Saturday, March 24, 2012

I've Moved!

Parents $aving Schools has moved to:

If you have arrived at my blog from The Frugal Girl, or Kristen's Facebook page, you might know that super-blogger Kristen is a big fan of Wordpress for blogging.

She is my blogging role model, and so I took her advice to move things over there. Thankfully my wonderful hubby knows about these things and was able to get the new blog up and running lickety-split.

Join me for more adventures in school issues there!

Friday, March 23, 2012

Really Radical Parenting: Giving Kids the Space to Just Be

One of my favorite blogs is The Frugal Girl, where blogger Kristen cheerfully shares ideas about low-budget living.

Kristen homeschools her children. Homeschooling is not the primary subject of her blog--frugal living is (hence the name!). But it's a topic of fascination to her sizeable readership, and recently she devoted a detailed post to homeschooling, and why it works so well for her family.

People homeschool for a wide variety of reasons--for religious purposes, because public school was too stifling, or private school got too expensive. Some homeschool from start to finish (as Kristen plans to), while others try it out for a short time. I see it as simply another option for parents who are trying to do the best for their children.

I think it's safe to say that in 2012, homeschooling is hardly a radical choice. 

In my opinion, what is very different about Kristen's family is that none of her children participate in any "after-school" enrichment programs. No sports. No karate or jujitsu or taekwondo. No ballet, no gymnastics, no tap or jazz or modern dance. No scouting. You get the idea. 

I find this to be a radical and courageous move. 

Just to be clear, Kristen has written that she and her husband will gladly consider a team sport or music class if one of her children expresses a burning desire to sign up. It's not that they're ideologically opposed to group enrichment activities. They have simply chosen a lifestyle that emphasizes downtime over scheduled time.

If you're reading this and thinking "hey, what the heck is wrong with soccer?" The answer is, of course, nothing. Soccer is great. Kids learn great skills, sportsmanship and teamwork, and get plenty of fresh air and exercise. There is nothing wrong, per se, with soccer or any other enrichment activity.

It's just very easy for the after-school activities to take over a family's life. They can be expensive and often require a large time commitment. And parents often get caught up in a perceived need to "enrich" their children's lives at every turn, instead of simply giving their kids space to just be.

Yesterday made me happy. No driving, no "activities."
Just a few hours with friends at the park.
When my kids were smaller, I had great confidence in my choices. I didn't worry about how long I should breastfeed, or where they slept, when to potty train or any of the hot-button issues of new motherhood. It's only recently that some doubt has crept in. Have we messed up by not starting our older son in a sport? Does our younger boy need martial arts to channel his abundant energy? Should they be taking art classes, because the art that is offered at their school is so limited? I wonder all the time if we are doing enough. And yet, I find myself happiest when we are "doing" very little.

I admire Kristen's family's quieter lifestyle, but I haven't been able to embrace it just yet. Stay tuned...

This post will get too long if I try to get started on the fundraising that often goes along with after-school enrichment activities. Sigh... does it ever end?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Will This Morph into a Homeschooling Blog?

Last Wednesday night, I attended a PTA meeting that made me feel pretty darned good about the direction my childrens' school is headed in. The hard work of parents and teachers is paying off; through fundraising and volunteering, we are able to provide enrichment programs in art, music, drama, gardening, nutrition and character education. I love the garden at my kids' school, and I fell asleep thinking what seeds we will soon sow for a great harvest next fall.

I can see the headline: "Concerned parents put their heads together to create a strong school in the face of non-stop budget cutbacks." 

On Thursday morning, I was jolted back to reality. I got a text from someone at school saying that I needed to come pick up my 2nd grader because he was having a huge meltdown, and his teacher, despite her best efforts, could not help him calm down. 

Our son has anxiety. He struggles aspects of school that most kids love--like recess, for example. He gets overwhelmed by noise and feels extremely stressed when he doesn't immediately understand his schoolwork.

Last week, feelings of anxiety about school work and friendships hit him hard at bedtime, and he didn't fall asleep until many hours after his 8:30 bedtime. 

