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Posted at 11:00 AM ET, 01/ 7/2010

Should parents volunteer at affluent schools?

By Valerie Strauss

So a mother writes a blogpost saying that she is sick of volunteering at her sons’ school.


Not because she does it too much and nobody says thank you.

Because the school is relatively affluent and, thus, parents who volunteer in places like this are ignoring real social problems.

AND because schools requests for volunteers most often fall on women and thus are “cavalier about women’s time and worth.”

AND, she wrote, because it is “self-referential.”

The post, by writer Helaine Olen was posted recently on a website called double X. National Public Radio thought the subject was so interesting that it did a show on the subject. You can see it here.

Here’s a paragraph from the post:

“To judge by the number of appeals I receive, you would think my children are in desperate need of parental sacrifice. But they aren’t. We live in a fairly affluent suburban town where the median family income is slightly above $100,000. And yet I am constantly being asked to give my time to the school, to bring in food for countless celebratory festivals and chaperone everything from field trips to student-play rehearsals. Most of these unpaid volunteer activities, while seemingly well-intentioned, are, in fact, unnecessary make-work, designed to make us feel good about ourselves even as they allow us to ignore more significant social problems, like overcrowded and underfunded schools nearby but not in our neighborhood.”

Excuse me, readers, but please tell me what I’m missing.

Are parents supposed to excuse themselves from participating in the life of their child’s school because they are not poor?

Is it really self-reverential for parents to participate in field trips and other events that often require parental involvement--whatever school their child attends?

Is parental volunteering at school really taking people away from focusing on society’s most difficult problems?

At what point of neediness is it socially acceptable to volunteer at your child’s school?

Does it require a certain percentage of students who qualify for free and reduced price lunch because of family income (the common measure in public education for deciding who is needy and who isn’t.) Is the measure whether or not there is toilet paper in the bathroom?

For that matter, one wonders if Ms. Olen has opted to use the time she isn’t spending at her kids’ school helping poor kids somewhere else.

I am not one of the big volunteers at my daughters’ affluent private school. There are a number of other parents who are extremely involved in the daily life of the school--volunteering in the library, chaperoning field trips, sharing an expertise with kids, and, yes, organizing book fairs and other events to raise money to help needy kids afford to attend the school.

I believe they contribute to the school in important ways and I appreciate the work they do. While perhaps what they do isn’t as necessary as, say, spending time writing a blogpost to complain about being asked to volunteer, it seems nonetheless useful within the context of the school community.

Many of these parents, incidentally, also spend considerable time--professionally and personally--and money helping society’s less fortunate. They manage to help in school and in society.

The real issue is not, of course, the demands that schools put on parents in reasonably affluent schools.

The real problem are the schools where parents are absent in the lives of their kids or too uneducated themselves to give their children the start in life they need to succeed. If someone wants to talk about what we do about THAT, let’s have a conversation.

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By Valerie Strauss  | January 7, 2010; 11:00 AM ET
Categories:  Parents  | Tags:  volunteering in school  
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Rich school or poor school, it comforts kids to know their parents care enough to help out when it is needed. Many parents are not necessarily too uneducated to help their kids, but are working two or three jobs, or working an odd schedule, to make ends meet, and are not able to volunteer.

While I think it's important on that parents help out on occasion, somehow the emphasis has been placed on parents volunteering for extracirrucular activities as the mark of an involved parent, instead of checking on homework, making sure the child gets to school on time and is attentive, addressing behavior issues, etc. as the most important kind of parental invovlement at school. Why is that?

Posted by: Mazarin | January 7, 2010 11:19 AM | Report abuse

I think that the point Ms. Olen was trying to make was that not all volunteering has the same impact, and we shouldn't act like it does.

Posted by: bubba777 | January 7, 2010 11:24 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad you brought up this topic because it's seldom addressed even though it's the source of some real, although unintended, inequality in our schools.

My grandchildren attend a school in a very affluent suburb of San Diego. Each class has at least three volunteers at any given time. The volunteers are stay-at-home moms who were trained as college professors, lawyers, and other professionals. The teachers in these classes often divide the students into small groups to be helped by these volunteers. If little Sophie is slightly behind in her reading, "Dr. Smith" will help her get caught up. The end result is that these privileged children are basically tutored by some very well-educated volunteers.

Yes, we need these volunteers but I wish some of them would offer their services in low-income schools.

Posted by: Linda/RetiredTeacher | January 7, 2010 12:06 PM | Report abuse

I think that anybody who uses the word "self-referential" in any context, much less one involving helping out teachers in the schools one's children attend, is very likely a pompous, self-imporant bore.

Posted by: WashingtonDame | January 7, 2010 12:56 PM | Report abuse

I'd like to think that the time I've spent volunteering in my daughter's schools (one affluent and the current is middle income) were beneficial for her mainly and the other children as well. It was a way for me to -- honestly, return to the best parts of school for me (I was a nerd) without the homework and demonstrate my love for my daughter which she enjoyed thru 4th grade anyway. I understand the point Olen is making esp. about the valuing of women's time. I wish things could be equal but they never will be. I suspect that alot of mom's who volunteer in their child's school wouldn't do so if they didn't have that connection so I can't blame the SAHM with degrees.

Posted by: flabbergast | January 7, 2010 2:51 PM | Report abuse

Study after study shows that schools, and thus the students who attend there, benefit from parental involvement. And perhaps, just perhaps, your involvement will help your child, or another child, decide to help with those other social problems in a more substantial way than you can now. Of course you volunteer. You also set an example for your child. Need I go on?

Posted by: rogernebel | January 7, 2010 3:57 PM | Report abuse

In addition to the excellent reasons cited already about the value of parents volunteering in schools, I will add: to see and be seen. When you are there, you see what is going on. I pick up lots of helpful insights and information that way. Also, the teachers, staff and administrators see me there. They get to know me a little, my face becomes familiar, they perceive that I'm part of the team. This gives me, I like to think, more credibility and even clout if I have a concern, suggestion or request. Part of a parent's job is to be the advocate for the child, and volunteering at the school makes me a more effective one.

Posted by: los22 | January 8, 2010 9:23 AM | Report abuse

This is a huge issue in high performing versus low performing schools. If you accumulated the amount of volunteer time that goes into more affluent school you would see its worth multiple numbers of staff and lots of fundraising dollars. My daughter attends a school where very few parents can volunteer mostly because of language barriers and the fact that most other parents work. I can see so many instances where having more parents would make a difference. It allows teachers to plan rather spend an hour counting out manipulative. The librarian to develop book profiles rather than shelve books. I truly wish more parents would cross into other schools and volunteer, they would have their eyes opened up on both sides. Many poor parents would understand the achievement gap and well off parents might understand the crisis of skills and circumstances that affect many poor schools. Of course this could be accomplished if middle class and wealthy parents would be willing to have desegregated schools, both by class and race.

Posted by: Brooklander | January 8, 2010 3:44 PM | Report abuse

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