- Associated Press - Monday, October 9, 2017

TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) - When her son started sixth-grade in August at the brand new South Hills Middle School, Emilia DeLeon wanted to get plugged in.

She asked the principal if there would be a Parent Teacher Association. Since then, she has been actively involved in getting a group up-and-running.

“I just think that it’s really important to create a partnership between schools and families,” she said.

Every school would love a volunteer like DeLeon, but they’re not easy to find.

Across the Magic Valley, some schools struggle to get enough parents to help in classrooms and with school events. Factors include more households with two working parents and needing childcare for younger children in order to volunteer.

“Sometimes it is a challenge,” said Kelli Schroeder, principal at Bickel Elementary School in Twin Falls. “There might be working parents who want to help, so the scheduling might be a little difficult.”

At Bickel, there’s a core group of four or five parents who are actively involved in the PTA.

Despite the small group, “they have a lot of energy and a lot of great ideas,” Schroeder said, and they’re enthusiastic. “It might be small, but they’re pretty powerful.”

During her 19 years at Bickel, she has seen an ebb and flow in the number of parents who volunteer. One of the biggest differences Schroeder has noticed: It’s much tougher for parents to find a time for meetings.

“We do the best we can to work around everyone’s schedules,” she said, and technology such as text messages and emails make it easier to stay in touch.

In the Twin Falls School District, school volunteers must undergo a background check. So far this school year, 221 people have been through that process, Twin Falls School District spokeswoman Eva Craner said. Throughout last school year, 759 people did.

Once someone has passed a background check, it’s good for three years. Background check numbers include parents, grandparents and community members who are volunteering, unpaid coaches, interns, student teachers and those doing field experience.

“There are also different levels of background checks,” Craner wrote in an email to the Times-News. “For instance the check is more stringent for volunteers who will be with (students) in an unsupervised setting.”

It’s tough to compare numbers with previous years, though, since it’s only five weeks into a new school year.

Plus, many of those who’ve cleared a background check only volunteer once, such as for a class party or field trip, Craner said, and there’s usually an uptick in numbers toward the end of the school year.

“That’s great and we appreciate that,” she said, but it doesn’t mean they’ve volunteered year-round.

Debbie Critchfield, spokeswoman for the Cassia County School District, has noticed several trends: More parents volunteer when their children are in elementary school. And there’s generally a core group of parents who are actively involved.

“Typically once a child gets to seventh grade and up, parent involvement drops off drastically,” she said. “I think for the high school setting, it’s dependent on which activities (students) are involved in.”

Critchfield doesn’t think the overall number of parent volunteers has changed much. “You have your core group of parents that get everything done and try to encourage other parents to participate.”

Schools are seeing more community members, though, as coaches for activities, she said.

It’s always a struggle for parent teacher organizations to get wide participation because parents are busy, Critchfield said.

And it’s a struggle for teachers to find room mothers for elementary schools, she said. “I think that’s a task they look at every year and sigh a little bit.”

Sometimes, there are communication gaps, such as parents who are interested in volunteering, but didn’t know an event was happening.

Twice a year, Cassia County parent teacher organizations and booster clubs meet at the school district office. One of the common themes in the conversation is how to get more parents involved.

Despite challenges for some schools, others are seeing a steady stream of volunteers.

At Kimberly Elementary School, principal Megan Garner said she feels fortunate to have a wonderful group of parent volunteers and a supportive Parent Teacher Student Organization.

Every day, she has been approving new classroom volunteers - mostly, mothers of students.

“I don’t really feel that same pressure as other schools do,” she said.

A lot of professionals move into the Kimberly area, Garner said. While plenty of households have both parents working, she said, some are able to rely on a single income.

Even with a good group of volunteers, Garner said a few people carry the torch with PTSO leadership.

Volunteers are valuable at school, she said, and help with needs such as listening to students read, making copies and organizing playground games.

It’s invaluable to have caring adults volunteering their time and supporting children who come from many different backgrounds, Garner said. “It makes a huge difference when parents volunteer.”

At Xavier Charter School in Twin Falls, the number of parent volunteers has remained strong and steady, administrator Gary Moon said, noting it’s better than schools he worked at in the past.

Each year, the public charter school asks families to put in 20 volunteer hours. That can include at evening school events.

Not all school volunteers, though, parents. Bickel Elementary, for example, has a retired teacher who volunteers and parents whose children no longer attend the school.

When Twin Falls elementary school boundaries changed to accommodate Rock Creek and Pillar Falls elementary schools opening in 2016, Bickel Elementary’s PTA membership completely changed. Now, there’s a new group of parents again this school year.

Schroeder said she’s looking at ways to reach out to parents who don’t speak English to allow them to volunteer. They have a lot to offer, she said. “We’re trying to figure out ways to reach out to them and bring them into the school.”

At South Hills Middle School, DeLeon said she wants parents to feel comfortable coming to the school and interacting with school administrators.

She said she knew it would be a struggle to launch a PTA at South Hills. It’s a new school and many families are transitioning to having a student in middle school.

“Parents don’t know each other like after four years in an elementary school,” she said, and aren’t at the school as often. “It just adds a little extra step that we have to do.”

DeLeon has three children: a sixth-grade son at South Hills, and freshman and sophomore daughters at Twin Falls High School. She has been involved with PTA groups since her daughters were in kindergarten.

She used to be a stay-at-home mother up until two years ago. Now, she works part-time, but has a flexible schedule.

DeLeon said she understands there are parents who work during the day and she wants to find ways to reach them. “We appreciate any time they can give.”

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