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The Busy Mom's Guide to Volunteering in School

Carlo Stanga

If you're like most moms, you probably wish there were more hours in the day. By the time you take care of your family, your job, and your house, there's not much time left to see your friends, let alone head up a committee to improve something at your kid's school. But giving even a few minutes can go far toward bettering your child's education—as long as you make those minutes count. For easy ways to get involved, we turned to the experts: the 51 mom delegates who won our contest to represent their states and the District of Columbia at Parenting's 2011 Mom Congress (MC) conference last April at Georgetown University in Washington, DC (meet them all and learn about their passions at parenting.com/momcongress), plus the education experts who participated and our Facebook fans. Still need convincing? “Research shows that family involvement leads to higher grades and better social skills and behavior,” says Mary Jo Neil, a former member of the National PTA's board of directors. So...what are you waiting for?

If you've got 5 minutes

CONTACT THE OFFICES OF YOUR REPRESENTATIVES IN WASHINGTON, DC, about education issues that concern you. After all, if you have time to vote on American Idol, you have time to make your voice heard to improve education. To reach your senators and congressional representatives, visit usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml.

VISIT THE NATIONAL PTA WEBSITE, pta.org, to subscribe to “PTA Parent,” a free monthly newsletter that will keep you up-to-date with the issues affecting our schools. The site offers a wealth of information along with a variety of ways to get involved with the organization. Need more motivation? If you join the organization (you don't need to join to receive the newsletter), you'll get discounts on products from Sharp Electronics and T-Mobile. Sweet!

JOIN PARENTING'S MOM CONGRESS COMMUNITY Sign up at facebook.com/momcongress. You'll connect with moms across the country who are just as busy as you are but want to help their kids' schools as much, too. “Everyone has something to give; everyone wants to feel needed… and every minute given to the school helps immensely,” says Marni Fennessy, the MC New Hampshire delegate.

E-mail your child's teacher when your little one enjoyed something the class did—or just to tell her that she's doing a great job. Teachers tend to hear from parents only when a child is having problems; letting her know how much you support and appreciate her will help keep your child foremost in her thoughts, too. “I make sure the teacher knows I'm on her side when it comes to education,” says Chamarro Nicole Caldwell on Facebook.

{C}If you've got 15 minutes

Reach out to your child's class parent and volunteer to send reminder e-mails for events, meetings, field trips, parties, or fund-raising. You can be a hero just for sending those e-mails from your phone while sitting in a carpool line!

Should candy vending machines be removed from the school cafeteria? Is the science lab hopelessly outdated? Do kids need bike racks or crossing guards so they can ride or walk to school? When something needs changing at home or at work, you speak up, right? So set up an appointment for a short meeting or phone call with the school's principal and let him know how you feel.

Establish a Twitter and/or Facebook page for your child's school or classroom (as an alternative to the school's official website and communication channels) where parents can have more of a voice. Get the discussion going on important issues like policy changes or anti-bullying initiatives facing the school or class, and brainstorm about ways parents can address them.

If there's something going on at your school that the community needs to know about, contact the local media. Send an e-mail or call a reporter at your newspaper, radio station, or TV channel if there's an issue you think could benefit from more public awareness and involvement. Or tell them about interesting classroom projects or student accomplishments—everyone loves a feel-good story.

If you've got an hour

Spend time in your kid's classroom. This may be the single most important thing you can do to help your child and his school. If you're not thrilled by the idea of reading to the kids or speaking at Career Day (both of which, by the way, are always welcome), do something that reflects your own interests and expertise instead. “My husband fixed computers so that the kids could play educational software games,” says Renee Herron on Facebook. “He brought in memory, keyboards, and mice. The kids were so happy to have their computers running again!” If you're artistic, bring in a project for the kids. If you speak another language, give an introductory lesson. While you're spending time in your child's classroom, the teacher can grade papers, plan lessons, deal with administrative duties, or just catch her breath and regroup, says Jerri Ann Reason, the MC delegate from Alabama.

Go through your child's bookcase to donate titles he's outgrown to the school library. Most schools will happily accept classroom and art supplies, too.

Eat lunch with your child in the school cafeteria. Besides having some unexpected mom-kid together time, you'll also see (and taste!) firsthand what kind of food the school serves the kids. And if you find the experience less than appealing, speak up. Visit jamiesfoodrevolution.com, the website of Parenting contributing editor Jamie Oliver, for tips and tools on how to get your school to serve tastier, healthier food.

Attend a monthly PTA/PTO meeting…or a Parent/Staff task-force meeting…or a School Action Committee meeting…or a school board meeting…you get the gist. This may not be at the top of your list of how to spend a free evening, but when your child benefits you'll be glad you did. The next time parents from your child's school meet to discuss the issues, show up to share your opinion and vote on what you think is important.

Start organizing a “walking school bus,” where kids can meet at designated spots to walk or bike to school accompanied by adults. According to Robin Schepper, executive director of First Lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move! initiative, in the 1960s and '70s, 70 percent of kids walked or biked to school, and only 30 percent rode in a car or bus. Today that ratio is the exact opposite—just one of many reasons for the childhood-obesity epidemic. Find out more at saferoutesinfo.org. Bonus: By participating, you'll get some exercise, too!

If you can spare one hour every week, consider tutoring and mentoring a struggling student in your child's class. Busy teachers rarely have time to give one-on-one attention to the kids who need extra help. And when you tutor one kid, every child in the class benefits because it allows the teacher to move through topics faster, keeping everyone engaged and learning.

If you've got a morning

If you can spare one morning a week, we'll bet your kid's school can find a use for you! “I worked in the school library on Wednesdays,” says Debbie Benoit on Facebook. “And on Thanksgiving my daughter said the thing she was most thankful for was that her mommy ‘worked’ at her school!”

Keep everyone connected online with Shutterfly's Classroom Share sites. The free, secure websites make it easy to share class news and photos, and coordinate activities. To get started, go to shutterfly.com/sharesite.

If you've got a day

CHAPERONE A CLASS FIELD TRIP. It will thrill your child to have you along on a school outing, and you'll get the bonus of extra face time with the teacher and a chance to get acquainted with other parents. Those contacts will prove valuable when you need to enlist the teacher's support or other parents' advice.

GET LOCAL BUSINESS OWNERS INVOLVED. Visit local restaurants to ask about establishing student incentive programs. For example, a pizzeria can host a special pizza night for students who read a certain number of books. This type of positive reinforcement helps improve student achievement.

MAKE OVER A SCHOOL FUNDRAISER. Instead of having kids sell unhealthy sweets like candy bars and cookies, look into other options like greeting cards, plants, candles, or ceramics. Or organize a fun run, where kids get people to pledge contributions for distance covered. “We hosted the school's silent auction/dinner fund-raiser at our home,” says one Facebook fan who works full-time. “It was easier for me to do one big thing rather than help out on smaller projects throughout the year.”

Help plant a class or school garden. “Gardens connect kids to the environment and teach nutrition. After you've grown the vegetables, consider offering cooking classes for students to prepare what they've grown,” says Kelly Meyer of the Teaching Garden. To start one at your school, visit takepart.com/teachinggarden.

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