My son's challenges interrupt the kumbaya feeling I get from our school (or that I project on to it, because I want it to work for us so much). 

Our district has done a good job maintaining class-size reduction in the face of budget challenges over the last few years. While many surrounding districts are staffed at a ratio of 1:31 for lower grades, our district has managed to keep first and second grades at 1:20. For third grade, that number jumps to 28 kids per classroom. So, we worry about a louder, more chaotic environment will affect a child who already has difficulty in a classroom with only 19 kids.

Our PTA, like parent groups all over the country, brings wonderful events and enrichment to our school. But PTA work doesn't really seep in to the classroom, where of course kids spend the lion share of time. We can't affect rigid California curriculum requirements and testing standards. I can't be there to hear every comment classmates make about my son.

At the end of the day everyone has to do what is best for their child. I remain dedicated to improving our school however I can, but my first priority, of course, is to my own family. 

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough

Today I went with my boys to a birthday party at a bowling alley while my husband got some space to get in the zone on his fantasy baseball draft. 

I enjoyed chatting with parents and playing arcade games with my kids--lots of fun, and no shoptalk about PTA with the folks that were there from our school.  

But then, out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that the party next to us were serving juice pouches. 

Juice pouches. When I see juice pouches, I see money. Regular mom one moment, fundraising fanatic the next.

You see, our school participates in Terracycle, a program that pays money for hard-to-recycle items like juice pouches and chip bags. 

We get two cents per pouch--oh yeah, baby! You're looking at the 16 cents I scored at the bowling alley by grabbing pouches from someone else's party. 

At least I restrained myself from digging through the garbage.

Friday, March 16, 2012

My Very First Auction

The other night my husband and I attended our very first auction.

It wasn't for our childrens' school; it was to benefit the private school where they attend after-school arts enrichment classes. It's a wonderful program and we wanted to support it. But to be honest, I also saw it as a reconnaissance mission. I envisioned coming home with my head filled with great ideas about how to get an auction started for our school's PTA.

The auction for the arts program was very business-like. Sure, it was a party, and the wine was flowing, but it was very clear that we were there to spend money to raise money for the scholarship program. We went, had a few drinks and some interesting nibbles, chatted with a few nice people, and left. We watched others bid on items that we are not interested in and can't afford. Not that much to report, really.

Our PTA has never held an auction. When I brought it up at PTA meetings a few years ago, I was told that an auction wouldn't be right for our demographic: working and middle-class families from a wide variety of racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds. I thought "oh, come on, we can throw a party with the best of 'em"--but of course I got busy with other things and never pushed the issue. 

Funnily enough, my experience at the arts-program auction made me agree with the former PTA brass at my sons' school. I don't think an auction, at least as an adults-only party, would work for our school, for the following reasons.

1) Babysitting. An adults-only party assumes that parents have access to childcare. The going rate for a babysitter in our area is $15 or more. So, many parents would not attend for that reason.

2) The alcohol issue. Our school has a significant Muslim population, as well as evangelicals and some Mormons and people who, for a variety of reasons, do not partake in alcohol. Again, that would cut out a large number of parents.

3) Money. We paid $80 to get in to the auction. We're on a pretty tight budget and that amount alone was a stretch. But at an auction, of course, you're expected to whip out your checkbook. We bid on a few modest items (like a gift certificate to a pizza joint). Even still, I'm happy that we were outbid! The big-ticket items in the live auction were bid upon by a select group of people--most folks sat on their hands. Our school has a significant number of students who receive free or reduced-price lunch. 

4) Work. Like many PTAs or PTOs, a select group of parents step up to do most of the work. The auction we attended was clearly 
A LOT of work. On top of planning a snazzy, exciting party at a bargain-basement price, you have to solicit donations, entice parents in to attending, and make sure everyone gets what they won in the auction. And you have to make sure everyone is appropriately thanked.

