Mike Lawson • Archives • June 1, 2003

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In today’s struggling economy, when budget cuts affect arts and music programs, it’s heartening to see that one source of support for music educators remains strong: boosters organizations. Based on a survey of nearly 200 band and orchestra directors at the middle and high school levels, 91 percent of schools have some boosters organization in place. More importantly, over 40 percent of the directors polled insisted they have an “excellent” relationship with their boosters organization, while another 29 percent called the relationship “very good.”

Only a very small percentage, one percent, feared that their parents held too much power over the music program. Strong bylaws that spell out the purpose of the organization as a support group, outlining what areas fall within the group’s jurisdiction, can help prevent problems before they begin. By fostering an environment of mutual respect, making sound decisions for the band, and always communicating with parents, a music director should be able to enjoy support from his or her boosters group without worrying about “Monday morning quarterbacking” by well-meaning parents.

Thirty-eight percent of all music educators surveyed said that the music program would probably not exist without the aid of the boosters organization, while another 40 percent classified their boosters group as “involved;” that is, the directors get help “when requested.”

How Are Parents Helping Out?

The majority of boosters group efforts go toward fundraising for the group, but parents also lend assistance in promoting the band or orchestra, organizing trips, and distributing uniforms. In the best cases, the parents do anything and everything that needs to be done, from sewing to transporting equipment, catering festivals, ushering concerts, and even instrument repair.

On the downside, all of this work seems to be done by about 30 percent of the parents, or less, according to nearly 60 percent of the directors queried. Almost all of the directors who cited “one thing they would like to change about their boosters program” shared Siuslaw High School music director Bill Bartman’s sentiments: “I’d like to get more parents involved – spread out the jobs over more hands.”

Scotty Jones, who has about 15 percent involvement at Oak Park and River Forest High Schools in Illinois, succinctly summed up the problem: “A small group of parents does most of the work.”

Tyrone Area School District music director Kris E. Laird, who said that 25 percent of his students’ parents are involved in the boosters group, also longed for greater involvement.

“I would like to encourage more parents to get involved, so that there would be more input and ideas generated by those present,” he explained. “More involvement would lead to better communication between myself and the parents, which would strengthen the bond between the students and the program. My boosters organization does a fantastic job with little involvement. I can’t imagine what could be achieved with more involvement.”

As this survey indicated, attendance at monthly boosters meetings is not always a good barometer for parental involvement in music programs. Gary Holley, whose Abingdon (Va.) High School boosters program boasts 30 to 40 percent involvement and typically has enough people to run any event or pull off a successful fundraiser, said that it’s a different story when it comes to attending monthly meetings. “Our turnout there isn’t as high,” he said. “It might be as low as 10 to 20 percent.”

To promote a higher turnout, Holley tries to break away from the typical meeting format by scheduling chamber music performances or playing video clips of marching band shows.

” If we have a special event,” he said, “often as many as 90 percent of our members will come. But, from a director’s perspective, there are time constraints that make putting together a special musical program very difficult.”

While meetings do provide a structured format in which directors and parents can communicate, some directors aren’t concerned by a lack of attendance. Jeff Mount, who said only 10 or 20 of the parents in the Blair (Neb.) High School boosters club attend meetings, finds alternate ways to stay in touch with parents. “We’re collecting people’s e-mail addresses at parent-teacher conferences. When we have an event coming up, we can just send one e-mail to everybody. That way we’re not constantly on the phone trying to call people. The job is getting done.”

Mount, now in his third year at the school, longs for the day when he has a “ready list of people, just waiting to volunteer.” However, he acknowledges that building that rapport will take time.

“Communication with the parents, in the form of newsletters and e-mails, has helped some,” he added. “I’ve gotten some positive response, parents saying ‘If you need anything, let me know.’ It takes some time to build up a rapport with the students, parents, and community. It just takes time to get the connections made and know you’re going to be supported.”

Red Mount High School band director Vince Wedge, in Mesa, Ariz., agreed that keeping the lines of communication open should be foremost in a director’s mind.

