Mike and I were blessed to be able to send our children to the Catholic grade school in Kaukauna (now St. Ignatius).  Because the school was smaller – approximately 200 students – and because the school budget was very tight, parent involvement in the school community was a necessity.  If new playground equipment was needed, a group of families would get together to raise the necessary funds and then call volunteers to complete the work.  If the 7th grade girls were going to have a basketball team, one of the parents or grandparents would need to step-up to fill the role of coach.  The Home and School (aka PTA) was busy planning dances and other fun activities for the students as well as supporting the teachers with meals and other tokens of appreciation.  Parents were welcomed into the classroom to assist with a project, to help monitor an energetic classroom and to help with reading and math.  Many parent and student gatherings were planned for after the workday to welcome new parents and to provide an opportunity for parents to meet staff and one another.  There were many opportunities for after-school sports and clubs, including basketball, volleyball, track, Lego club, computer club, Boy / Girl Scouts, Spanish Club and many others over the years; again, all led and organized by parents or other St. Ignatius community members.

The focus of the teachers, staff, and administrators was to provide the highest level of academic achievement possible for the students under their care.  With parents and other community members managing the ancillary activities, the teachers were free to focus on educating our children, which is most definitely a full-time job.  Our children received an outstanding education, and we are forever indebted to those individuals for their passion, their compassion and their expertise. 

St. Ignatius was far from perfect; because people and kids were involved, there were struggles and conflict. However, because we were part of a community, we utilized those parent relationships and lifelines to help our students through difficult times.  If a student was being bullied on the playground, parents would reach out to each other first to fix the problem.  If a student was being excluded or was going through a tough time, we were made aware of this by other parents, and we would then sit with our kids to encourage them to be part of the solution.  Parents were on the playground, in the lunchroom, and in the classroom, so very little went unnoticed.  Obviously, teachers, administrators and staff were always available as well when needed, but they were just one part of the wider St. Ignatius community.

As many of us know, education in the state and in the country has been in a steady decline over the past few decades, with math and reading proficiencies hovering at the 30% mark.  Teachers and administrators desperately need parent engagement to get our students back on track.  There are definitely challenges to creating a sense of community with larger public schools.  With large enrollments, many teachers, large campuses, and government red-tape, getting involved in your school may seem intimidating. 

Begin by identifying your strengths.  Do you have some experience playing sports?  Were you a Boy Scout or Girl Scout?  Are you mechanically inclined or skilled at IT?  Maybe you have some time during the day to work with students who are struggling with 3rd grade math or 1st grade students who are just beginning to read. What could you do to assist your school to create that sense of community?  Can you create a parents’ network on Facebook or social media to keep parents informed about school activities or challenges within the school?  Is there a welcoming committee at your school to bring new parents into the fold and to provide a friendly contact for questions and concerns?  Do teachers have access to parent resources they can reach out to if they are undertaking a complicated science experiment or going on a field trip or managing an unruly student?

Engage with your students as well.  Have them walk you through their school day.  You may be surprised by what you hear.  Mike was recently working with a 6th grade student who shared with him that very little math learning took place in her math class for a six-week period due to a group of disruptive students.  This is tragic and unacceptable; what can you do to be part of the solution?  Is your student receiving homework on a regular basis?  Mike and I are big believers in homework to reinforce what is being taught in the classroom.  Engage with your student in completing their homework, and reach out to other parents, teachers, or Google to get yourself up-to-speed if needed.  If your school has a no homework policy, perhaps you need to reach out the school administration or join the school board to make your opinions known.

“But I don’t have time,” you say.  “I have a full-time job; I’m raising my kids and chasing them around to activities in the evenings and on the weekends.” 

These are desperate times, and your involvement is no longer a luxury, it is a necessity.  Many employers offer flexible scheduling to allow for time away during the traditional workday.  This may require your working at home after the kids are in bed.  You may have to give up time at the gym or nights out with friends to take on the junior soccer league, but the work is very rewarding.  Finding parent volunteers to staff a committee may not be easy, but the relationships you create may last a lifetime.  Take it from parents of kids that are pretty much grown: time moves amazingly fast; you will never regret time spent on your children and their education.  Do it today.