Parents, your school district needs you

Alyssa Jackson
  • Local school districts are in need of more parent volunteers for events throughout the year.
  • Volunteer rates are low due to work schedules and the steps it takes to become a volunteer.
  • You can contact your school district for more information on how to get involved.

Megan Landis loves being a parent volunteer in her two daughter's schools.

John A. Pavoncello photo

Landis is the vice president of the PTO board for Dallastown Elementary and helps with the Dallastown Intermediate School PTO. She has helped organize the "Santa Shop," where kids can pick out presents for their families and help wrap them, as well as helped with book fairs, field trips, PTO organization membership drives and cutting box tops. She's also a cheerleading coach for the Dallastown Cougars.

The best part for her is interacting with the kids.

"I enjoy seeing the kids," Landis said. "It's just nice to see how they react and the smiles on their faces. They are appreciative of their volunteers."

While there are a number of parents throughout the county who are heavily involved with their local schools, school districts are struggling to gain more parent volunteers because of parents' work schedules, single-parent homes or the many steps that it takes to become a parent volunteer.

The need: Parent volunteers are an important part of the school system, according to York Suburban Superintendent Shelly Merkle and York City School District's parent liaison, Elodia Barajas. Each said that parents who volunteer for the school district have a better understanding of their child's education, are more in contact with administrators in the building and district, and establish a strong relationship with their district.

York City and York Suburban are just two districts in the county that are struggling to get the number of parent volunteers that they'd like to see. Landis said there are events at the Dallastown schools that could be in danger of being cancelled when there aren't enough volunteers.

York Suburban Superintendent Shelly Merkle

Barajas said the York City School District is always looking for more parents to get involved, whether it's on a parent volunteer basis, with the school's PTO or just making sure that they are involved in their child's education at home.

"Yes, we definitely need more parents to be engaged in their child's education," Barajas said. "Some parents may volunteer in the classroom helping with activities, or they may be volunteering in the office, or they can do things at home like cutting box tops."

Merkle said that one reason parents might choose not to become a regular parent volunteer is the requirements they must meet. Depending on if a parent is legally considered a parent volunteer, they might need to go through several state and federal clearances.

Volun.teer requirement graphic. Amanda  J. Cain

Landis obtained all of the federal clearances to be able to volunteer for anything the school district might need. She said the district made the process very easy by providing all the information on its website. She was cleared to volunteer in approximately two weeks.

Understanding definitions: According to a presentation Merkle gave at the York Suburban school board meeting last month, a volunteer is someone who is "responsible for the welfare of one or more children or having direct volunteer contact with children."

This essentially makes a parent volunteer anyone who takes care of children, provides supervision, training or guidance for them or is in control of them outside of parental care. Examples can be a volunteer coach, activity adviser, a regular classroom volunteer or an overnight chaperone for a trip.

It doesn't necessarily mean that if you accompany a class on a trip to the zoo for the day you're a parent volunteer, using the legal definition, Merkle said.

This gray area can become complicated for educators, though. Field-trip chaperones are not considered parent volunteers, but what happens when a parent takes a small group of children to an exhibit away from the teacher? They don't become a parent volunteer in the legal sense, even though they might be considered as temporarily responsible for the welfare of the children. Ultimately, for most day trips, that responsibility falls to the teachers, Merkle said.

"It's how you apply the law, and you have to err on the side of safety for children," she said. "We want family engagement, we want parents to feel welcome and a part of things, so finding that balance can be a constant struggle for schools."

The trouble is the clearance is necessary to become a legal parent volunteer.

While a parent or guardian might not need to be subject to a federal background check to help with their child's field day or go to a trip to the zoo, all parent volunteers in the legal sense have to go through a hefty approval process, including filling out a state police criminal history and a child-abuse report. Expenses of the requirements usually fall to the parents as well.

Because school districts might have different ways of interpreting the legal definition, those interested in volunteering should contact their school district to learn specifics.

In the classroom: Both Barajas and Merkle said volunteering in the classroom, particularly at younger levels where children are learning to read and write, is always helpful for the school district and the parents. By spending time in the classroom, parents have the opportunity to see how their child and other children are learning, to understand what topics they are focusing on and to help them improve more at home.

Having a parent in the classroom also gives students a role model. Children of parents who volunteer get the sense that their education is important, Merkle said. Barajas said that parent volunteers also tend to encourage higher academic achievement.

"We don't see the student strive, we don't see students trying their hardest when parents aren't engaged," Barajas said. "They get more easily distracted."

Landis said that even though the two PTOs she is part of are very active and have hard-working members, there's still a need for parent volunteers for many events throughout the year.

"I can’t stress enough that we can’t do certain events at the school without parent volunteer help," she said. "Even if it’s just an hour or half an hour, it makes it well worth it. And it’s very fun."