“We’ve got a newsletter that goes out every month to the parents. We try to make sure that any discussion items are listed there,” he said. “We don’t have any trouble getting people out to help with specific things. They just don’t want to deal with any meetings, and that’s fine, too.”

Lack of Leadership?

However, low attendance at meetings often means that the boosters organization lacks decision-makers among its membership. Every successful organization needs leaders, individuals willing to suggest new ideas and then, in many cases, carry them to fruition.

Wedge noted that parents hesitate to take on this role because they have too much else to do, including full-time jobs.

“Most of the time, they’re afraid of committing too much time,” he said.

By spelling out duties and clearly delineating your group’s needs, you can prevent misunderstandings and also encourage parents to help out. If parents know exactly what a particular project entails, they may not be as hesitant to volunteer. Also, if they know that they can delegate tasks to other parents, more individuals will step up to a leadership role.

” Make sure that you’re communicating with your boosters,” Wedge advised. “I constantly am reminding the boosters: ‘They’re your kids. I spend a lot of time with them and I care for them, but they’re your kids. You have the opportunity to be a part of what your kids are doing.'”

Building Relationships

Most parents, given the opportunity, do want to play an active role in their child’s education. At least, that’s what Norman Logan, at Farmington (Mich.) High School, believes. With 50 percent active involvement in his boosters group, the numbers support his beliefs.

“What the parents want to do is contribute, be part of their child’s life, but they don’t know what to do,” he said.

In his music room and in dealing with boosters, Logan feels that goal-setting helps create ownership of any activity.

“At the beginning, the band directors need to talk to the parents about what is needed. Make a shopping list. Tell them, ‘These are the jobs that need to be done.’ If they sign up for one or two of these, they can feel they’ve contributed something to their child’s program. Because of that, they feel very proud when they see the kids marching down the street.”

Logan has found ways to make it easy for parents to play an active role in the boosters club, even if they don’t have a lot of time.

“Not every parent is always able to go to meetings. For the parent who is working 16 hours a day, but would like to contribute, they may be able to donate some cash.”

He generates support from both mothers and fathers by going to his parents for contributions beyond the typical. For instance, the boosters president, who is an electrician, outfitted the band’s new trailer with a generator and lights. Other parents may help build props for shows, or even drive the bus for out-of-town performances and field trips. A parent who is a travel agent can be an invaluable resource and save the band lots of money throughout the years.

Logan said, “There’s a wide range of people. The director needs to find a way to tap into all those resources, and make it so that all those parents feel that the director is accessible, that there is something that they can do to contribute.”

In addition to unusually high involvement, Logan also boasts strong parent leadership, and something even more unusual – parents who stay with the organization after their child has graduated.

“We try to set up a family tradition. Even after their students graduate, a lot of the parents come back and work because they have friends that still have children in the program,” he said.

In many ways, running a successful boosters organization is not much different from running a successful band or orchestra.

“The biggest thing a director can do is take some ownership in the direction and philosophy of the music program,” Logan said. “The director helps make the climate, and that climate has to be instilled and nurtured every year, because the parents and students come and go. You have to build up a tradition.”

Holley agreed: “Ultimately, it is the director’s responsibility to provide leadership for the overall program. That’s an all-encompassing term. We’re talking about the social elements; we’re talking about the behavioral expectations; we’re talking about the curriculum.”

However, Holley reiterated the importance of listening to parents’ ideas, and being open with them about the rationales behind your decisions.

“People have feelings. When you turn a completely blind eye to those feelings, you’re setting yourself up for problems.”

Steve Lyons, at Champlin Park High School in Champlin, Minn., also looks to his band parents for feedback on his policies.

“If the parents politely question my decisions, that helps me examine my philosophies and motives, and helps keep the program strong. I know we provide better activities for students when there is a strong partnership between parents and teachers. The bottom line is that all of our teamwork, between the parents and staff, must go toward making good decisions for the students.”

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