Kingsley Charter School Council

Location: Dunwoody, Ga.
Community:
population 32,808; suburban
School size:
400 students, grades preK-5
Annual budget:
$45,000

Last May, the Kingsley Charter School Council honored outstanding parent volunteers. It took a while. Parents logged 8,002 volunteer hours, an increase of 333 percent from the previous school year. Out of the school’s 280 families, more than 50 were recognized for completing at least 32 hours, twice what the charter requires. Eight families logged more than 100 hours each.

Kingsley has always had strong parent involvement. But the time parents put into volunteering is remarkable considering that the school has just 400 students, making it the smallest public elementary school in the suburban Atlanta community of Dunwoody. It’s even more significant in light of the issues the school was facing a year ago.

Several active families had left for private schools, and parent volunteer hours were on the decline. The district’s impending plan to redistrict and consolidate schools made Kingsley’s future uncertain. “There was this little buzz and rumble going around the neighborhood, ‘Uh-oh, something’s wrong at Kingsley,’ ” says Tom Lambert, the 2007-08 chairman of the charter council, which oversees the school’s charter and doubles as a parent group.

Some parents proposed a public relations campaign to improve the school’s image. Instead, the council focused on increasing involvement and building school spirit, believing that if parents spent more time in school, they would see firsthand all the good things going on there. “We honestly thought that if we felt good about ourselves, then the word would get out,” Lambert says. “That’s exactly what happened this year.”

All that involvement allowed the group to start new events and complete major building and fundraising projects. Parents raised $18,000 for interactive whiteboards, installed sod on the playing field, created a parent headquarters, and renovated the teachers’ lounge. The group also expanded its outreach to parents, creating a multicultural event that celebrated the school’s diversity.

“We were able to get projects done a lot faster because we collaborated with one another,” says principal Karen Graham.

Focusing on Involvement

At its September parent meeting, the council challenged parents to step up their volunteerism, asking families to double the 16 volunteer hours the school’s charter requires. To motivate parents, leaders shared research on the many ways parent involvement benefits children and schools.

“It wasn’t ‘Oh, my gosh, I have to,’ it was ‘We need your help with this because this is how it helps your child,’ ” says Allegra Johnson, the current council chairwoman. “We showed them the full circle of how it all comes together, and the hours were just unbelievable.”

The council also made it easier for parents to get involved. In the past, parents primarily found out about volunteer opportunities through the school’s online volunteer database. “That really wasn’t working as effectively as we wanted it to for recruiting people,” says Amanda Hensley, who led communication efforts last year. The council added a page to its weekly bulletin with classified ads seeking volunteers, indicating which tasks could be done at home.

During the summer, volunteers converted a storage room into a parent headquarters where moms and dads could get information in English or Spanish, pick up grocery store loyalty cards, do volunteer tasks, or hold meetings. New and prospective volunteers could also look through three-ring binders for each event to see just how much (or little) was involved in coordinating it.

The group also stressed that parents didn’t have to make a big commitment. “If you volunteer, we’re not going to ask you to do a hundred hours for something if all you’ve got is a half-hour,” Lambert says. “Every little bit adds up.”

By helping with the school’s family events, parents could earn volunteer hours while having fun with their children. A yearly campout on school grounds features an all-family dodge ball game and a sing-along. A fall festival draws people from throughout the community, while the most popular family event is a pizza bingo night held in conjunction with a book fair.

In addition to assisting with school events, parents found numerous ways to help out at school. They volunteered during classes, set up science projects, and displayed student artwork. “If you walk here in the morning, you’ll see parents here at 7:30 already working on computers with the kids,” Johnson says.

Staff members made sure to offer ways for all parents to get involved, including those who couldn’t volunteer during school hours. Moms and dads cut out stencils at home for teachers and even washed sheets for the school nurse. “It’s a mutual respect between the parents and the teachers because we’re all here for one thing, and it’s for the kids,” Johnson says.

Building School Pride

To improve school spirit, the council emphasized Kingsley’s strengths, including its arts programs, high test scores, and diverse student body. Because the charter school’s students come from throughout the county, it has a more diverse student population than nearby neighborhood schools.

“We believe that diversity is our strength,” Graham says.

As the number of Spanish-speaking families at Kingsley increased in recent years, the council reached out to them. In April 2007, council members, the principal, and a translator met with Spanish-speaking parents at an apartment complex to share information about completing and logging volunteer hours. The council prints all materials in Spanish and English and has a translator at its parent meetings, and a Spanish-speaking parent volunteer connects with Spanish speakers at events. “We really try hard to keep them informed and engaged because we certainly don’t want the language barrier to be a hindrance for them helping out and volunteering,” Hensley explains.

The council also created a new multicultural event, the Kingsley World’s Fair, where students could hear music, make crafts, and sample food from around the globe. In time, Johnson hopes the fair will draw as many community members as the school’s annual fall festival. “Our school’s really diverse and we love it that way, and we just want to show the neighborhood everything that we have within our walls, which a lot of people don’t know about,” she says.

To improve awareness of all that the school offers, the council asked teachers to speak at the monthly parent meetings, which are held separately from the council’s business meetings and typically draw 60 to 80 people. At one meeting, the PE teacher and some students gave a calisthenics demonstration, and the art teacher showed the steps students go through to create an art project.

Council members also worked to build school spirit with a number of highly visible projects around school. In the fall, it sponsored a logo contest that students and parents both entered. The winning logo appears on spiritwear, the school newsletter, and other items. “The idea was not only to get a logo that we can...brand the school with but to have something that we could all kind of rally around and have an identity for the school,” Lambert says.

The council made a number of improvements to school facilities, as well. Kingsley didn’t have a sign on the street to identify the building to passersby. Parents installed a sign with a message board, used to publicize events to the school and the wider community.

Students had been playing on a dirt and gravel field, which was also used for field day and family events. The parent group received a grant to buy sod, which parents installed and maintained.

During the summer parents also updated the teachers’ lounge, painting over the glaring yellow walls, putting new slipcovers on couches, and installing much-needed cabinets.

In the spring, the group focused on raising money for interactive whiteboards. A vendor representative demonstrated how they work at a parent meeting so parents could see exactly what the money would be paying for. The council sponsored the school’s first fun run, which raised $12,000, and received an additional $6,000 in small grants and donations from individuals and businesses.

Celebrating Success

Charter council leaders expected to increase volunteer hours last year, but they never expected it that it would grow by so much. To say thanks, the council recognized volunteers by name in the newsletter and celebrated with a parent appreciation event. Honorees munched on hors d’oeuvres while watching a presentation of all the events and projects from the year.

Each family that completed at least 32 volunteer hours, meeting the “charter challenge,” was recognized with a slide listing their volunteer activities and was given a car magnet identifying them as an exceptional Kingsley volunteer. A plaque in the school hallway lists the charter challenge participants and will be added to each year. Council leaders hope the magnets will help raise awareness of the school in the community and encourage future volunteerism. “We want the kids sitting in the carpool line to say ‘Hey, Mommy, how come they have that on their car? How do we get one?’ ” Lambert says.

A high point of the evening was announcing how many volunteer hours parents had tallied throughout the year. “We had a big roar when we announced the final number of hours,” he recalls.

At the end of the year, the parent group had accomplished an amazing amount. Perhaps most important, it had renewed the school’s sense of community. “We needed our parents to get pride in their school again, and I think we accomplished that last year,” Johnson says.

Graham looks forward to more great work by Kingsley parents. “We really have active, involved parents,” she says. “When parents and staff work together,...we have unlimited possibilities of what we can do.”