I know that at some point we can craft an alcohol-free, family-friendly auction where items that people of all income brackets would be interested in. But I'm also happy to back-burner it for now. It's such a relief, sometimes, to just say no.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Flip Side of 'Flush Rush": Conscious Consumerism Every Day

I've been following the Rush Limbaugh/Sandra Fluke controversy like everyone else. Sigh... so much to say, so little time... since this is a blog about finding money for schools, here's what I fired off to one the former Limbaugh advertisers that we patronize, Geico Insurance.
The target of Rush Limbaugh's vile comments, Georgetown law student Sandra Fluke.

Dear Geico,

Thank you for taking your ads off "The Rush Limbaugh Show." As a woman, Geico customer and the person who makes most buying decisions for my family, I would like to thank you for disassociating yourself from this angry, slandering misogynist.

What the Limbaugh incident made clear is that social media is extremely powerful force in our culture.

I have a suggestion that would help Geico get a lot of positive attention on Facebook and Twitter. I think you should offer your services on school fundraising portals such as the BoxTops for Education Marketplace or Stacey For Schools. When you begin an online shopping excursion at one of these portals, a portion of your purchase gets donated to the school of your choice. When I need a plane ticket, for instance, I start at the Boxtops website, am "portaled" through to Expedia or Travelocity, and 10 cents of every 10 dollars I spend gets donated to my sons' school. It adds up quickly!

I would be so delighted if a portion of my Geico premium, however modest, was donated to our school. 

This is the era of "conscious consumerism." Consumer wants to make each dollar count. We won't support companies that support nasty, mean-spirited people. And increasingly, parents of kids in underfunded schools are ready and eager to give their business to companies that support schools.

Thanks for reading this, and have a great day.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Combine Thrifting with Fundraising? Oh, a Girl Can Dream

Today I took my younger son out for lunch after kindergarten, which in our district lets out at the working-parent unfriendly hour of 11:50. Next door to our lunch place was a well-stocked but very empty thrift store. If I didn't have my restless child with me, I might have taken a little spin through the store.

$120 shoes. I found shoes just like these for $7 at my favorite thrift store!
You see, I LOVE thrift stores. I love the bargains, I love donating to a good cause, and I love the feeling of being released from the worry about the conditions of the third-world sweatshop where my new garment was made. Sadly, most of the clothes I buy at thriftstores were probably created in sweatshops, but I figure that by buying all of my clothes second-hand, I'm doing my little part to slow down the rate at which factories have to churn out new, cheap clothes. Did I mention that I love finding great bargains? What a thrill!

The emptiness of the store gave me an idea that filled me with joy, because it combines two of my favorite things--Thriftstores and School fundraising.

What if the empty thriftstore had held school fundraisers just like Chuck E. Cheese and so many other restaurants? 

I know what you're thinking: the very purpose of a thrift store is to raise money for a charity. But the truth of the matter is that thrift stores are still businesses... they have to bring in customers to stay afloat. One of my very favorite thrift stores, Thrifttown, runs sales and offers coupons constantly. They're thriving because they know how to get people through the door. As a result, it's often difficult to get a spot in their parking lot.

I did a quick google of "thrift store school fundraising", and didn't find anything quite what I'm looking for. It seems like some cities and some individual schools have thrift stores of their own. That sounds dreamy, but also sounds like a ton of work. We have done garage sales in the past and even they are exhausting.

I am going to do a little investigating to see if any of the Thriftstores near me would be willing to use the Restaurant Fundraising Model a try. Generally, for restaurant nights, we drive traffic through the door and the restaurant gives 15 or 20 percent back to the school.

Does your school work with a thrift store? I'd love to hear about it!

Sunday, March 11, 2012

PTA/PTO Communication: Always a Challenge

 How does your PTA communicate with parents?

I'm not going to lie... I find this to be an ongoing challenge. Parents are busy. Parents speak other languages besides English. Parents are distracted and sometimes not that interested. Some parents use the internet constantly (waving hand over here!), while others do not. Heck, I am on the board of our PTA and I spend a great deal of time writing newsletters, emails and Facebook posts, and still, I manage to let a few missives from school fall through the cracks.

