Volume 17 • Issue 15 | SEPTEMBER 3 - 10, 2004

BACK TO SCHOOL

Two Downtown parent coordinators prepare and reflect

By Angela Benfield

When parent Marty Lipowitz needed assistance, he was glad she was there. Lipowitz, who volunteers at the P.S. 89 school cafeteria, was charged with maintaining the peace during lunchtime. But with few other volunteers to help, things were getting out of hand. The lunchroom was beginning to resemble the food fight scene in “Animal House.”

He turned to Connie Schraft, the parent coordinator.

“She had a list of parents who offered to volunteer,” said Lipowitz.

He took the list, made some calls and the next day parents were there to help. If he had had to wait to talk to the principal or assistant principal, who are very busy, the solution would not have happened that quickly.

“Connie is in the outer office, so anytime I walk in, she gets to me right away,” he said.

On a recent summer morning, Schraft took time out from her day (parent coordinators work year-round) to discuss the past year. Meeting at Gee Whiz diner, Schraft was joined by her counterpart Kathy Sussel at P.S. 234. They took a moment to discuss the past eight months.

Both report that it had been a busy year and that the job is demanding.

“There has been a parent who I didn’t know waiting for me every day this week when I got to school,” said Schraft, and that’s in the summer time.

“The challenge for me is getting the names and faces straight and keeping track,” Sussel said of the hundreds of parents at P.S. 234.

One requirement of the position was a minimum of two years of community experience. Before coming to P.S. 89, Connie started volunteering at P.S. 234 when her eldest son Will started kindergarten there in 1993. She worked in the library, as a class parent, and on many fundraisers. In addition, she organized “Middle School Night” for parents of graduating fifth graders. She then went on to serve on the executive board until her youngest son Miles graduated from 234 this past June. She is also secretary of the Downtown Soccer League (her husband Don Schuck is the president).

Sussel seemed to be a natural choice for the parent coordinator position as well. She has 28 years of experience working in the school system (volunteer and paid), the last eight as a school aide.

“I’ve always gotten very involved,” Sussel said. “It’s so much more rewarding when you do.”

Having an actual desk is a welcome asset. When you enter the main office at P.S. 89, Schraft’s desk is the first one you see.

“I was shocked the first day I went to work and Ronnie [Najjar, the principal] said that I would be sitting at this desk,” she said. It was her first desk. In all her years as a school volunteer, she never had one.

Like Schraft, Sussel is also a parent. She has three daughters, ages 32, 17 and 14. Both women say that having children of their own makes them more empathetic toward parental concerns.

They understand the frustrations that parents deal with, and both have said it’s not unusual to invest more than 20 minutes at a time just letting parents vent — something no one in the office ever has time to do. They agree that sometimes it’s just having someone to listen that makes the difference in how a parent feels about the school.

“I think it’s good that you can identify somebody at the school who will talk to you, take your call, listen, and get back to you on whatever issues you have,” Sussel said.

Parents come into the office wanting to speak to the principal regarding issues such as discipline problems, middle school choices, and even health insurance coverage. More often than not, it’s something that the principal does not need to be involved with. Connie and Kathy are there to give parents the information they need without having to wait for an appointment with the principal. “Come in with questions, I’ll answer them,” Connie said.

“A parent has someone to ask questions of and get an answers from,” said Maria Ouranistas, parent of Marina, a second grader. “They are definitely an asset to the school.”

P.S. 89 P.T.A. co-president Sandy Kraehling also feels that the position has been very helpful, especially to the executive board.

“Connie has alleviated the work load of the P.T.A. by dealing with the day to day issues.”

Parents calling the P.T.A. about a classroom situation usually had to wait until someone from the board would discuss the issue with the principal and then get back to them. Now, they can go directly to Connie for answers.

“She gives information that fills in a lot of the gaps,” Sandy added.

Still, while most parents appreciate having someone to balance the demands of the parents and principal, others say that the money spent on these jobs would be better spent on school aides in the cafeteria or classroom.

“Personally, I would rather the money be spent on badly-needed aides for the lunchroom and yard. We are relying on parent volunteers for these positions and that is just not the way to go,” said a parent of a second grader who did not want to be identified.

The coordinators will be back this year with greater plans. One thing on tap is more “Family Circle” meetings with the school counselors. Parents can get valuable information on issues from schoolyard bullies to sibling rivalry all over coffee and a bagel. Hmm, sounds like something a parent would think of.



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