Despite the fact that most American households don’t have a stay-at-home parent — a situation that has existed for decades — and employers fall short of providing much-needed flexibility, many schools continue to function as if the opposite is true. The greatest problem for working parents appears to be school hours and frequent closures. A recent report from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, lays out stark statistics: Schools are closed for an average of 29 days a year, not counting summer vacations, and fewer than half of public elementary schools offer before- and after-school care.
Lower-income school districts are even less likely to offer care options outside of school. Finding care “is a very serious challenge for lower-income working parents, who are much less likely to have the high incomes that allow them to pay babysitters for the time that their kids aren’t in school,” says Catherine Brown, the center’s vice president of education policy.
When it comes to schools providing care, the problem is largely one of funding, says Debra Ness, president of the National Partnership for Women and Families. The federal government, she says, should do more to help. A cohesive federal policy to fund after-school care, rather than what she calls today’s “patchwork” of programs, would “ease the burden on local school districts.”
But money isn’t the only issue. Brown and others say inertia is at least partly to blame for the way schools continue to operate. This factor may be particularly acute in affluent school districts where there are enough parents available to fulfill every volunteer request, run every PTA meeting, do midday school pickups and so on.
“When there are enough parents who aren’t working or are working part-time and can meet the school schedule, what’s the impetus for the schools to change what they’re doing?” asks Joshua Starr, chief executive of PDK International, a professional association for educators, and a former superintendent of schools in Connecticut and Maryland. Starr, also a father, often faces last-minute notifications about events such as upcoming elementary school concerts; he calls these unforced errors on the part of school systems.
So, how can schools reduce the errors they’re making as they interact with working parents, or maybe even parents in general? Better communication is key, as is technology. Some working parents who were relatively satisfied with their school districts spoke highly of online platforms that help notify parents of school events through emails, text messages and detailed calendars. They also appreciated when schools posted announcements on social media.
Wired solutions, however, are not necessarily a panacea, particularly in low-income communities where parents lack reliable online access. School districts such as the San Jose Unified School District, in the heart of Northern California’s Silicon Valley, take a more proactive approach. The district, which includes both wealthy and working-class neighborhoods, surveys parents every year to learn more about the needs of those communities. The district also has a family engagement office that works with its more than three dozen schools to determine the optimal times to hold events — early in the morning, on Saturdays, for example — to help working parents, some of whom hold multiple jobs, find ways to get engaged.
“We’re really aware of how we can create an atmosphere to get parents involved with their child’s education, knowing that the traditional way, or the way maybe my parents would have had access, doesn’t work,” says Shannon McGee, director of educational equity and leadership development at the district.
Smaller districts and schools without the money to staff a family engagement office can accommodate time-strapped working parents in other ways. At McGaheysville Elementary School, part of a rural school district in Rockingham County, Va., teachers routinely hold parent-teacher conferences over the phone. Most school events take place twice, during the day and in the evening. And officials work to be respectful of parents’ time constraints in other ways, too: During the school’s teacher appreciation week, for example, students are asked to write a thank-you card or just give their teachers hugs.
“It’s things that everybody can be involved in,” says McGaheysville Elementary Principal Pam Dowrey. “I work very closely with the PTO and I ask them things that they’re capable of doing . . . [and] whether they have the time to do it.”
Of course, parents can’t count on every school district to have sympathetic administrators who want to make our lives easier. We have to advocate for ourselves. Doing so may make a difference even on the budget-sensitive issue such as before- and after-school care, says Brown of the Center for American Progress: “I suspect that parents who are more aggressive in asking for it are more likely to get it.”
It also falls to us to do more than demand change; we should figure out how to be part of the solution. Danialle Lewis, a working mom in Des Plaines, Ill., thought communication between her daughter’s elementary school and parents could use some improvement, so she joined the school’s parent-teacher council (its evening meeting times worked with her schedule) and used the skills she honed as an executive assistant to draft a monthly newsletter.
“I think what’s key for working parents is not to get lost in the big picture,” Lewis says. “Think of the little things you can help with based on your skills and offer them up.”
Alice Gomstyn is a writer and editor who lives with her family in northern New Jersey.
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