The Contribution of the Parent Volunteer to School Culture: Ethnographic Case Study

  • by: Alissa Burstein
  • Submitted on February 20, 2017

Research on those involved in the daily school experience typically focuses on the child, teacher and principal. This qualitative study explores another, equally important, population: the parents. It looks at the parent volunteer and sets out to shed light on the contribution that parent involvement (PI) has on school culture.

Following the findings of a small pilot study at one Israeli school that explored the phenomenon of parent volunteerism in general, this current study goes one step further, studying parent volunteers in two Israeli schools and two American schools of a similar ideological background to the Israeli schools (Zionist modern Orthodox day schools). This will be an attempt to not only understand parent volunteerism in general—from the viewpoint of the parent him or herself—but specifically in this instance, to explore the influence of volunteerism on school culture. By using this prominent population as a vanguard, we will hopefully begin to understand and lay the theoretical groundwork for explaining how the parent volunteer is intertwined in the school culture, and for understanding the interplay between theories of volunteerism in general, active parent involvement in the school, and school culture.

Friedman (2010) presents a general yet broad survey of the history of PI in Israel, and offers a typology of different parent types including their various potential roles in the school. Epstein (2001) is well known for promoting the importance of the school-family-community partnership. Wilson (2000) and Gromav (2011) discuss at great length the phenomenon of volunteerism, with Gromav focusing on the phenomenon in Israel. Schein (1985) discusses organizational culture, with Deal and Peterson (1999) honing in on school culture in particular, with a focus on leadership. And Bourdieu (1986) is well known for his theories on human, social and cultural capital which researchers have connected to the phenomenon of PI, while Durkheim (1973 and 1956, based on much earlier works) was actually one of the first philosophers to link education and sociology. The topic of PI has also been given utmost priority at the political and national levels, as seen in the Israeli Dovrat Commission report of 2005, “Ofek Chadash” 2008 elementary school and “Oz Letmura” 2011 high school reforms; and the American No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

After two years of ethnographic case study research at two Israeli schools and two American schools, during which time over 40 interviews were conducted with parents, teachers, administrators and political figures; some dozens of observations were logged; and hundreds of documents were collected and analyzed—the researcher presents a “thick description” (Geertz, 1973). These findings discuss who the parent volunteer is (e.g., reasons for volunteering); the structural dynamics of power, politics and partnership displayed at the schools; and the parent as agent of socialization, informal education, and culture at the school.

The discussion takes the above findings to a deeper, theoretical as well as practical, level, offering a new classification of volunteer types in light of these four schools; discussing the concept of leadership and how the roles of the principal and parent are often intertwined in a partnership; and linking education and socialization both today and in light of classical sociological thought.

This study sheds light not only on classical theory regarding sociology and education as well as methodological challenges that arose with regard to insider/outsider issues, but most importantly, its practical implications and applications in the school setting. It also raises questions for future research, such as the role of the specifically non-involved parent. It is hoped that administrators, principals, teachers, and most importantly, parents will be able to glean the fruits of these findings and in so doing, enhance and enrich the overall school experience for all players involved.

To read the full doctoral dissertation, click here.

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