Parents pitch in

Their involvement keeps Neal Dow a ‘nice neighborhood school’

TAKING CHARGE <br> Tiffany Wilhelm (with her daughters, Amira and Valerie) and Patty Willis work hard at Neal Dow Elementary to counteract the shrinking budget and cuts to programs.

Tiffany Wilhelm (with her daughters, Amira and Valerie) and Patty Willis work hard at Neal Dow Elementary to counteract the shrinking budget and cuts to programs.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

“I have had so many teachers tell me that it’s so important for me to be there—not just for my child, but because it shows all the children that it matters.”

Those are the words of Patty Willis, mother of three school-age children, speaking of the importance of parental volunteerism in the classroom.

Willis’ two youngest children, Jasmine and Jaden, will be in the fourth and sixth grades, respectively, at Neal Dow Elementary School this fall. Her eldest son, who attended Neal Dow throughout elementary school, starts the eighth grade at Chico Junior High School on Aug. 12, the first day of the 2009-10 school year.

Willis has volunteered in all of her children’s classrooms, mostly helping teachers with prep work such as making copies (“I’m really good at that,” she laughed) and doing laminating and some paper-correcting, every year since 2000. During the coming school year, she will serve as vice-president of Neal Dow’s PTA (she previously served as president), and as president of the PTA at Chico Junior High.

“I’m tireless. I realize I’m unusual,” offered Willis, chatting over cold drinks and a plate of edamame at Vallombrosa Avenue’s T-Bar, accompanied by Jasmine and fellow tireless Neal Dow parent Tiffany Wilhelm.

Besides volunteering regularly in their children’s classes at Neal Dow, Willis and Wilhelm are also the movers and shakers behind the creation, in April, of what they term simply “a regular group of involved [Neal Dow] parents” working to help “make their neighborhood school stronger.”

The ad-hoc group meets regularly just prior to the school’s PTA meeting (“the meeting before the meeting, outside of school—troubleshooting ideas before you go to the PTA meeting,” as Wilhelm described it) to discuss improvements needed at the school and how to make them happen.

Patty Willis with kids Jasmine, Jakob and Jaden.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

The group is responding in part to what Wilhelm terms the “mass exodus“ from Chico Unified School District schools such as Neal Dow to charter schools, known for their innovative curriculum and financial decision-making independence—an exodus that often takes away the very parents who are active in the classroom and the PTA, she pointed out.

“Charters are growing and Chico Unified is bleeding,” said Wilhelm, an articulate 41-year-old with a multiple-subject teaching credential who has worked as a substitute teacher in CUSD schools, as well as in the Bay Area and the Tahoe-Truckee area.

Wilhelm, who is also on Neal Dow’s school site council, expressed her frustration at “watch[ing] money coming in [to Neal Dow] earmarked for the arts, but they can’t use it to hire teachers, and can’t change the 30-to-1 ratio, because those decisions are made by the school district. They put in a new lighting and sound system—that’s really all they could do [with the money].”

“Neal Dow has a new lighting and sound system and they have SmartBoards [electronic whiteboards],” continued Wilhelm, “but that doesn’t change the fact that the teachers are overworked.”

Wilhelm, Willis and their group will kick off a number of new, parent-fueled programs and events at Neal Dow this fall, designed to make things better for teachers and students alike—such as a once-a-month lunchtime book club, a family math night, and a Neal Dow “book event” at Lyon Books Nov. 14 to help buy books for the lunchtime book club and for teachers’ “wish lists.”

On the first day of school, they will hold an inaugural “Coffee Morning”—inspired by Shasta Elementary’s similar event—at which parents and teachers can chat before school over coffee and cookies, and parents can pick up information on joining the PTA.

Coffee Morning, which will be held once a month throughout the school year on the day of the PTA meeting, will be “a place where you can get to know people, a relaxed place where you can share ideas,” said Wilhelm.

“Sometimes people are intimidated by PTA meetings. They may feel more comfortable talking to someone they already know rather than standing up in front of a bunch of strangers,” acknowledged Willis. “And if you can’t make it [to the PTA meeting] that night, you can also put your ideas into a suggestion box [at Coffee Morning] for the meeting that night.”

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Family Math Night, which will take place Nov. 12, came about from precisely the kind of casual idea-sharing process Willis and Wilhelm are working to foster among parents and teachers at Neal Dow.

One of the members of the ad-hoc group responded to a discussion Willis and Wilhelm were having about how to build a stronger sense of community at Neal Dow with the idea to resurrect Math Night, a popular event that the school had to scrap four years ago because there was no longer anyone to organize and run it.

“Now she is working [on Math Night] with people she knows in the Chico State Math Department,” said Willis. “She took the bull by the horns.”

Willis and Wilhelm are also hoping to start an after-school game club, as Marigold Elementary School has done, to help build community and kids’ social skills.

“Kids would utilize reading, math and critical thinking in an environment where it’s fun,” explained Wilhelm.

They are also looking for musically inclined parents to help form a drum corps at Neal Dow.

“[Principal] Marilyn [Rees] would love to have a drum corps,” said Wilhelm.

“If the charter schools can do it, so can we,” Willis added.

“We’re just trying to take what ingredients we have and do the best we can with what we’re given,” said Willis. “Every parent at Neal Dow has something to give. Communicating with them will help, having an ongoing dialogue to build community and encourage them to give support, even if it’s just saying [to their child], ‘That’s great—you went to the book club!’ Some parents may not know they have something to offer. We’re trying to tap into what is really there, find it and use it.”

“I think if we can do anything in the face of this fiscal adversity,” Wilhelm summed up, “it’s a good thing.”

“We just want to have a nice neighborhood school,” said Willis.