Cash-strapped schools are leaning hard on parents for help this fall. From WSJ
Some 53% of parents plan to volunteer at their children's schools, up from 44% last year, says a poll of 1,086 parents by Harris Interactive and GreatSchools, a nonprofit parent-involvement group. The re-opening of schools this fall has triggered a 50% increase in volunteer signups at VolunteerSpot.com, a Web site for organizing volunteers, to 75,000 from 50,000 last summer, says Karen Bantuveris, VolunteerSpot founder.
But for parents with limited time and energy, which roles deliver the biggest benefit for your kids? And how does the answer to that question change as a student grows up?
Here's what research and experts say:
Elementary School: Volunteer where your child can see you.
Small children usually love seeing their parents in the classroom. "The idea that 'My parent is at school, my parent cares about me,' is so valuable," says Kathy Hoover-Dempsey, associate professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. Parent volunteers can get to know teachers, share information, see what happens in the classroom and reinforce those lessons at home.
Volunteering one step removed from the classroom, in the library or office, holds less direct benefits. But that kind of volunteering does still have an upside:
From a child's perspective, Dr. Hoover-Dempsey says, "the parent is affirming that
a) you're really important to me;
b) that what goes on in school is important; and
c) I get to see things we can talk about later."
Volunteering on the school board or as a PTO or PTA officer, while helpful to the school, also has more indirect benefits. For small children, Dr. Hoover-Dempsey says, such activities are "going to be out-of-sight and out-of-mind." But being seen helping around school helps a parent get to know teachers and staff, share information and see how problems are solved.
School volunteer work of all kinds has been linked to small improvements in kids' grades and test scores, based on a 2005 survey of 41 studies of 20,000 kindergarten through sixth-grade students by William Jeynes, an education professor at California State University, Long Beach. Scholarly studies generally don't distinguish among specific types of volunteer roles.
If you lack time to volunteer, or if you find yourself at the bottom of a long waiting list of wannabe school helpers, don't despair: How you coach your child at home matters far more.
Throughout school, the most important parental role of all is to shape your child's attitude toward learning and school, communicate high expectations, and help him or her set goals and solve learning problems.
And setting expectations doesn't mean telling kids, "We are bound and determined that you are going to get into Harvard," Dr. Hoover-Dempsey says; it means sending a message that "doing the best you can is important for all the things you're going to be able to do in life." In elementary school, such coaching has roughly twice as big an impact on children's grades and test scores as volunteering.
Middle School: Volunteer where you can learn the most about the school's curriculum and classes.
The landscape tilts for volunteers at this stage. Classrooms close to parents. Volunteer tasks become more remote from the learning process, often relegating parents to running fundraisers. And although teens and pre-teens still want their parents involved, they may be horrified if Mom or Dad appears in the school hallway. Many parent volunteers drop out at this stage.
A 2009 survey of 50 studies found volunteering by parents is linked to modest gains in middle schoolers' academic achievement. But research also suggests that volunteering in middle school helps parents fill the all-important coaching role. A 2001 study of 13,580 parents and their children found that children of parents who volunteered in eighth grade and helped with fund raising and parent-teacher groups were more likely to tackle a tough academic program in high school. Middle-school volunteers probably pick up information that helps them guide their children, says the study by Sophia Catsambis, an associate professor of sociology at City University of New York.
This is the kind of help kids want at this stage—in picking the right classes and managing big projects, based on focus-group research by Nancy E. Hill, an education professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and co-author of the 50-study survey. It is at this stage that students are often tracked into ability-level classes, especially in science and math, which has a big impact on classes they can later take in high school, Dr. Hill says; thus "having parental advocacy and input is essential." This role—communicating high expectations, encouraging students to set academic goals and make plans, and talking with them about learning strategies—emerges in Dr. Hill's research as the most powerful tool for helping middle-schoolers achieve.
High School: Volunteer where your student can see and learn from your example.
By this stage, "kids see school as their territory, not parents' territory, and schools reinforce it," Dr. Hoover-Dempsey says. Research shows parent volunteering has little direct impact on high-schoolers' grades. The coaching role is nearly five times more powerful at this stage, based on a 2007 survey of 52 studies.
But staying involved fortifies the all-important parent-teen relationship. Running the refreshment stand at the football game shows a student that "what you're doing is worth spending my time on," Dr. Hoover-Dempsey says. It's a way of showing a teen, "I care about you."
Parents' example of being engaged in the community also holds great power for teens. Adolescents whose parents are active volunteers are more likely to become volunteers as adults, says Jacquelynne Eccles, a professor of psychology and education at the University of Michigan.
This is one of Ms. Rivera's hopes for her children. While they enjoy seeing her in the classroom now, she plans as they get older to tutor needy children in other schools. "The best way of teaching is by example," she says. "I hope that one day they will be inspired to volunteer themselves."
Mr. Dangerfield is an I.A.P.D.A Certified Debt Specialist whom has worked in the finance industry for over a decade. He manages www.beingbrokesuckstoday.com and is the author of "A Dangerfield Manifesto" and co-founder of SMG Holdings, the parent company of Squad Music Group, Dangerfield Artistic Entertainment SMG Publishing and Taboo Dangerfield Publishing
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