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Real-life stories about improving schools

Read these stories from Once Upon a School, a Web site created by best-selling author Dave Eggers to encourage citizens to get involved in their local schools.

By Marian Wilde , GreatSchools Staff

A citizen in Mississippi creates a community mentoring program. A librarian launches a book drive for a New Orleans school. A San Francisco mom organizes the first PTA at her daughter's school. In Georgia, a mom starts a filmmaking club in an elementary school. These are a few of the many innovative ways ordinary people - parents and community members just like you - are digging in to improve education for children in their communities.

Once Upon a School

These examples of engagement in schools (and many more) are collected on Once Upon a School, a Web site created by Dave Eggers, the best-selling author of such books as A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and What Is the What.

In February 2008, Eggers was honored with the TED Prize, given annually to three individuals chosen by TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design), an organization with the mission of spreading ideas. According to their Web site, TED believes "passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and, ultimately, the world."

The list of previous TED winners includes Bono, Bill Clinton, Karen Armstrong and other thought leaders and experts from a wide range of fields. Each winner receives $100,000, plus the granting of "One Wish to Change the World." Eggers' wish is that "you personally and every creative individual and organization you know will find a way to directly engage with a public school in your area and that you'll then tell the story of how you got involved, so that within a year we have 1,000 examples of innovative public-private partnerships."

The Once Upon a School site was created as the repository of these stories. The stories already collected tell of tutoring centers, of programs that motivate more parents to become involved in their children's schools, of academic coaches helping students to become the first in their families to go to college, of individuals encouraging American students to help students in Ethiopia, of citizens creating afterschool programs.

In their own words

Here are four stories we've selected from Once Upon a School. In their own words, four citizens from around the country describe their original plans, the pitfalls and the successes they experienced as they executed their plans, and, finally, the results. (Note: Some of the writers refer to themselves in the third person, some in the first person.)

Janice Fraser, a San Francisco mother, submitted her story of The First Ever PTA at Rosa Parks Elementary School

"Last October, I learned that my 5-year-old son's elementary school had never had a PTA. He attends an underperforming school in San Francisco's Western Addition housing projects. With a new principal and a new bilingual track, the school has a chance to turn around. The goal was to build a bridge between home and school, and to foster a cohesive (though diverse) school community for the benefit of all.

"I had no real plan. I was at a 'Principal Chat' one morning before work and learned that there was no PTA, and that a prior attempt to form one had failed. Without thinking, I raised my hand and said 'I'll do it.' I thought I'd call the National PTA, fill out a few forms, open a bank account and promote meetings.

"In reality, it was much harder. I held a series of research sessions with parents, the new principal, staff and community members. The PTA bylaws are relatively complex (more so than starting a company!). With tremendous help from the district PTA, the school's parent liaison and another active parent, I learned how to get the PTA approved and how to negotiate the public school system. At school, I'm known as the 'crazy lady' - for handing out fliers and for organizing free dinners (homemade soup) and childcare on the night of the meeting.

"We were granted membership into the National PTA. We have 36 charter members, including a local city supervisor, several staff, community members and a diverse collection of magnificent parents. We have elected our leadership and are already developing plans for a jazz music program. We are also installing an edible garden (multi-year project) and a community barbecue to close out this academic year."

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