How to mobilize parents: Call them

After finishing a two-year stint as a Teach for America teacher in San Jose, Miss Bennett is starting a new job at a charter school in the same part of town. She was surprised to see “a veritable army of parents and children” showed up to help move the desks and prepare the school for opening.

Furniture was moved, unpacked, put together, and organized in every classroom that needed it, and the parking lot and playground were painted all in the space of 2 hours.

The school secretary called the parents, told them help was needed and they came. At her old district-run school, nobody asked the parents for help.

The principal of an LA school that was converted to a charter once told me about waiting more than a year for the district to send a crew to fix a dangerous sidewalk. Finally, she asked some fathers who did construction and landscaping work. They showed up on the next weekend with their equipment, repaved the walkway and landscaped the front of the school.  They were proud to do it.

About Joanne


  1. Thunderbottom says:

    This shows what happens when you expect something to be done by the government at whatever level – minicipal, state, federal. It will take a long time to get something done, if ever, and the results will probably be lackluster at best. When people believe that they have, in the words of our President, “some skin in the game”, they will get involved and results will occur in a timely manner and with less expense. District-run schools with their unionized personnel (teachers, maintenance workers, et al) often won’t let parents get involved in the day-to-day activities of the school. I believe that they see parents as a nuisance at best.

  2. TB, everything you said is wrong where I live. Everything. It’s one of the reasons I find anti-government ideologues so profoundly offensive.

  3. A very convincing argument Mike; just say the other guy is wrong and that he/she offends you. Yes, very convincing indeed.

    Of course, you could try looking up Toulmin and actually try to make a cogent argument. One that has a claim backed up by evidence which links the two with a warrant followed by an impact statement. I know this is difficult–even exceptionally difficult if you don’t actually have a case–but it is really the only way for people of a democracy to debate; otherwise, the discourse is just shallow garbage, and I find shallow garbage intellectually offensive.

  4. There’s also some fear of liability if parents or volunteers do work like this on a whim. (I know that is a lame excuse, but it’s an excuse I’ve heard before.) Rather than moan about how this reveals a dysfunction, we should be applauded these parents for doing something rather than just complaining…if more in this industry would follow suit perhaps we’d move forward more quickly. I do notice, however, that both the examples Joanne posted were charter schools. I wonder if the same happens in traditional public schools very often.

  5. Our district (in California) was inhibited from using volunteers for maintenance and teaching work, but our non-union charter used that kind of help routinely. Volunteers in the union schools did tutor kids after class and read to groups in class and some maintenance stuff was done. What was acceptable or not was political and half the problem with not using volunteers more was the uncertainty and the unwillingness of the administration to push the issue ( and enrage the unions).

  6. Crimson Avenger says:

    In my experience, public support is the last thing on the minds of school and district leaders. I’ve sat in on planning meetings focused on dealing with the recession, and the sole focus has been on securing as much government funding as possible to maintain the status quo. No interest at all in drawing in support from the community, whether that’s money, volunteers, or the like. Also no interest at all in finding efficiencies or new ways of operating in order to reduce expenses.

    The latest point of discussion is on showing ‘progress’, however they choose to define it, to justify receiving more fed money once the stimulus runs out.

  7. Richard Aubrey says:

    Tried to do a bit of maintenance to an athletic facility at the local high school. The union would object–they’d get to it eventually–the liability issue (some kid might pick up a weed-poison contaminated tennis ball and lick it), the environmental issue–the stuff might get into the groundwater, all combined to keep me off the job.

  8. Margo/Mom says:

    I have participated in similar activities as a parent. I am far more likely to show up for something like this (when called) than to be one of the five parents who comes to the parent meeting to decide whether to sell candy bars or wrapping paper this year. I also like to come when policy issues are discussed. But don’t count on anyone to call you about those kinds of things (unless it’s a levy).

  9. They don’t even call teachers when policy issues are being discussed. Both teachers and parents should be at the table for those discussions, but too often neither are, or if they are they are under-represented.

  10. or by seeking volunteers, you can even garner charges of elistism.

    here is the spin from one union hack when volunteers are encouraged:
    a hardship for
    those from the
    poorest of
    neighborhoods to

    … and therefore proof of exclusion.

  11. Hm.. There are liability issues, and you really can’t dismiss them so out of hand since you don’t see how many frivolous lawsuits a district deals with on an ongoing basis (I’ve been quite shocked); remember that taxpayers shell out for those lawsuits.

    That said, the best use of quick parent labor for me is computer stuff — nobody even sees them doing it. In general, our community is in the building all the time and parents do quite a bit. Not sidewalk repair (I don’t recall that ever being an issue…), but they paid for and put together a new workout room, etc. Parent groups have landscaped every building in the district (beautifully). The sort of relationship our schools have with the community is generatins deep, but I’d certainly encourage other districts to start building it. I don’t know why they don’t (we have crazy parents who get into fistfights in the principal’s office, too). We’re ALWAYS on the phone with parents. My emails start as soon as the counselors are back and the kids get their schedules. Can be a time suck, but you get used to it, and it pays off in the end.

    Daryl: you forgot the qualifiers and understanding of rebuttal. What have you against Aristolelian and Rogerian argument, anyway?

    I’m finding this a little funny in light of all the stuff I see this time of year complaining about buying school supplies. So, it’s OK to ask parents to come by and do a multi-thousand dollar sidewalk job, but not to buy some pencils, crayons, paper, etc.?

  12. LS: There are a few differences between buying school supplies and doing jobs for the school.

    If the request for supplies is a generic request to contribute supplies, it seems more or less OK to me. But if it is a demand for each student to contribute couched as a “request”, with someone keeping tabs on who did and who did not contribute, that is completely another matter. And when it comes as a request for contributing money for supplies, rather than for supplies themselves, it raises even more concerns of another kind.