Part of the reason parents don't get messages, of course, is because they are being bombarded with too many messages. Which is part of the reason I started this blog--to explore why so much is being asked of parents, and to maybe, over time, figure out how to simplify things.

So... here are my thoughts about communication... in no particular order!

Facebook Group: Love it! Pros: It's so easy to throw an announcement up there. When you have a question, chances are it will be answered quickly. Cons: Not everyone uses Facebook. It cannot be relied upon to reach all parents and therefore it has only limited effectiveness.

Email groups: They're fine, but less efficient and tidy than Facebook, in my opinion. When I get busy, emails--especially "mass" emails not written just to me--tend to fall through the cracks. Some parents at our school don't use Facebook for privacy reasons, and some parents don't use either medium regularly. So email cannot be relied upon to reach all parents, either. 

Robocalls: When our PTA wants to promote an upcoming event, we ask our principal to make a robocall--a pre-recorded message that gets sent to the landline or cell phone of all parents. I think robocalls are great! It's just they are only used for major events--not to reach out for volunteers, etc.

Texting: Our PTA does not yet send out mass texts but is something I would like to look in to. I think cell phones are more prevalent in people's lives than computers. If your school is sending out group texts, let me know how it is going!

Paper Newsletters and Flyers: Not my favorite option--by a longshot! Uses up a lot of paper, causes wear and tear on aging copy machines, and are often shoved aside with the piles of homework and other paperwork sent home in backpacks. Again, the issue of the "digital divide" comes in. Not every parent has email. Not every parent does Facebook. But every parent has a child with a school-issued folder for paperwork. So, at our school at least, the paper flyer isn't going anywhere.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Private Schools Are Hurting Too

I started this blog to explore how education is funded... by parents, by governments, by fundraising... by any means necessary.

While my own children are in public school, I'm also fascinated by the ways that private education is financed, especially in a struggling economy. What you won't find on my blog are any public vs. private debates. I find that tiresome. I think every parent does what they think is best for their children. And besides, the constant pressure to bring more money in to schools--either to the PTA or the Scholarship Fund--is something that private and public school parents have in common.

The sign pictured above hangs on the fence at a private school not far from my house. I see signs like this all over my area... on sandwich boards, attached to schools, as advertisements on Patch. In early 2009, when we were looking at schools for our older son, the admissions deadlines for private school applications were hard and fast: you had to have the paperwork in by February 1st. Now, if these signs are any indication, there is availability in many private schools all year long.

Do I even need to say why private schools are struggling? If you lose your job, what are you going to cut back on? Food? The mortgage or car payments? Health insurance? Sadly, unemployed people often do cut back on essentials. But private school tuition is not an essential, no matter how much a family covets its private school experience. 

A few years ago, I signed our older son up for summer camp at a very small, very alternative private school. The camp was affordable and offered many opportunities for free play and exploration in nature. A few weeks before camp was to begin, I received a handwritten, apologetic letter from the school's proprietor, along with a check for a full refund for our tuition. When the economy tanked, many of the school's families could no longer afford it, and decided to homeschool instead. Having no significant scholarship or rainy-day fund, the school went belly-up. Another school in my region--fancier and better-established than my son's almost-summer camp, is scheduled to close at the end of the year due to declining enrollment and financial mismanagement.

I'm no expert and I have no idea if private schools will fully rebound in an improving economy. On occasion, my husband and I think that a smaller school with a more creative curriculum might be a better fit for our children. But then I remember how expensive college tuition has become, and I am snapped right back to reality!

Friday, March 9, 2012

Chuck-E-Cheese Night

Last night our school had it's first Chuck E. Cheese night. If, by some chance, you're not familiar with Chuck E. Cheese, let me get you up to speed. Chuck E. Cheese is like a casino for kids. The food isn't very good, it's loud, and there are a lot of blinking lights and things to make kids and adults feel very overstimulated. Patrons purchase tokens that kids can use to play a huge variety of electronic games (that generate more noise and more blinking lights). Last night was a fundraiser: a lot of families from our school went to C-E-C, and C-E-C donated 15 percent of the proceeds to our PTA.

