I was surprised when I looked at the Richardson ISD website and saw that approximately 38 percent of the student population in Richardson ISD is white, 28 percent is Hispanic, 25 percent is African-American and 8 percent is Native American. That’s not the impression I had going to “Meet the Teacher” nights or sitting on the countless PTA boards here in Lake Highlands over the last 16 years.
Most of the parents on the PTA boards looked like me — middle-aged white women who could stand to shed a few pounds. Meet the Teacher nights weren’t much different, except the dads showed up. You’d see a few minority parents, but nothing approaching 50 percent, or even 20 percent.
I believe we have a great community here in Lake Highlands, and one of its greatest strengths is its schools. Parent involvement is a major factor contributing to that. At least two neighborhood schools, Lake Highlands High School and Merriman Park Elementary, have been awarded the National PTA’s Parent Involvement Schools of Excellence Certification. But I know we can do better — and must — for our neighborhood to continue to be a place where people want to raise their children. If we want a strong, cohesive neighborhood, then our children need their parents’ and their neighbors’ involvement in their schools — and participation needs to come from a cross section of our demographic population.
I don’t pretend to know why we don’t have broad-based parent involvement. Maybe apartment residents don’t feel vested in the community, maybe there are language barriers, maybe single parents are too tired to go a meeting after they’ve gotten dinner on the table after working all day. I don’t know why; I just know it needs to change if we want every child to have the best chance to successfully face the challenges of higher education, of earning a living wage, of being a participating member of our economy.
Change means that each volunteer organization needs to create an atmosphere in every school where all parents’ participation is welcome. For four years running, Forest Meadow Junior High parents have visited the apartment communities that feed into the school carrying packets explaining all the volunteer opportunities. It’s a personal invitation to those parents to get involved at the school, to get involved in that part of their child’s life. Lori Claybrook, this year’s PTA president, believes this effort is responsible for increasing attendance at the first general PTA meeting by 33 to 50 percent — and going to that first meeting often is the first step to being a more involved parent. Forest Meadow also has a Hispanic parent on the PTA board who serves as a liaison between the board and the school’s Hispanic community.
Sometimes it’s the personal touch that makes a difference. During fall registration at Lake Highlands High School, band mom Sue Garinger was recruiting every mother she could find to volunteer to make Homecoming mums. She even engaged a student to explain to her mother that she didn’t need to speak English to cut ribbon. This mom didn’t end up volunteering, but Sue will keep reaching out.
Current volunteers should be willing to take a risk on new volunteers. We moved to this neighborhood mid-year when my daughter was a first-grader at Wallace. In the spring, the school newsletter asked for PTA board volunteers. I sent in my name, but didn’t get any response even though there were unfilled positions. I ended up getting a volunteer job because a friend and neighbor became a pushy advocate for me, but without her help, I wouldn’t have because the other women didn’t know me. I didn’t go through pre-school playgroup or kindergarten with their children. I worked full-time and didn’t spend time at the school during the day. But these differences didn’t mean I couldn’t meaningfully contribute to the school. I’m a persistent person and would have pursued other volunteer opportunities; others may have gotten discouraged.
We all have to work harder to reach out. Instead of volunteering for a job with a friend, ask a parent of your child’s classmate to partner with you instead. Let’s work to involve others, instead of staying in our safe circles. If you haven’t volunteered before, ask how you can. There are many small ways to help that mean a great deal. Involvement will make parents better citizens, our children better students, and our neighborhood a better place to live.