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3 PARENTS SPEAK OUT, GET RESULTS

SHARE 3 PARENTS SPEAK OUT, GET RESULTS

If you've never made a fund-raising call or started a petition, getting involved can seem overwhelming. But it's not as tough as it seems. These three parents took a deep breath, got to work and soon became seasoned advocates for their children's education.

No more crowded classrooms

When Brenda Harris of Virginia Beach, Va. discovered that her son's fourth-grade class had 29 students, she was outraged. A ratio of 29 students to one teacher is acceptable by state standards, but as a substitute teacher, Harris knew how little personal attention a child receives in such a large class. Furthermore, most classrooms at the school averaged 23 students. "I felt like I had the right to complain," Harris says. She discussed the problem with the principal, then called the district office of Virginia Beach's 74,000-student school system.

Even though Harris knew she was going through the right channels, she also knew that it had taken years for the school to add a new kindergarten teacher. "If it took that long," she says, "it wasn't going to do my son, David, any good." A few days later, Harris participated in an online forum set up by teachers across the country. "The topic was overcrowded classrooms," says Harris, "and a couple of teachers wrote that parents should get involved."

This was just the impetus Harris needed. At the school's open house, she distributed flyers to every fourth-grade mom and dad and encouraged concerned parents to call or write the school superintendent, the school-level coordinator and one or two school board members.

The response was impressive, and within a week, the central office began investigating the inequity. "In less than three weeks, we had a new fourth-grade teacher," she says, and her son's class shrunk to 22 students. Harris is delighted - not only with the result, but because she made it happen. "The whole process was a very clear lesson to me that parents have to get involved," she says. "I learned that if you take the right steps, complain to the right people and keep working at it, well, sometimes the squeaky wheel does get the grease."

A PTA for preschoolers

For three years, Mary McMullen-Light, the mother of 4-year-old Brendan in Lenexa, Kan., had a wonderful resource center that she could go to with her son. TheParents as Teachers program, a nationwide organization funded with public and private money, offers first-time moms and dads six visits a year from a parent educator at no charge. The only glitch in the Lenexa program is the cutoff age; after children turn 3, their families no longer qualify for assistance. "I dreaded the end," says McMullen-Light. "I didn't want to lose that great feeling of support."

Desperate for companionship and input from other parents of young children, McMullen-Light collected the names of families with children who had also "graduated" from or were still involved with the local Parents as Teachers program and used them to put together a small committee. After an initial mailing to 500 households, more than 100 enthusiastic parents signed up to join a parent support group. They decided to form a PTA chapter, in spite of having no school affiliation. A kickoff picnic gave parents and kids a chance to get acquainted. With McMullen-Light as president, the "PTA for preschoolers" sponsors playgroups and workshops, and provides its grateful members with information and guidance on such topics as financial planning for college.

"No one is happier than I am that we formed this group," says McMullen-Light. "I've realized that parents have to keep learning and stay connected."

A new-book drive

Alex Jeyschune believed that his community, Delaware Township, N.J., had pulled off a minor miracle. Members of the small town had successfully lobbied for a $2.9 million bond referendum to finance the construction of a beautiful new library, multimedia center and additional classrooms for their children's school. Not bad for an elementary school with just 550 students.

Or so Jeyschune thought until his son Alex, who was then in first grade, brought home a book about atomic energy that had been published in 1962. "We had a brand-new library filled with obsolete books," says Jeyschune. "My son had to read about fallout shelters and look at old pictures of scientists wearing dark sunglasses." He realized the improvement efforts at Alex's school had a long way to go.

Jeyschune and 16 other parents formed the Delaware Township Community Education Foundation, a group that organizes fund-raisers to pay for innovative educational programs. They raised $136 in start-up cash with a doughnut-and-coffee stand and then sent 1,500 mailings to the community, urging people to contribute money or new books to replace the outdated library inventory. Responses poured in. "I realized that a lot of the money came from retired farmers and other older people," says Jeyschune, who spent six to eight hours a week on the project over five months. "They wanted to be involved, but no one had reached out to them before. I was amazed - and delighted." The book drive raised more than $9,000. After only half the money was spent, the students had 385 new books to check out.