So, I expected to sit down this morning to write a groaning "I hate Chuck E. Cheese" post. But guess what? I didn't hate it at all.

In general, I love "restaurant nights" as school fundraisers. While they don't bring in a huge sum, they're not a lot of work. All you have to do is promote the event--hand out flyers, post it on Facebook, etc. Then you simply show up and eat dinner, with the added bonus of getting to visit with friends from school while you dine. At their best, it's like having a party without having to cook or clean.

Chuck E. Cheese turned out to be a blast. Yeah, the food was nothing to write home about, but it didn't matter. My kids were so excited to play that we all just gobbled down a few slices of pizza and hit the games. I didn't overeat, as is too often the case at restaurants. 

Our local C-E-C has a wide of variety of games that require you to move your body, so in addition to not overeating, we were able to work off our dinner! The space was clean, the staff was friendly, and provides a good set of marketing tools, including a visit to the school from Chuck himself on the day of the event. 

While Chuck E. Cheese's tag line is "where a kid can be a kid", there are plenty of games that are fun for adults. Move out of the way, kids--mommy's hitting the Skeetball!

In 2012, very often school isn't just the place where you drop off your kids for six hours--it is a community. A large and diverse cross-section of our community showed up last night. Classmates ran around with huge smiles on their faces while their parents took a moment to chat. I will happily endure loud music and blinking lights (but thankfully no cigarette smoke like a real casino!) to make our community even stronger. 

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Walking vs. Driving to School: Let's Do the Math

My kids attend our neighborhood public school, which is three-quarters of a mile from our house. Since I'm so involved there, I say a little prayer of thanksgiving daily that the school is so close--I usually make three or more roundtrips each day!

I'm trying to get us walking there more. It's not that far, and the exercise and fresh air benefit us all. We live in sunny, mild California after all.

Spikes in gas prices always cause me to take a closer look at how much gas we consume... why don't I do this when prices are below $4 a gallon?

Anyway, here is my attempt and figuring out how much I'm saving by hoofing it:

My last tank of gas cost $4.35 a gallon.

My car gets approximately 22 miles to the gallon.

So, each mile costs 20 cents.

The school is 3/4 of a mile away.

Each one-way trip on foot saves me 15 cents. One day of 2 rountrips, then saves me 60 cents.

There are 180 days in the school year. If we walked every day, we'd save $108. I'm sure that's not going to happen, though: there will be days when the weather is inclement, or we just can't get out the door quickly enough to walk. So, if we aim for a 75-percent walking rate, we'll still save $81.

$81? Not too shabby! My 2nd grader has become very interested in money lately; this might motivate him when he's grumpy more than my stories about how I walked all the way to school without stepping on any sidewalk cracks. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Just Right

Being a PTO/A parent is a little like being Goldilocks. There is too much to do. There is not enough time or money. But every once in a while... ahh... something is just right.

Our school has a book fair every year. In previous years, a temporary bookstore was set up, stocked with brand-new books from a major academic book publisher. It was a lot of work. Families spent big money at the book fair, and a relatively small portion of the proceeds went back to the school.

Last a year, a new parent stepped up to run the book fair. The new mom changed things up--she jettisoned the high-priced, brand-new books (many of which were very commercial and TV/Movie tie-ins). The book fair would no longer be a fundraiser at all. It would simply be a community event.

The new mom collected books from FreeCycle and Craigslist for six months. She got donations of gently used books from friends and neighbors. She carefully sorted the books by reading levels and stored them in her garage. 

The bookfair was held on a weekday evening; all those collected books were laid out on tables in the cafeteria. Families "shopped" for books without opening their wallets. Everyone had smiles on their faces that said "this is awesome!"

"New" books for all, and a mellow evening with friends. No cost to anyone. Let me settle in for a little rest now.. because that's what I call just right.