Public schools and the Parent Factor

A music class at Montclair Elementary School, taken in 2008 by Alex Molloy/Tribune

This morning I headed up the hill to Oakland’s Montclair Elementary School on a research mission.

It started with a story pitch about the PTA’s annual fundraiser, the Metrathon, and the school’s tied-for-first-place API score of 957. I don’t normally cover fundraisers — don’t get any ideas! — but after I hung up the phone, I decided to see for myself how the work of a powerhouse parent group can manifest itself at a school.

Let’s start with the front stoop. A large planter overflowing with greenery. Step inside, and you see a bulletin board with photos of families at the Back-to-School Coffee, the New Parent Party, and Play Dates in the Park. Next on the wall are a list of fee-based before and after school language courses: Mandarin, Italian and Spanish.

Turn right, and there’s a library. On a rug at the center of the room, children listen as the school librarian reads a Pueblo Indian story, “Arrow to the Sun.” (The sponge-painted, blue sky and clouds mural above the bookshelves looks like the one at West Oakland’s Lafayette Elementary School; that one was painted by the principal, Karen Haynes, herself.)

Thanks to parent fundraising, Principal Nancy Bloom said as we left the library, Montclair has a librarian, a computer teacher, an art teacher, a vocal music teacher, a yard supervisor and a paid salad bar coordinator, as well as an occupational therapist to work with kindergartners on their fine motor skills.

Without various forms of parent involvement, from grant-writing to Dads Club elbow grease, the yard wouldn’t have a a new play structure, a native garden with Manzanita trees and tree stump benches, a Friendship Garden, or artfully remade wine barrels planted with geraniums and mums. And the children wouldn’t have a United Nations Day, organized by the school’s Families of Color United for Success group.

The staff benefit from parents’ efforts, too. This morning, bagels, orzo salad, sun-dried tomatoes and other breakfast and lunch foods were spread, potluck style, over a green linen tablecloth in the faculty break room. The first Friday of every month is Staff Appreciation Day.

I’ve seen the parent imprint at countless Oakland schools, across socioeconomic lines. I remember Kimi Kean, principal of ACORN Woodland in East Oakland, telling me that her parent-leaders interview prospective staff members and advocate for their children’s instructional needs, particularly those of English learners. And when I interviewed Caroline Yee back in 2008 about the success of Chinatown’s Lincoln Elementary, she told me that parents did their part by sending their kids to school on time, with their homework completed.

Still, it makes me think about the level of state funding for schools, and how it’s left to parents — or savvy principals — to find the money for things that most people consider essential, such as art and music education, and a fully functioning school library. What about schools that don’t have the parent volunteer base or community support to fill in the widening gaps caused by the state economic crisis? Are they simply expected to do without?

An Oakland public school mom remarked yesterday that there were so many social networks and organizations out there, working in their own little spheres, and that she wished they could “pull together” more to help all of the city’s schools.

What would that look like? Does Oakland need to start its own city-wide education foundation? School board member Jody London told me about an education foundation in Mill Valley that funds art and music programs throughout the district — and lets individual schools do the rest. Do you think that model would work in Oakland?

Tell us about the kinds of parent involvement you see at your schools — and/or a specific project that could really use some extra help (financial or otherwise).

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • concerned parent

    Katy- thanks for showing us how parents can work together to support a school in so many ways. Every school has a parent base, it’s simply up to the parents to decide if it’s a priority to be there for their school and child. I work two jobs and still find time to volunteer in the classroom, donate what I can, and help with the school fundraiser. It’s exhausting, but important to my family. It’s all about what one values, rather than how much money we have.

    Schools shouldn’t be expected to go without, but a handful of dedicated parents shouldn’t be expected to carry the load for all in a district.

    The foundation works well in Mill Valley because most everyone there is affluent and can afford to give, and many live there specifically for the schools. Not so in Oakland. The foundation works in Orinda for many of the same reasons, and because it’s a small community where a parent is hounded to give with multiple phone calls until they pony up $550 per child to the education foundation, while being encouraged to give more at school auctions, fundraisers, etc. This is not our financial reality in Oakland. It IS a sad reality that our Oakland school has to fundraise in order to pay workers to adequately supervise children at school, not to mention paying for things like art or music class.

