Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Parents, What's Up?

So last night at Roosevelt we had our final Parent Education night of the year. I was organizing these nights and I thought rather than having a formal program that I would get a panel and let parents engage them in a discussion about Roosevelt in specific and high schools in SPS in general. I invited our principal, Brian Vance, the high school director, Michael Tolley, and our Board director, Harim Martin-Morris. All of them showed up, ready to go. This had been in our parent newsletter for months, in the parent e-mail bulletin for months and we put it on the website in a prominent place for the last 2 weeks. (I also sent an e-mail two weeks ago to the PTAs at Eckstein and Hamilton, given that we get a lot of freshman from those two schools.)

We had about 12 parents show up.

(And these were lucky people because we had a great and lively discussion. I found Mr. Tolley to be exactly as I thought he was; bright and committed to change. Ditto with Harim Martin-Morris. All 3 of them went beyond pat answers and got to some of the nitty-gritty of what is happening or what needs to happen in Seattle public high schools. I was worried we wouldn't fill an hour and a half of time but boy, once we got started the time flew by. The best part was there was a parent who had had his daughter in private school so a lot was new to him and he asked some pretty frank questions.)

It's been this way all year for the other education nights and the PTSA meetings.

And I know it's not just us. I've heard from other PTSA leaders and even Sharon Rodgers, the Seattle Council PTSA president.

We are all just baffled. I'm guessing it's lack of time rather than lack of interest (but I could be wrong). Is the PTSA passe? Not relevant? I'm just surprised that the overwhelming majority of parents at Roosevelt don't want to participate, not even once a year, in any PTSA event. And I don't say that in a prideful way but in a puzzled way because really, if you want to find out the latest news and get answers, going to a PTSA event is the way to do it.

I see, from viewing other schools' websites (I'm talking middle and high school here), that many PTA roles are not filled elsewhere.

At Roosevelt, we have decided that the PTSA will get as much done as we can with the Board and volunteers we have. My co-president and I already do multiple jobs and we're not going to ask people who step up to do one job on the Board to do others. It's not fair. And, if that means some things fall by the wayside, so be it. Parents are voting with their dollars and their feet.

I just wish I knew why.


old salt said...

Time pressure does make it a sacrifice to go to the meetings. I tend to make it most times.

The real issue for me is fighting the cynicism. Budget cuts, decrease in academic rigor, continual reinventing that destroys any progress made. Even the teachers seem beaten down.

anonymous said...

My children went to two different elementary schools. The first school had a site council that was very welcoming, communal, and was not very formal. Anyone could attend, and anyone could speak about an issue, it didn't have to be on the agenda. Sometimes if we were discussing a hot topic we went overtime, but most of us were willing to stay, and those who couldn't just excused themselves. We made sure that we had fun too, having dessert potlucks or going to the neighborhood pub afterward for a beer! The minutes were posted in the hallway and attached to every students kid mail, so that even if you couldn't attend you stayed informed.

The other school has a PTA, and their meetings are much more formal. You have to submit a request by email to have an agenda item added if you want to discuss an idea or issue, and then wait a couple of months while they decide if they want to add it to a meeting (or not). The school seems very unwilling to think about or even discuss new ideas or change. The mentality is "this is the way we have always done it, and it works". Unless you are happy being a fly on the wall and taking notes (like at a school board meeting), there is not much incentive to attend. So, I just read the minutes the next week, after I go in to the school office and formally request them.

As active and involved as I was at the first school, that is just how uninvolved I have become at the second school.

I don't know how Roosevelt's meetings are conducted. The lack of attendance may just be a high school thing, but I would also think about how welcoming and interactive they are.

Unknown said...

You should have invited incoming student's parents to this event. I would have really enjoyed attending. Maybe I just missed it on this blogg.

SolvayGirl said...

As someone who was an active PTA member the entire time my daughter was in elementary school (public), I found that the PTA tended to be made up of the usual suspects. We tried to be very welcoming and had an open speak policy and acted much like ad hoc's site council. However, we also had a number of people who felt we were not welcoming...so I'm not sure what we could have done to attract more participants. We tried food, free babysitting and special events.
Now my daughter is at an independent middle school and though we don't have an official PTA, it is still the usual suspects who step up and volunteer. People use the "I'm too busy" excuse, but I see that many of the volunteers (including myself) are people whose plates are already fuller than a senior's at Old Country Buffet.
I'm even more perplexed since the event in question was a very informative discussion; I would have jumped at the chance. Perhaps Old Salt is on to something and cyniciam is cutting in to participation. Whatever it is, it is not beneficial to anyone to have so few parents involved.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Well, as I said, I contacted the PTAs at Hamilton and Eckstein thinking that those parents of incoming students might want to come. I almost put it on this blog but - big laugh - was worried I was inviting too many people.

MathTeacher42 said...

It seems to me that the PTA and many other community groups suffer from the decrease in the number of family wage jobs.

While many are on the treadmill so that their families can have more t.v.s and cell phones and electronic junk than 80 or 90% of the families on the planet, lots of families are very busy trying to earn enough to have a reliable car and live someplace not crawling with junkies and have a rainy day fund. Oh yeah, and lots of families are working real hard for non of the above.

Maureen said...

