Parents Improving Schools: A Primer for Change

By Lisa Lewis


When these East Bay parents found their kids’ schools lacking, they went to work.

Cupcakes just don’t cut it any more. As East Bay public schools face ever-worsening budget woes, many parents are deciding it’s time to get involved in raising funds and making improvements. Unlike the parent-sponsored bake sales of the past, though, today’s efforts are often more far-reaching.


-FAMILY: Verdana">This month, Bay Area Parent profiles several parent-led initiatives under way at East Bay schools to help bring about change.

-FAMILY: Verdana"> 

Reaching Out for Results

Kevin Rivard, whose youngest daughter Amber is a senior at Richmond High School, has spent several years advocating for improvements. When Amber started as a freshman in 2001, Rivard was “aghast at the situation” at the school, which included run-down facilities and students reading substantially below grade level. He also describes the school as overcrowded, noting that the school had repeatedly asked the local school board for new portable classrooms to no avail.


Although he’d been aware of the school’s problems, he notes he’d been somewhat insulated because his five children (of whom Amber is the youngest) had all been in independent study. But when Amber decided she wanted to attend Richmond High, Rivard decided it was time to find out “what kind of school we were getting involved in.”


What he did: Because Rivard had been going to local school board meetings since 1990, he’d built up a network of contacts. After hearing about the urgent need for portable classrooms, “I went to people I knew,” he explains. He started sending e-mails to city council members, who in turn put pressure on the school board. Also, Rivard had a good relationship with a reporter at the West County Times who regularly covered school board meetings; Rivard was able to convince her to cover the issue of Richmond High’s overcrowding and need for additional classroom space. The extra visibility resulted in two new portable classrooms for the high school.


Ongoing efforts: Through his participation on Richmond High’s School Site Council (a group representing parents, students, teachers and staff), Rivard helped pull together funds for a new computerized reading program at the library to combat the school’s reading-level issues. Since the program was piloted more than a year ago, participating students have improved their reading substantially. With the addition of four new computers, the program is now able to accommodate more students.


Rivard, past chair of the School Site Council and current chair of the School Advisory Committee, believes that increasing parental involvement is key for long-term success.


“If parents take education seriously, the kids will take education seriously,” he explains.


As part of the school’s Parent Committee dedicated to making the school stronger, he helped launch a Parent Teacher Student Association at the school to combat lack of parental participation. This fall, as his final project before his daughter graduates, he plans to form a booster club to help pay for items like additional books, band instruments or football uniforms.


“I’ll be using all of my contacts I’ve built up over the years,” he says.


Reviving Glenview’s Library

Patti Gima, president of the Parent Teacher Association at Glenview Elementary School in Oakland, remembers the sad state of the library when her son started kindergarten in 2001.


“The library was basically being used as a storage room,” she says, noting that it was shuttered most of the time. “There were books in there, but there was no librarian. Nothing was automated. It was depressing.”


What they did: Glenview’s PTA decided to make the library the focal point of their efforts. By leveraging the school’s annual read-a-thon, they raised more $16,000 in 2003. Then, a committee of parents, teachers and the school’s principal got to work renovating the space.


“We ripped up carpet, refinished the fir floors, had two new murals painted and cleaned everything thoroughly,” she says.


The 2004 read-a-thon raised more than $19,000, which is being used to fund a part-time librarian.


An article about the library renovation in the Glenview Neighborhood Association’s newsletter got the attention of Ignacio De La Fuente, president of the Oakland City Council. He ended up donating $2,000 to fund a new computer program to automate the library’s collection, along with additional money for a new school marquee.


Other efforts: In addition to her work on the PTA, Gima is also one of the founding members of ConsiderGlenview, a group dedicated to providing information to parents of prospective students. The group came about when five families, including Gima’s, were evaluating where to send their children to school.


rdana">“We decided that we would send our kids (to Glenview) together,” she says, noting that now, even some families who have been granted transfers to elementary schools in the Oakland hills opt for Glenview instead. “It’s the families and parents who come in and really care (who can have a positive impact).”


Restoring a Crown Jewel

rdana">When Kathy Kahn’s older son Daniel entered Oakland’s Skyline High School in 1998 as a freshman, the school’s auditorium was in desperate need of an overhaul. The 976-seat auditorium, the centerpiece of the school’s performing arts program, had “seats that had been ripped up out of the floor, and hazard tape on some rows,” along with an antiquated lighting system and outdated technology. “It was horrible,” Kahn remembers.


rdana">“The auditorium is one of the first things you see when you come to the school,” she explains. “Ever since the 1960s, when the school was first built, performing arts has been really important (at Skyline).”


rdana">Moreover, Skyline is the only high school in Oakland with a technical theater program. Of Skyline’s approximately 2,000 students, about 500 are enrolled in a performing arts class each semester, Kahn says, including about 150 students who are enrolled in the performing arts academy (a specialized program at the school that includes dance, vocal and instrumental music, technical theater and drama).