  • Alice Spearman

    As I have done for years, some people need to get out of their comfort zone and visit other school that are not like their’s socially and economically, then they can see and appreciate other types of parent involvement than “fund raising”. Yes it is important, but you can improvise and use what you have. Did you know that Sobrante Park Elementary School has a Spanish language class that teaches non Spanish speaking adults to speak Spanish, free too, communication is a must in our neighborhood. Also we have many patents who volunteer at our schools who supervise children on a daily basis, including our high schools. The glass is not only half empty!

  • Teri


    Parent involvement is crucial at all levels and in whatever ways a parent can be involved with their children and their schools. For more affluent parents who also bring certain skills to the table, such as computer or fundraising skills, it is easy to figure out how to plug oneself into the existing parent involvement structure. But for families who are struggling financially, whose skill levels in English are limited, or who, for whatever reason, don’t feel like they can offer something, it is much harder to figure out how to volunteer. Still, I believe Glenview Elementary and the Glenview PTA does a pretty good job inviting parents to volunteer and participate at whatever level they feel comfortable with. This is why we have volunteers show up for our Halloween Carnival, the twice yearly bookfair, and many other events. Many parents don’t want to attend meetings and don’t want to take on leadership roles on a project, but they are willing to lend a necessary hand.

  • Teri


    About school funding, I think too many people are complacent in the state of California. They accept school funding while griping about it at the same time, and if they are families of public school children, they cough up money because they know if they sent their kids to private school, they’d be coughing up a lot more. But it doesn’t have to be this way. In states where education funding is a priority, such as NY and NJ, they still have school nurses, librarians, art and music teachers paid for by the districts. They have smaller class sizes, and they pay their teachers good salaries and benefits. I have many friends and family members who teach public school in NJ and also have kids attending schools in NJ and NY, and it just is so different there. Here’s a prime example: one of my brothers teaches 8th grade history in a NJ public school. Last year, his smallest class had 15 students and his largest, 23. I, on the other hand, also an 8th grade teacher, struggled with an average of 34 students in my classes. If we want a quality educational system in CA, we must demand it from our elected officials. And we need to repeal Prop. 13, because it is the source of our funding problems. It is this law that sets the bar for imposing new taxes at the supermajority level. We end up with the tyranny of the minority, because a school district might lose a bond measure because they got 66% of the vote and not the required 67%.

  • http://www.finetimek9.com Elaine Connolly

    As the Room Parent Coordinator for the Montclair Elementary PTA, I don’t think of it as volunteering anymore… it’s paying tuition!

  • Caroline

    It appears that many or most wealthy suburban school districts have foundations like Mill Valley’s, which is called KIDDO. If you drive through Marin on surface streets, you’ll see signs at every town limit announcing that city’s community schools foundation’s campaign and showing how much it has raised. I was in downtown Orinda and saw the same sign.

    Of course, based on true Judeo-Christian principles, these communities would raise that money for LOW-income communities rather than bestowing it on their own already-privileged kids — well, never mind, we’d better not go there.

    Ignore that last paragraph. I’ve been wanting to know, here in San Francisco, why we don’t have that same kind of high-visibility foundation — in your face all the time, and always in sight, with stickers in every retailer and restaurant window announcing that they support the community schools — for our kids. It’s not like we don’t have plenty of rich people in town, at least here in San Francisco!

    I know Oakland has a lot of poverty, but I’ve been in those hill neighborhoods too — it also has wealth. So why not? Why haven’t urban communities emulated the high-end suburbs with ubiquitous foundations supporting their schools, a cause no one would dare ignore?

    It gets complicated in Oakland because you have so much Broad “rhymes with toad” and other outside “philanthropic” funding (and I guess inside too, from that ice cream family) attempting to turn your district into a privatization paradise. We’ve had just a little dabbling from those folks on our side of the bay, but they seem to prefer yours — maybe they don’t like the fog.

  • http://www.laurenklein.net Lauren Klein

    Congrats to the hard work! Thanks for the great conversation as we in Double Diamond in Nevada are using the http://www.groupery.com as a tool to help foster conversation and we are planning to also teach email and internet 101 classes and setup computer center times to allow parents to learn more about how to use technology. Parent involvement is critical and some parents are so busy surviving – we all as a community can contribute to help and give to others to support one another – whether we donate our time to teach internet and email skills or make copies..