Is it my imagination, or do really interesting, important school related meetings all seem to happen between April and June? At our school right now (within a 2-3 week period) I will have meetings (and or events) for: elementary play, two camps, auction, and Site Council (regular and finance committee). I'm sure there are others I have forgotten, and those don't even include all of the SPS, CPPS and other District level stuff. Melissa, I'm almost glad that I didn't know about the RHS forum--I would have felt like I should go and it would have eaten one of my nights at home this week.

I wonder if events like this are one more victim of the two income family--they used to happen during the day with the stay at home moms. But now, even if you have a lot of families with flexible schedules, meetings are held at night or on weekends to accomodate everyone. There are just fewer hours left to fit everything in.

anonymous said...

I feel for you Maureen. I used to be a meeting junkie too. I felt obligated to go to all the "important" ones, but they were all important. After a couple of years of missing 2 to 3 nights a week with my family, I decided to scale way back. I still go to a few meetings a month, but pick and choose which ones I attend carefully. I am also thankful for blogs, where I feel like I can stay connected at the district level, without having to be at every board and district meeting.

Melissa, regarding Roosevelt and HS in general, it could be that by high school, the last step in public school, parents feel like they are on the way out (or perhaps burned out)??

snaffles said...

shfjvkkwpaper flyers seems to be a good advertisement, however, territory for schools, is hard to distinguish. Flyer an area 2-3 nights before the event. Figure on 1 person for every 10 flyers. Neighborhood schools work best.

Two income families are hard hit. Young kids mean babysitters, or only one parent attending.

Meetings are difficult for the most committed.

Alternatives are leaving your blog address, and inviting comment to questions asked at a meeting. Might open up discussion from the mom with a two year old sleeping in the next room.

Isabel D'Ambrosia said...

I've been serving on our elementary school nominating committee trying to fill PTSA board positions, so I've been thinking about this question too. We've found several people to fill our vice president positions (three of four VPs are going to share a position), but no one is willing to step up and volunteer to be president.

I think there may be multiple reasons why we can't find a PTSA president. Here are some I've thought of --

1) Traditionally, the heavy lifting of PTA has been done by stay-at-home moms, and there are fewer and fewer of those all the time. Our PTSA president this year works part-time. As far as I know that's the first time in our school's history that at PTSA president has also held a paying job. Times are changing for mothers.

2) PTA may not be perceived to be all that "cool". And here in Seattle, we like to feel cool. Serving on PTA might be a little too retro. Isn't PTA just for stay-at-home moms who have too much free time??? And even if you have the free time, it's tough to peg your identity on being a "PTA mom".

3) The third reason I can think of strikes me as the biggest one. PTA has become big business. Our PTSA helps raise well over $100,000 every year. Our vice president positions have titles like "Director of Communications" and "Fundraising Director". Our PTA includes more than 20 separate committees to be managed by the board. PTSA board positions require more and more serious professional skills all the time. This at a time when more mothers have opportunities to use those skills (if they have them) to get jobs that pay real money. People can be generous, but why should they volunteer for PTA when they can make $25,000 to $50,000 per year using the same skills at a paid job?

All that said, I've also been working on our Rummage Sale. In the past two or three weeks, nearly 50 people have emailed me to say that they are willing to volunteer at some point during the sale. But, you know, it doesn't take a master's degree to figure out how to move boxes of rummage around the gym.....

Melissa Westbrook said...

Isabel, it may not take a master's to move around boxes but it takes some degree of skill to make any fundraising event successful.

People may be burned out by high school. That's true. But I was talking about attending a meeting, not working at an event. But if all the parents at Roosevelt feel they know the school and the district's plans well enough on the future of high schools, then great. I just don't want to hear any whining about "not enough communication".

I would say being PTA president is different from elementary to middle to high school. I find it odd but for some reason, when I tell people I'm co-president at Roosevelt, it's like "Ohhh, that's a big job" or "You must have a lot of responsibility". Well, it's a big school for sure but it's a responsibility whether it's elementary or middle or high school. However, I do have to interact with far more people (district, staff, community members) than I ever did serving on previous Boards.

But Old Salt is likely right; there's a lot of tired, cynical people out there. It just may be that they don't feel anything will change; I was just hoping more people would show up to our event to get answers to questions they may have.

Steve said...

Perhaps the meetings could be recorded, converted to MP3 and published on a web site or made available as a podcast (I hear a lot of people have iPods!). Going further, maybe the audio portion could be broadcast live, either via a streaming media technology or an old-fashioned conference call. Does the district or individual schools have these capabilities? Do most schools have broadband Internet access? (I may be naive about all this; our first child is starting in Kindergarten next year).

Another thought: do PTSA presidents from all the schools ever get together to share best practices, coordinated activity on shared interests, and generally to learn from each other? A meeting in the Fall and in the Spring could help form bonds that could improve the education system and help "sum the parts." It might be fun as well, and I'm betting there are foundations who would fund such a thing.


Melissa Westbrook said...

Actually, the WA State PTSA with its regions and councils sponsor plenty of good workshops and I've attended a few. I don't believe that's the problem.

We do live in a high tech world but I doubt that any school has the money or time to record or stream its meetings. That's asking the Board to take on yet another task. We certainly do publish our minutes so people can read those but they are a very basic overview of the meetings.