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When mom and dad help, schools and students excel

Parents volunteer in classrooms, libraries and PTAs in SW Fla.

Oct. 23, 2012
Bonita Springs Charter School parent volunteer Ruth Leone stamps books at the school's library.
Bonita Springs Charter School parent volunteer Ruth Leone stamps books at the school's library. / Sarah Coward/
Magalie Jean, a volunteer in her daughter Chemaly Lima's classroom at Bonita Springs Charter School, sorts through a pile of new paperback books to make sure they're identified as property of the school.

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Also, parental involvement really matters.


In the library, it’s not difficult to find a parent stamping books or placing them in alphabetical order on the shelves.

In the cafeterias, they may be wiping down tables or assisting teachers in their child’s classroom.

On any given day, you can find about 20 parents regularly volunteering their time at Bonita Springs Charter School.

“It’s great because they see the environment,” said Mariana Fernandez, a fifth-grade teacher at the school. “They get to know me better. A lot of parents don’t know what is exactly required of their kids.”

Involved parents, whether it’s in the classroom, at home or in an organization or activity, help students succeed and help schools improve. They also can make a difference in what programs are cut or kept and how much money the Legislature sets aside for education.

“The research is clear and we have anecdotal situations in our own district where we have strong parental involvement,” said Lee Superintendent Joseph Burke. “Those schools have done well in maintaining an A. We know from observing when you have a high degree of parental involvement, you do get a more sustained improvement in how students are performing.”

In Fernandez’s class sits Magalie Jean, the mother of one of her students, Chemaly Lima. Jean is helping Fernandez by organizing the class’s books.

“On my days off from work, if I’m doing nothing and am free, I come here to help,” said Jean, a Bonita resident, originally from Haiti.

It’s not unusual for 10-year-old Chemaly to see her mom around school during the day.

“It’s kind of weird,” said Chemaly. “But it’s nice to have her here.”

Parents benefit

Lee County’s Parent Assistance Center is looking to replicate models of successful parent organization in schools where parents aren’t as involved.

Many families can’t be as involved in their child’s school as they want to be because of the daily demands of work and other responsibilities.

“A lot of it has to do with the economic pressures on families and how much free time families have,” said Burke. “But I also think not all parents feel comfortable going into schools, because of their own negative experience with school. They don’t feel they’re going to be warmly received. They don’t feel they’re going to be listened to. It’s an attitude we have to try to change.”

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Even for parents who don’t have as much education themselves, by simply providing a space at home for homework or turning the TV to National Geographic, they help both teachers and their child, said Collier schools Superintendent Kamela Patton.

“Some parents, in our case, do not speak English, (and) all of our books are in English, so it’s hard for them to help their kids,” said Patton. “But if you can’t help your child (in school), you can provide a homework space or a structured time for the kids to study.”

Some schools, like those that have a high number of low income families and non-English speaking parents, hold language classes for both parents and students, Patton said.

Grass-roots effort

Parents, both locally and across the state, are organizing to create better schools, challenge legislators or administrators, and stand up alongside teachers for their kids.

“We have put the parent voice into the discussion,” said Kathleen Oropeza, co-founder of Fund Education Now, an Orlando-based parents organization that is working across the state to offer parents resources to make sure legislators adequately fund school districts. “This isn’t just about funding, first of all, this … speaks to quality. Our goal is to have parents actively involved in policy. When we first got started, parents were not really even considered to sit at the table and we found that disturbing because we’re not just parents, we’re taxpayers.”

The current reform measures, she said, were never tested or piloted. The curriculum has narrowed, electives have been reduced and much of the school year is spent learning how to test, Oropeza said.

And while many parents are fans of the new Common Core Standards, it isn’t fair to judge one set of schools on the new curriculum, while another set doesn’t have to worry about testing, said Oropeza.

“It’s not an even playing field,” said Oropeza. “When you have charter schools, traditional neighborhood district schools and voucher schools operating under different standards, then what you’re doing is replacing one high-stakes test situation for another.”

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Oropeza said parents prefer a “portfolio approach” to evaluations, where instead of one test on one day, value is placed on the 180 days a child spends in the classroom and what they accomplish.

“Parents are empowering themselves, learning and deciding what is best for their children and they’re speaking out,” said Oropeza, adding that the group was successful in teaming up with the Florida PTA to kill a parent-trigger bill that was in the Florida Legislature earlier this year.

“I’m sure (the bill) will come back,” she said. “But it’s not something parents need. Parents are already empowered. Parents have the right, right now, to seek a scholarship and transfer to a school of their choice.”

When local parents were outraged over unsafe bus stops in Lee County, they grouped together to take their concerns to the Lee County School Board.

“This was totally shocking to me because I’ve never seen people rally like they did before this bus stop issue,” said Cara Chazin, a Lee County parent and PTO president at Bonita Springs Middle School. “But when it comes down to it, people want their kids to be safe.”

Chazin said she wasn’t eager to become president of the PTO at her son’s school, but decided to step up after no other parents volunteered for the post. With another son at Pinewoods Elementary School, Chazin learned the middle school is where parents are really needed.

“These teachers really need you, because when the kids get older, that’s when nobody wants to help,” said Chazin. “I think the staff really appreciates it and I know my middle-schooler was embarrassed the first time I was there, so I said I wouldn’t say ‘hi.’ I won’t embarrass them.”

Communication between schools to parents can be poor and it takes being involved to know what is going on, Chazin said.

“Elementary PTO scared off a lot of people, me too, because it’s all encompassing and took every second of our time. In the middle school … we don’t have 50 people coming to each meeting, but we have plenty of people who, when we call, they’re right there.”

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Mandatory time

At Bonita Springs Charter, and other Charter USA schools around Southwest Florida, it’s mandatory for parents to volunteer.

If they don’t, they can pay out of volunteering. A family with one child must contribute 20 hours during the school year or pay $200. Families with more than one child contribute an additional 10 hours, or pay $300.

Hardly any parents choose the money over the hours, said Principal Deborah Tracy.

“We have so many things they can receive an hour for,” said Tracy. “There is always an opportunity to do something.”

Meet with a teacher, assist in fund raising, volunteer at a special event, attend a school musical, cook a dish for a special event, show up for a parent-teacher conference — all count as volunteer hours.

Unlike public schools, charter schools like Bonita Springs can mandate that their parents play an active role within the school. This year, Bonita Springs moved from a traditional Parent Teacher Organization to a Parent Teacher Cooperative, that allows for any parent to participate and volunteer however they would like.

“The primary benefit is their child knows they’re supporting the school and they’re here,” said Tracy. “The parents value and support the school and the kids see it.”

But the students are the only beneficiaries to their parents volunteering.

In areas where the school has seen staff reductions, such as library maintenance, the parents have picked up the slack, Tracy said, adding that the extra help is also needed for fund raising, because the school doesn’t receive the same amount of funding as a public school.

Jamie Gonzalez and his wife were wary when they heard about the mandatory volunteer hours at the school.

Often times Gonzalez’s 7-year-old son doesn’t know his dad is helping out at the school. The parents are asked to go where there is need, which means they all become role models for each other’s children, he said.

“It was new for us,” said Gonzalez, of Estero. “I used to think I didn’t have time, but I realized it has its purpose. It’s hard, but you have to find time for your kids.”

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