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Why There are Fewer School Volunteers and Why it Matters

Gathering in the parking lot to celebrate the school opening

Published in ChicagoNow, June 7, 2019

The early childhood program I founded, Cherry Preschool, relied on an army of volunteers. We thought of ourselves as the Amish barn raisers from the 1985 movie Witness, sadly minus Harrison Ford. Volunteers painted every room in the school, scrounged yard sales for toys, drove a borrowed pickup truck to bring donated furniture and appliances, built a handicap-accessible ramp, and turned a parking lot into a playground.

All of that happened in the early 1990s. There were no cell phones. Facebook was a college yearbook. Personal computers were mostly used for word processing. The World Wide Web had just been invented, and the Internet was far from mainstream. Of course, there were no emails, no texts, no tweets. To enlist school volunteers, you had to call them or ask them to attend meetings to organize the work. It was so much harder to communicate, and yet, it was so much easier to get people to help.

Volunteers painted every wall

Since I retired as executive director in 2009 and left the Cherry Preschool staff in 2013, my former colleagues describe a huge transformation in volunteerism. The fundraising that is so essential for non-profits and schools to survive is largely done through grant writing. It is hard to find enough parent volunteers to do so many things I took for granted during my 22 years there. No one wants to chair the annual fundraising party and auction. The shopping coupon program just ended due to the lack of volunteers to organize it. This summer, professionals have been hired to rebuild the playground parents built themselves over several weekends one summer.

Built by volunteers

I have been pondering why things have changed so drastically in terms of parental engagement and what the consequences are for our schools. The reasons for the lessening engagement fall into two categories: parents are much busier and social media habits lessen direct involvement.

Regarding the first issue, I can see with my own children that when both parents work long hours at jobs with little flexibility for even attending their children’s school events, there isn’t much time or energy left to devote to volunteering to support their school communities. Volunteering to organize a fundraiser or help in a classroom or run an in-school bookstore or attend an evening PTA meeting, all things I was able to do as a stay-at-home parent and later as a part time worker, are not possible for them. After a long day at work, they want to spend the limited time they have with their children, focused on their families. Homework supervision and family activities come before attending evening school meetings and devoting weekends to school-related projects.

The second issue is counterintuitive. It is so much easier for schools to communicate via email, texting, and social media platforms than it was before these things existed. When we started the preschool, we had to talk directly to people, either on the phone or in person. To know what was happening at your child’s school, you had to show up for meetings and read flyers and newsletters. And yet, parents were much more informed and invested in their children’s schools than they are now. I remember attending PTA meetings and preschool board meetings at which a need was expressed and parents would raise their hands to volunteer. It was hard not to when asked in person. A friend once told me to sit on my hand so I would not volunteer for yet another school-related task. It is much easier to decline via email or text these days. Or more likely, to simply ignore all emailed pleas for help and newsletters describing school events. Lives are incredibly busy these days.

I get it, but it’s still sad. The lessening of parental engagement in their children’s schools has several consequences. I always believed that when parents demonstrated their commitment by being a visible part of a school community, it sent a strong message to their children: The school and its staff are very important to me, and thus, to you. Also, schools now have to hire people to do the work that used to be done by volunteers. This impacts their ability to raise funds to improve the program for the children. Most of all, the sense of community is diminished. Instead of parents and educators working together in the best interests of the children, school has become yet another commodity, a place that is expected to provide a service, in this case education.

To rebuild the playground that so many volunteers created with their time, sweat, and love, Cherry Preschool is using a Go Fund Me page, grants, and an appeal for donations to hire professionals to do the work. It may come out looking more polished, but I miss hearing parents tell their children, I built that for you.


by Laurie Levy
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