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."

Carol Shepard, a mom in Georgia, shares her story: The XO Connection

"The kids at my daughter's third through fifth grade school were given laptops to use (at school) for a full school year. I decided to get involved in my daughter's school by using the incredible technology available to the students for a creative, collaborative project: a digital film club!

"I approached the school and convinced them to allow me to start a program that would bring students together to make a movie. It turns out there was a moviemaking contest, the 'Georgia Movie Academy,' that one of the teachers wanted to enter, and so we decided to use the club as a way to allow the students to produce an entry.

"We got the kids started creating their film - we outlined a plot, helped the students choose a central theme and decide on movie-making teams. Once we had a story, the adults helped work out the technical details. We taught the kids how to use morphing software, scratch animation and stop-motion technology to produce claymation (like Wallace and Gromit). The kids learned that you couldn't just do something once and expect to master it (we talked about the rule of three in software engineering - by the third time you build something you'll understand what you are building). Our movie took much more work than we had originally planned, but all of the kids arrived an hour or more early for school over a period of multiple weeks to participate in our club and get the work done. By the end of the movie-making process, the kids were starting to shoot new scenes themselves without any adult guidance, and, more importantly, were resolving their own team dynamic conflicts.

"We submitted to the Georgia Movie Academy and, lo and behold, we won the Best Picture award. The parents and other faculty were amazed at what the students had accomplished.

"Next year the students will be able to create another film, and I'm going to attempt to try for three separate film clubs (one K-2, one 3-5, and one for sixth grade)."

Greg McCoy shares his story of The Sunflower County Freedom Project

"Sunflower County is in rural western Mississippi, a hub of cotton, catfish and soybean farms that is also one of the poorest areas in the country. Greg McCoy and his group of volunteers were passionate about creating a program that would help students from Sunflower County succeed in school and win scholarships to attend four-year colleges. It was important to McCoy that students came out of the program with discipline and leadership skills as well as academic success.

"McCoy and his team decided that the best way to help Sunflower County in the long term would be to help a set of students from seventh grade all the way through the end of high school, mentoring them in academics, as well as offering them martial arts instruction to help with their mental discipline and their physical fitness.

"The team devised a plan to work with students: first years would be required to begin their time with the project by going on a tour of the south, visiting the locations of important civil rights events and talking with members of that movement. By understanding the past and interacting with leaders of the past, students would become grounded in history and be better able to connect real humans to historical events. After this initial trip, students would settle down into the program.

"With headquarters in Sunflower city proper (population 800), the initial students immediately settled into a routine - staying focused on their studies and on their martial arts training. The students participated in summer classes, Saturday classes during the school year, study sessions after normal school hours and much more. Gradually, the students of the Sunflower Project began to participate in programs outside of the scope of the original plan. They began to blog about their experiences on the Sunflower Project Web site, create video documentaries about their lives and even performed several plays on tours throughout the south.

"The results have been rather stunning. Not only have many students gone on to four-year colleges, but two former Sunflower students have reached the level of black belt in Taekwondo. Chris Perkins, a 2006 alumni, says that he's "learned more in these walls here in the Freedom Project about life and success, than I have in all my years at school." Ariel McNeal, a fourth-year fellow in the program, says that "the best thing about Freedom School is that we learn to do our best at all times and be a leader for others."

One community member tells the story of The A.P. Tureaud Book Drive

"Although Katrina is now almost three years past, much of New Orleans still has it tough. Maria Falgoust wanted to do something to help. So she came up with the idea to run a book drive for A.P. Tureaud Elementary, a large public school in the hard-hit Seventh Ward.

"Falgoust started by contacting a math coach at Tureaud, who sent a survey around to teachers, asking for book requests. Soon Falgoust had enough titles to create a wish list of books for the school on Amazon. Then she looked at the list of books and chose other similar volumes and added them to the list.

"Falgoust emailed a letter outlining the details of the book drive and discussing the current state of the Seventh Ward and the school itself. She started by emailing her friends and colleagues. But she wasn't done there - then she posted the book drive on her personal MySpace page. Soon she had donations pouring in. She set up a system so that all donations were sent to her parents house, where her mom organized the books, keeping track of who sent what and added a nameplate with the donors' names to the inside of each book. On the front cover, she clipped a prepaid blank postcard addressed to the book's recipient, so that the students of Tureaud could write a short thank-you note. After all this work was done on each book, it was off to the school library!

"While the books kept coming in, Falgoust emailed updates on the drive to her friends and professional community and provided links to photographs of the kids, school and neighborhood on Flickr.

"The book drive was a tremendous success - Falgoust and her parents have collected an astounding 900 books for Tureaud since the drive began. People from all over contributed to the drive: Canada, California, Vermont, Wisconsin, Texas and more! A school in Nyack, New York, was so inspired by the drive that they bought 115 books for Tureaud. Falgoust wanted the teachers at Tureaud to know that people care about them and were rooting for them - she certainly achieved that, and more."

Write your own story

These inspiring stories remind us all of the importance of parental and community involvement in improving schools for all children, not just for our own. Go to Once Upon a School to read many more stories submitted by parents and citizens who have made a difference at their schools, or to see a list of possible ideas for projects. Then it's your turn to accept Eggers' challenge by submitting your school involvement story. Let's help him achieve his dream of 1000 stories by February 2009.