    So perhaps it does sound “a little funny.” But very little.

  13. Right. Because I have a black market empire in #2 pencils (?).

  14. I doubt that you run a black market in pencils, but I am not sure that giving teachers $25 or $50 (or more) per head in cash without any accounting is a good idea. And, then, are you really sure that all the kids will get equitable attention from every teacher, if couple of the kids contribute $500 each “for supplies”?

  15. Honestly, I’ve never heard of giving cash for supplies. The kids bring in the supplies they are going to use. They might throw all the pencils into a common kitty or something, but basically it is enough pencils for all the kids all year.

    As far as contributions for attention, couldn’t say. I didn’t give any extra points to the kid whose mom (just two years older than me) called me “the young teacher from Open House). I did give him some extra attention, as in “I LOVE your mom!”

  16. Ponderosa says:

    Why do people magically become hacks the minute they join a union?

    It’s nice that life is so simple:
    union member = hack
    non-union member = noble capitalist warrior

    Christian = good
    Non-Christian = bad

    Obama = socialist, fascist, and every other epithet (who cares if they’re mutually exclusive?)
    Obama-critic = real American

    It’s all so clear-cut. Little thinking required.

    My school is all union. We love having parents on campus. We work really hard. We care about doing a good job. Keep vilifying and caricaturing us if it makes you feel good. Who cares about the truth?

  17. “It’s all so clear-cut. Little thinking required.”

    Don’t be so hard on us, Ponderosa. We do the best we can with what we learned in union schools.

  18. Richard Aubrey says:


    You or my lying eyes?

  19. I don’t suppose that Ponderosa would like it if I noted that Nazi is the abbreviation for “National Socialist” and there is no contradiction…

    so of course I’m going to.

  20. Ponderosa says:

    Dude, almost every advanced nation on Earth has a health care plan that is WAY more socialistic than anything Obama is proposing. Are Japan, Canada, Britain, Portugal et. al therefore Nazi-esque? The USA is on the extreme right edge of the socialism-capitalism spectrum. Can you name one nation that is LESS socialistic than the US?

  21. Roger Sweeny says:


    I’m sorry you’ve been the victim of stereotyping here. Many of us who are critical of various aspects of public schools and unions don’t fall into your counter-stereotype. We don’t believe, “union member = hack, non-union member = noble capitalist warrior, etc. We know that Thunderbottom is wrong about a lot of places and Mike is right.

    As a teacher, I have problems with my union. I don’t like their alliance with the ed schools to support our ridiculous (and pretty much country-wide) merit pay system: the more ed courses you take, the more you get paid. I get annoyed by the constant communications from them telling me to vote for whichever left Democrat is running in the coming election. And I’m pissed that they don’t push for meaningful discipline, including alternative placements for students who just aren’t interested in or aren’t cut out for academics.

    Those who say there is no contradiction between socialism and fascism are thinking along a statist-individualist axis. Both fascism and socialism say that society, represented by the state, basically owns you. In a full-blown fascist or socialist state (and Sweden, etc. are capitalist/socialist hybrids), there are no limits to what the state can do, so if those who run the government say the health of society depends on getting rid of Jews or kulaks, it will be done.

  22. Ponderosa says:


    Thank you for your temperate response.

    I get annoyed at my union as well, but, as they say, the perfect is the enemy of the good. I’m grateful for many things unions do and have done: the 40 hour work week, decent pay and benefits for teachers (they were miserable before the NEA came along), and the notion that there are limits to the burdens our bosses can place on us.

    Your remark about fearing statism is clarifying. However I would submit that there is a world of difference between the muscular government of Sweden and that of Nazi Germany, and that the former is, on balance, a boon to its citizens. It also seems to me that many American workers exist in de facto tyrannies: corporate workplaces wherein they are afraid to speak their minds, even if their safetly and well-being are at stake. Places where the psychological climate is one of fear. Places where they feel compelled to sacrifice family and personal time if they wish to remain employed and pay their mortgages and feed their families. Of course free marketeers will say, Look for a different employer. A glib response. In reality, especially in our outsourcing and declining economy, it’s very risky to go back out on to the job market. And often there are few humane employers to be found (I suspect many bosses want to be more humane, but in our Law of the Jungle globalized economy, maximum exploitation becomes the norm). I support more muscular government –of a socialistic variety –as a way of curbing the tyranny of the employers and the unfettered free market. (A muscular government of the fascistic variety just teams up with the bosses and beats down workers even more.) In the end, I think it’s good for the employers as well as the employees. Checks and balances are good things, as our dear Founding Fathers would argue.

  23. Ponderosa says:

    One more thing: I really am curious if anyone can point to a nation on Earth that is LESS socialistic than the US. I’m concluding from the silence that there may not be.

  24. Ponderosa,

    Tsk, tsk, you can’t expect the anti-teacher crowd here to back anything up with FACTS.

  25. Crimson Avenger says:

    Ponderosa, I can’t think of another country that is less socialistic than the US – and that’s kind of the point. We want to keep it that way, not race to catch up with everybody else on this particular scale.

  26. “One more thing: I really am curious if anyone can point to a nation on Earth that is LESS socialistic than the US.”

    Oh, I don’t know. Possibly China and Russia, to get you started? I doubt that the unions would give you any protection there.

  27. Roger Sweeny says:


    I agree that “there is a world of difference between the muscular government of Sweden and that of Nazi Germany.”

    Interestingly, after I posted my comment, I discovered that today is the 70th anniversary of the Hitler-Stalin pact. The leader of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, or NSDAP), Adolf Hitler, agreed with the leader of international socialism, Josef Stalin, to conquer the countries that lay between them, with Hitler getting the western part and Stalin the eastern part.