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Want a challenging school role?

Decades before she became executive director of the Delaware School Boards Association, Susan Francis was known in her community as the “mouthy red-headed woman.” As a local PTO representative at school board meetings, she recalls, “I brought a mom’s perspective before the votes.”

Francis calls her 11 subsequent years on the Cape Henlopen School Board “enchanting work.” She delights in helping other parents “learn to advocate for their children” and helping them to handle difficult situations. Her goal was to do right for all the students, and she was proud when board actions made dramatic, positive differences in the lives of individuals.

Serving on a school board is one of many ways to make a difference in your children’s schools. Other choices include taking on a meaty role in an organization such as After School Activities Partnerships (ASAP), Odyssey of the Mind (OM) or Art Goes to School (AGTS).

School board service

4 ways you can
make
a difference

Art Goes to School
“I know what museum that’s in,” said an excited kindergartener when an AGTS volunteer presented a reproduction of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party to his class. “Saladworks!”  AGTS is a popular enrichment opportunity for many school districts. Dating back to 1962, AGTS engages students and gives voice to even the shy children. Some volunteers have stayed with the program for as many as 40 years.

After School Activities Partnerships
ASAP provides supervised enrichment to youngsters in the vulnerable hours after school. Known for teaching chess and other board games, ASAP volunteers also sponsor theater, knitting, debate and just about anything else parents are willing to support. ASAP helps weave kids and volunteers “into the fabric of the school,” says director Justin Ennis.

Odyssey of
the Mind

Design and construct a rolling structure from balsa wood & glue that can balance as much weight as possible: that’s the gist of one part of a complex problem that faces (OM) teams of all ages this year. For some 25 years, volunteer coaches and judges have facilitated friendly competitions for children to explore and implement their unique approaches.

School board service
One way school board members make a difference is when issues aren’t clearly black and white. For example, a Delaware high school senior was arrested and brought up for expulsion because he carried a knife into school. He lived alone in a trailer in woods where packs of wild dogs lived. He worked until midnight and required the knife for self-defense. He was already admitted into the military pending graduation. School board members appeared at his court hearing to urge dismissal of what they believed were unjust charges. According to Susan Francis, Director, Delaware School Boards Association, they still hear from the young man, who is serving the country honorably.

Sanford Student is president of the Evesham Township (NJ) School District. This dad with a marketing career became involved years ago when his concerns about a class in his daughter’s school received five different answers from five different administrators. Ensuring that student learning and achievement is commensurate with the money being spent is a major focus for him.

 “Demand answers to your questions,” he says to parents. “You’re the consumers.” Student encourages parents to run for school boards, believing they “can make a difference in their local community.” He emphasizes that it’s local decisions that “have the biggest impact, not Washington, DC.”

“I love it,” says Trish Everhart, also an Evesham board member. “There’s personal satisfaction working for the kids in town, paying it forward for other people’s kids.”

What does it take?

You don’t have to be an educator to serve in a challenging volunteer capacity. In fact, many school-related organizations are seeking wider parent involvement. These programs offer training for those without prior knowledge, so don’t disqualify yourself in advance.

“A culture of teamwork” characterizes Odyssey of the Mind, according to Deb Barnes, the organization’s southeastern Pennsylvania director. OM is an international extracurricular program encouraging creative problem solving. Coaches participate in one-day training to learn the basics. Long-time participants mentor volunteer newcomers. Barnes, a school principal in Allentown, PA, also serves as an eager resource for those with questions.

“It’s utterly remarkable to see what the kids are capable of doing — their ability and creativity. Kids do all the work,” she says.

A chance to learn

 “If you want to see how art is relevant to your child, and you’re interested in learning more and like to read,” then you have the main credentials expected from Art Goes to School volunteers, according to Lynn Larson, the group’s Delaware Valley president. More than 50 local AGTS chapters in the region train their volunteers to annually change portfolios of fine art reproductions from all eras across the world. Volunteers work with veteran presenters, attend lectures and seminars, receive lesson plans and engage in mock presentations to practice working with students K-8. “What I’ve learned is astounding,” says Larson.

State school boards associations provide continuous training and informational materials to new and ongoing members in important areas like policy, finances and due process. School board members earn credits for the workshops they attend, and are recognized at different levels of experience.

First steps

If you’re seeking challenging ways to involve yourself in school affairs, how should you begin? How do you know what’s right for you?

“Go and see! Listen to the deliberations,” says Francis, referring to school board meetings and board committee meetings. Just attending these public sessions will give you a sense of who the members are, and an understanding of the issues and what goes into them. “Ask questions. Share what you think.”

“Go! It doesn’t cost you anything,” urges Student.

OM’s annual regional competition is scheduled for March 9 at Pennridge High School in Perkasie, PA. It’s open to the public, free of charge. “Come see first-hand!” invites Barnes.

Contact organizations’ websites, school principals, PTO leaders or school board members to explore opportunities.

Ann L. Rappoport, PhD is a contributing writer to MetroKids.

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