PTA's glory days continue to fade

PTA parents in Federal Way are an endangered species.

Some high schools don't have PTA's at all. Membership is so low in many elementary and middle schools, the PTA members who remain wonder if they'll survive.

"At one point, there were parents that were available between eight and three-thirty," said Trise Moore, Federal Way School District family partnership advocate. "Today, more parents are working."

In addition to straining a parent's time, PTA's are drawing fewer members today because they are often viewed as a social clique, many local PTA presidents and principals said.

"The PTA is kind of a middle class concept," Claire Wilson, PTA president at Valhalla said last spring. "For many families, they don't see themselves as part of that culture."

According to the Web sites of 23 Federal Way elementary schools, each school does have a PTA, although at many the involvement appeared minimal, with few contacts listed and few items on the calendars. A handful of the PTA links were disabled.

E-mails sent to the PTA requesting more information went unreturned for several months at more than half the schools contacted.

As Federal Way becomes more diverse, there are fewer traditional PTA families, Wilson said. Cultural differences and language barriers prevent many parents from becoming involved at school.

"For a lot of parents it's kind of a scary thing. School is a frightening thing for them," she said.

Moore pointed out that although parents might not be at school, it doesn't mean they don't care about education.

"I think every culture values education I just think that every culture differs in the way they demonstrate that they value education," she said. "Everybody doesn't have the same traditions. It doesn't mean that their traditions are not effective."

PTA members at Valhalla, where there is a 60 percent minority population, organize a variety of family events in an effort to draw in parents of all cultures and create a sense of community. They host family nights, math nights, literacy nights and movie nights. There is an annual carnival and a drama club after school. Interpreters attend the events and fliers are printed in both Spanish and English.

The goal is to set up a culture where school is a good place to be, Wilson said. Once parents are comfortable at school, they may be more likely to get involved. Wilson said her goal is to get each parent to contribute three hours each year.

"I think that everyone has something to offer," she said.

At Green Gables, where the PTA is extremely active, principal Diane Holt continues working on ways to get multi-cultural parents more involved, she said. This year, she plans to convert the PTA room to a family resource center and provide family advocates for different cultures.

Although Green Gables serves 40 percent minority students, those families are underrepresented in traditional parental involvement such the PTA and classroom volunteering.

"They don't feel as welcome to be part of those traditional settings because they're not used to it," Holt said.

To reach out to all parents, Green Gables started hosting coffee house events every Friday. Parents meet with teachers and the principal in an informal setting to ask questions, socialize and learn about the goings-on at school.

"The parents talk about what the school board is deciding or how to put their child to bed without screaming, kind of full range topics," Holt said.

"We've been able to have different cultures come in and feel welcomed," Holt said. "It kind of eases them in."

At Federal Way High School, principal Lisa Griebel will host several back-to-school events to welcome parents this year. The school will also host a monthly forum for parents on the last Monday of each month addressing topics such as gang awareness and SAT preparedness. To make the school more inviting for parents every day, Griebel moved the staff parking to the back so parents will have plenty of parking if they choose to visit.

Just because parents aren't PTA members does not mean that they are uninvolved with their child's education, said Federal Way School Board member Dave Larson.

The PTA is an important piece of a school, Larson said. But as membership declines, schools have to seek other ways to draw parents in.

Many schools with small PTAs encourage parents and community members to become involved in other ways.

At Sherwood Forest Elementary, more than 80 dads, grandfathers and family friends volunteered one day each on campus last year as part of the Watch DOGS program. The volunteers worked in classrooms, played tag at recess, helped students find their busses, patrolled the campus and opened ketchup packets at recess.

At Sacajawea Middle School, parent Nathaniel Jarvis volunteers each Friday to teach children chess during lunch time.

And parents from all Federal Way schools two years ago created an extremely active district-wide Native American Parent Advisory Team.

To fill in the parental involvement gap, many Federal Way schools utilize community resources such as churches, neighbors, older students, civic groups and employees from local business.

At Mirror Lake, the PTA membership is so scarce that the president and the vice-president were dismayed last year.

"We almost barely made it last year," said vice president Elizabeth Cole last spring. "The whole thing is really discouraging. It's almost like, why bother."

Principal Kent Cross compensates for the reduced parent involvement by teaming up with neighbors and employees from local businesses such as Weyerhaeuser. The volunteers form a group of 60 that tutor more than 100 students as part of the KITES reading tutoring program.

"That principal has understood that he needs both parent and community resources," Moore said. "If PTA membership is low, I'm impressed that he's still creating partnerships with parents of other kids."

At Star Lake Elementary, students from neighboring Totem Middle School tutor students in reading once a week. It is one of many programs in Federal Way where schools partner with older students.

At Adelaide and Lake Grove elementary schools, church-members from neighboring Grace Church help out with things such as tutoring, campus beautification, school supply donations and providing food and baby-sitting at family night events. They also host carnivals for children in local neighborhoods.

"They do all kinds of things to help out," said Marsha Clark, Adelaide office manager. "Sometimes it's their idea and sometimes it's us asking for help."

The AmeriCorps team, a Washington State Service Corps group, also provides tutoring and assistance at several Federal Way schools and staffs two community centers.

***PTAs are shrinking, Moore said. But that doesn't mean parental involvement is falling apart.

"The problem is that lots of people believe that if they don't see a parent at the school then they must not be involved," Moore said. "The new parent involvement is very non-traditional."

***An old cliche says that it takes a village to raise a child. Here in Federal Way, that old adage couldn't be more true.

There are many ways to get involved in your child's education with limited time or without visiting campus. Here, local principals offer suggestions.

For parents with five minutes a day:

- Use e-mail to stay in close contact with your student's teachers, said Diane Holt, principal at Green Gables Elementary.

- Go over your student's planner with them and review student's homework, said Christine Baker, principal at Totem Middle School.

- Check your student's grades and attendance online, said Lisa Griebel, principal at Federal Way High School.

For parents with two hours per week:

- Ask the school if there's a project you can do at home, such as covering books for the library, or become active in legislative issues, Holt said.

- Reinforce that school is important and model lifelong learning at home by reading with your child and reading newspapers, Baker said.

- Connect with your child's friends and their parents to insure students are making good choices outside of school that will help them be successful in class, Griebel said.

For parents with one day a month:

- Volunteer one day at school to have lunch, tutor, play at recess or teach kids crafts or magic tricks, Holt said.

- Take your child to the library or on a field trip to local colleges, Baker said.

- Join a booster club and help one day with fundraising, transportation, hauling equipment, providing meals or other duties, Griebel said.

To get involved with your child's education without leaving home, Trise Moore from the family partnership office recommends asking your student these questions:

- Can you show me some of the work you're doing in class?

- Will you teach me something new you've learned in class today?

- Can you see the board and hear your teacher from where you sit in class?

- What do you do when you don't understand what the teacher is covering in class?

For more information about how to get more involved with your child's education, call the school or Trise Moore, Federal Way School District family partnership advocate, at (253) 945-2273.

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