. "They allow us to provide a program that is enriched and expanded."
And Chris Bleak, president of Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, hopes that focus on parental involvement has rubbed off on district schools.
"The reason charter schools were started was to help develop innovative practices that could be shared," Bleak said. "High parent involvement is one of the reasons why charter schools are so popular. Any time you can get parents more involved in schools it is to the betterment of the kids. It's a huge plus."