Talk with parents volunteering in Los Altos schools, and they reminisce about their own childhood, when music, art and physical education were regular parts of a publicly funded education and parents were rarely needed in the classroom.
Today, "there is no question that without volunteers, there wouldn't be music or art, and there would be less PE," Elizabeth Dumanian, a parent with students at Blach Intermediate and Springer Elementary schools, said.
In recent decades, cuts in state and taxpayer-supported funding have reduced the scope of educational experience a district can fund. Proposition 13, passed in 1978, is still cited as a major blow to schools' programming. The initiative limits property taxes.
"When funding was cut, it was a sad day for the children and the schools, but I am in awe of what is available to students in this district," said Covington Elementary School parent Kim Nero.
"The schools get the basics from the state, but everything else has to be paid and arranged for by the parents," said Annie Lin-Johnson, a Santa Rita Elementary School parent. Yearly contributions to the Los Altos Educational Fund are only a start for the parents, who act as stewards of school programming.
Los Altos elementary schools have neither school buses nor cafeterias as a consequence of funding cuts, Sandy Carse, an administrator at Covington, explained. She said that that one can still see old cafeteria tables in school buildings, relics of an earlier time. The district delivers bag lunches to each school for students who receive federally mandated free or reduced-price lunches, but all other meals in the schools stem from volunteer efforts.
The hot lunch programs of the Los Altos district provide an example of the power of local parents' organization. Through parent planning and coordination, local restaurants ranging from Chef Chu's and Sumo Sushi to Kentucky Fried Chicken cater lunchtime entrees, supplemented with juice, fresh fruit and the occasional dessert. Hot lunch coordinators shop locally. For instance, Kim Nero picks up fresh fruit at De Martini's Orchard three times a week. The parent planners also work with the vendors to meet increasingly stringent California health standards for school lunches.
A job for every age
While volunteers are critical to the success at every level of public schooling, their contributions vary according to grade levels. As children advance through the grades, parents who once worked in the classroom, on the playground and in the library will more often become athletic boosters or help organize a drama event or fund-raiser.
"In middle school, volunteering really shifts to helping provide extra opportunities for kids," Dumanian said. "Developmentally, it's appropriate to allow the kids to have some separation from their parents."
For parents with children in the lower grades, volunteering in the classroom and on the playground gives them a chance to see how their young ones adjust to the school environment and helps them learn to work with peers, said Laura Bence, the teacher-in-charge at the Bullis-Purissima extended-day kindergarten.
Volunteering directly in classrooms is popular because "it's fun to see kids in their element," Nero said. In class on any given day parents might be helping with a heart dissection, math-lab, reading groups or historical simulation.
Last Thursday Lin-Johnson learned more than she ever wanted to know about barley while cooking for an ancient Egyptian classroom feast. On Friday afternoon, Santa Rita parents sponsored a Bicycle Rodeo, combining traffic safety lessons from the Los Altos Police Department with a bicycle obstacle course.
At lunchtime at Covington, parents take turns leading the "Coyote Lair," activities ranging from drama to creative writing to origami for children who aren't drawn to playground activities.
"I think it's amazing that people will take a chunk out of their day and go and knit with girls," Nero said.
Parents at Loyola support teachers with the occasional delivery of soup, salad or cookies as well as a yearly teacher appreciation lunch, and last year created a "secret garden" to bring greenery and butterflies to the campus.
All the schools rally student and adult volunteers for the annual Junior Olympics, scheduled April 29 this year. On a more regular basis, parents at Springer, Loyola and Almond Elementary schools run lunchtime track clubs.
"It gives another option to the playground, where as more portables get added we're losing blacktop space," Almond parent Laura Roberts said. She said that while parents expected the group to be a low-key recess alternative, 60 or 70 kids regularly turn up each day to run. Parents log their laps, and students who reach cumulative milestones are honored at school assemblies.
Volunteering is work and fun
Nero, who has children in the second and fourth grades, taught in public school for 10 years before taking time off to be a mom. She said that while it is certainly a luxury to have the choice to stay home, "one of the hardest jobs I've ever had is staying at home with my kids."
"It's easier to have 20 who aren't yours than three of your own," Nero said. "You have to remind yourself of the rewards, because it is hard. … What I miss most is having colleagues. It's isolating being at home. Getting out into the schools you can be with other moms who are in the same boat you are."
Many of the parent volunteers, including those who aren't working full time, come from professional backgrounds with skills that cross over to schools. Whether in number crunching or leadership talent, the school communities reap the reward of parents' workplace experience. "And now, their hearts are in it," Nero said. "The bottom line is that it's for our children. It reaches so far into our future."
Working parents are at the heart of volunteer efforts in the schools, and volunteer opportunities are tailored to support them, Dumanian said. Her husband corrected math homework in the evenings last year, and Dumanian said there are endless cutting, pasting and stapling tasks for willing hands. At the Bullis-Purissima kindergarten, working parents use lunch breaks or schedule half-days for classroom work.
Volunteering can be hard, unglamorous work, but nonetheless volunteers fight burnout or boredom to maintain school programs and traditions.
Oak Avenue Elementary School parent Sylvia Ladenheim monitors at lunchtime and confessed that while it is an important job, "it can be very tedious."
"The parent volunteers are very smart and can get restless," Lin-Johnson said. She and others reported that a belief in the values that underlie school volunteering keeps parents coming back, with encouragement from school administrators.
Why do the parents of this community put their energy into improving the local schools when so many other volunteer opportunities abound? It's not always an either-or choice. In addition to supporting other volunteer work outside the schools, parent volunteers in the Los Altos district guide numerous philanthropic projects within the schools.
Reaching beyond the local student body, parents lead children in activities such as
holiday adopt-a-family projects, food drives, blood drives and fund-raisers to benefit non-profits.
"My children spend a huge chunk of their lives (at school), and if there's anything I can do to improve that, I will," Nero said. But larger-reaching volunteer efforts - "That's important
for the children to see, too," Nero said.