What they did: Kahn and her husband started talking to other parents about the state of the auditorium and soon formed the Skyline PTSA Performing Arts Committee. After about a year of planning, they launched their fund-raising effort, which featured a “buy a seat” program allowing donors to purchase a brass plaque for one of the auditorium’s seats for $100, which also entitled them to admission at the auditorium’s gala re-launch.


Skyline alumnus Tom Hanks lent his name to the project after being contacted by a member of the committee who had attended Skyline with him. In addition to contributing money, Hanks also attended the gala event in 2002, at which the auditorium was renamed in honor of Hanks’ former Skyline drama teacher.


Having Hanks’ name attached to the project made it much easier to get visibility, Kahn notes. In addition, she turned to online alumni services such as to get the word out about the campaign.


“I sent an e-mail a day for 18 months,” Kahn says.


Ongoing efforts: Kahn, whose younger son Jeremy is a senior at Skyline, notes that the committee is still actively involved in theater activities at the school, including purchasing costumes and instruments as needed. At each of the 10 shows the school puts on each year, parents help out by donating concessions, creating programs and selling tickets. Kahn prints the tickets herself on her home computer.


rmal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">As a result of the new auditorium, “the school has just come alive,” Kahn says. It showed the students that “something very big and very good can happen in Oakland.”

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rmal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Mobilizing a Community

In 2001, with a number of school programs and positions on the budget chopping block, several Albany parents and community members decided to act. As a result, Albany Schools and Citizens of Albany to Rescue Education (SchoolCARE) was formed. As the group notes on its Web site, “The state does not provide adequate funding for the level of excellence we expect in Albany schools … if we want (quality) education, we have to help pay for it.”


rmal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">Last year for example, the district was down to just one librarian to support its schools (three elementary schools, one junior high school, one high school and one alternative high school).

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rmal style="MARGIN: 0in 0in 0pt">“One of the biggest challenges here in Albany has been to educate community members about the importance of supporting public education in our town,” says Karen Larson, secretary for SchoolCARE, whose two children attend Marin Elementary School.


What they did: In addition to a fund-raising campaign each spring, SchoolCARE tries to have a presence at as many school events as possible as well as the city’s annual Solano Stroll street fair.


“The first year, we did a brochure and dropped it on everyone’s doorstep,” Larson adds.


In addition, the group uses lawn signs to publicize their cause.


“We feel it’s important to get the whole community involved,” Larson explains, noting that residents of Albany see the benefits of the schools’ reputation reflected in their home prices.


In the past four years, SchoolCARE has raised close to $1 million, which has then been used to fund programs and services each school’s site council decides are most important to them. Last year, for example, the elementary schools all designated reading specialists (to help kids reading below grade level) as their top priority; SchoolCARE was able to reinstate this. The group has also funded programs such as a writing workshop for 10th-graders and a librarian at Albany Middle School.


Ongoing efforts: One thing that’s made SchoolCARE so successful is to have a broad level of support, Larson says, noting that it works cooperatively with other organizations such as school PTAs, site councils and booster clubs at the various school sites.


“We really find out what the schools need,” Larson says.


This year, for example, in response to student interest, SchoolCARE will fund new classes in health, driver’s education and psychology at Albany High.


Other Parent-Led Initiatives

Four years ago, Oakland Parents Together was formed as a citywide voice for parents who felt they weren’t getting heard. Coordinator Henry Hitz describes the group as “a union of parents,” noting that its philosophical focus is on schools that don’t have strong parent organizations such as PTAs already in place. The group, which combined the city’s former Asian Pacific Islander Task Force, Latino Education Task Force and African American Task Force (along with several other parent groups), hosts workshops for parents and has established a family resource center at Allendale Elementary School in Oakland’s Fruitvale district.


At the broader Bay Area level, Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network was started in July as a way to organize low-income parents regarding education and support for families (including childcare and other issues for working families). Project Director Melia Franklin says the group hopes to bring together “parents who are disenfranchised from mainstream decision-making” and will concentrate on building an active base of low-income parents to improve schools and get involved in school policy issues. The group will have its kick-off meeting on Sept. 25 from 9 a.m. to noon at the YWCA in downtown Oakland.


Crucial programs on the chopping block, lack of supplies and dilapidated classrooms – the problems can seem insurmountable. But with ingenuity, communication and elbow grease, parents can step in to help improve their children’s schools.


“Your children will benefit from seeing that you care about their education,” Rivard notes. “You can help improve their school by showing that you care.”



Albany SchoolCARE:

Bay Area Parent Leadership Action Network: Subscribe to e-mail distribution list by sending a note to

ConsiderGlenview: Available through Yahoo! Groups at

Oakland Parents Together:


Lisa Lewis is an Oakland-based freelance writer.