It was a gorgeous summer day and Fairfax parent Linda Sperling was tucked away in a room at Irving Middle School with half a dozen other parent volunteers, stuffing hundreds of back-to-school information packets that would be mailed to students' homes the following week.
It took the group about eight hours to stuff the 1,200 packets--filled with information such as bus forms, health forms and student handbooks. The following week, the school's PTA sponsored a series of principal/parent coffees. This week, about 15 parents will be on hand to issue paperwork and help students who, for the first time, are being assigned lockers before school starts.
The parents say they don't mind giving up their summer days to pitch in.
"We're just doing what we can to support our kids," said Sperling, who is starting her second year as the school's PTA president.
Across the Washington region, parent volunteers like those at Irving are putting in dozens of hours to help school staff members ensure the school year gets off to a smooth start. Their efforts will continue throughout the year--from volunteering as classroom or office aides, to chaperoning field trips and parties, to raising funds for computers and supplies.
In some ways, parent volunteers are the unsung heros in schools, providing resources that schools would be hard-pressed to provide within budget constraints.
When Montgomery County parent Susan Sellers' daughter was in second grade, the school's principal asked for parent volunteers to spend time in classrooms reading with students.
"Obviously, the students were already getting reading instruction, but they never could have afforded the level of staffing that would allow the students to get that kind of one-on-one attention," said Sellers, who has shifted her volunteer efforts as her daughter has gotten older from the classroom to leadership roles in the Montgomery County Council of PTAs.
At the District's Anacostia High School, the PTA underwrote programs last year that included a visiting lecturer on black inventors, a health fair and a career exploration day. The group also was able to sponsor a group of seniors on a tour of colleges. Its members also chaperon events, serve as proctors during testing and help out in the school office.
"We basically just try to do anything that is needed," said Darlene Allen, the school's PTA president, who on some days pinch-hits as receptionist in the school office.
Allen has volunteered in schools since her son Daryl started school. A graduate of D.C. schools herself, Allen said her parents were always involved in her education.
It went without saying that she and her six siblings would do the same thing for their children--putting in long hours at their children's schools--even with full-time jobs.
"It's hard--there are times when maybe the laundry doesn't get done--but I think it's important," Allen said. "My parents set a good example."
She has continued her efforts during her son's journey through high school, even though older students are often less enthusiastic about having their parents around. She even plans to stick around next year after her son graduates.
"My son is unfortunate in that his mother doesn't care if he's sitting there with a frown on his face because I'm there," Allen said with a laugh.
Prince William parent Annemarie Steimel has six school-age children--in two school buildings--and two more at home. Still, she finds time to put in dozens of hours a year as a parent volunteer.
She started her work when her oldest child entered kindergarten. She served as a member of a special parent/teacher advisory panel at Tyler Elementary, working with the principal on the school budget and school plan.
That led to appointments to a superintendent's advisory council on instruction and a boundary committee.
Now with three children at Bristow Elementary, two at Brentsville Middle, one at Brentsville High and two young ones at home, her in-school volunteer times are normally limited to chaperoning field trips and other special events.
But, she continues to be active with the schools' PTAs.
Last year, the Bristow PTA raised money to supplement the school's budget for library books. The group also provided each teacher with $150 to buy classroom supplies. Over the next two years, the group's focus will be raising money for a new playground--something that likely would never be funded through the school's regular budget.
"I do this because education is important to me," Steimel said.
To principals, parent volunteers are invaluable.
Irving Principal Patrick Murphy was so impressed and appreciative of the efforts of his parent volunteers that he nominated the school's PTA for a Fairfax County volunteer award.
"It's not just one outstanding thing they did; it's more the quality and consistency of the things they did throughout the year," said Murphy, who begins his second year as Irving principal this fall.
"When I came in last year, they held these parent coffees to springboard the efforts of parents getting to know me," Murphy recalled. "We regularly have parents come in throughout the week on a schedule to do a variety of things--from helping in the library and front office to assisting with student services."
And then there are the special events or emergencies in which the school's highly organized parents quickly mobilize for action.
"When special things pop up, I'm always amazed how we're able to pull together a group of parents within 24-hours time to stuff packets for a special mailing or whatever we need," Irving said.
More important, parent involvement fosters communication between schools and communities and shows children that adults care, principals and parents said.
Echoing the sentiments of many parents, Sperling said: "We feel we have one shot at raising her and providing her the best possible education we can.
"It's important that we be as involved as we can."