Clare Anderson has plenty of advice for parents. It’s not that she likes to hear herself talk; actually, Anderson is the see-a-need-and-fill-it type. As the founder and coordinator of Volunteer Organized Seminars in Minnesota’s Burnsville-Eagan-Savage Independent School District, she connects hundreds of families to free expert advice about how to help their children succeed in school.
“I ran with the idea on a district level because I saw that PTOs were interested in sponsoring seminars. But sponsoring them individually was too costly given the low turnout if just one school was involved,” she says.
Seminar topics touch on key parenting and education issues, such as “Trends in Drug and Alcohol Abuse—What Parents Need To Know” and “Teaching Kids To Be Responsible.” Holding the seminars at neutral sites in the district, such as the high school or a community education campus, brings in more parents. One recent seminar, “The Adolescent Brain,” drew 450 people.
The idea of districtwide seminars was born in 1997. Anderson, whose eldest child was in kindergarten, attended a reading and writing session at Edward D. Neill Elementary in Burnsville. She was so inspired by the presentation that she convinced her employer and two other businesses to sponsor a lecture the next year. By pooling money from several parent groups within the district and soliciting additional help from local businesses, Anderson has been able to add more seminars each year.
“Our speakers and topics are noncontroversial, nonreligious, and apolitical—we make sure of that so we can maintain districtwide and citywide support,” she says. Free childcare is provided at most events.
The program has helped increase camaraderie in the district. It also encourages parents to think of themselves as “part of one district instead of one school,” Anderson says. “Just getting parents together from across the district has been a good thing.”
Neill Elementary Principal Patrick Flynn lauds Anderson’s volunteer contributions. “Clare’s involvement runs the gamut from A to Z. Not only does she get involved, but she recruits others to get involved,” he says. Anderson served as the Neill PTO president-elect (2004-05) and president (2005-06), has chaired the school carnival for four years, created a book club for K-2 students, and volunteered with the school’s “reading buddy” and guided reading programs.
She also created PTO project nights, now a Neill Elementary PTO staple. Parents help prepare classroom reading packets, organize prize tickets for the carnival, and work on similar undertakings. “There are so many parents who dislike meetings but want to be involved,” she says. “PTO project nights have been successful because parents feel like they’ve done something worthwhile for the school, they can come when it’s convenient, and they have time to visit with each other while working.…That builds community among parents and staff, and we get a lot of projects done.”