MCKINLEY ELEMENTARY — Two years ago, Area Kramarsky would go to Parent Teacher Association meetings at McKinley Elementary School and worry whether or not they would have the requisite 18 members needed for a vote.
The parents of elementary schoolers, had difficulty getting home from work, feeding their children and still marshal enough energy to get back out the door to take an interest in the politics of the school.
“It brings the business of PTA to a standstill,” said Kramarsky, president of the McKinley PTA.
These days, parental attendance is through the roof, a fact that Kramarsky credits to the efforts of Girl Scout Troop 8355.
The 11 scouts began offering free baby-sitting at the PTA meetings in 2011 as part of their bid to win a Silver Award, the highest honor that they can achieve at their level of scouting.
The girls spend two hours at the meetings, which occur once a month on average, playing with the elementary school students while their parents take on the often less enjoyable business of organization, advocacy and fundraising to protect their children’s education.
A troop leader or parent volunteer is always on hand to make sure nothing gets hairy, of course.
The idea was born two years ago when the troop was brainstorming projects to earn the Silver Award.
“We talked about what they could do that would have an impact,” said Lisette Gold, co-leader of the troop.
She had been involved with the PTA at Franklin Elementary School, but that school provides child care for the PTA meetings. Will Rogers Learning Community has CREST, an after-school program supported by City Hall and the district.
McKinley, however, had nothing of the sort.
“When we contacted Area from McKinley, she said that they were in such need of help,” Gold said.
The girls had a planning meeting to work out some ideas to entertain the kids, and then they jumped right in.
Natalie Gold, 13 and an eighth grader at Lincoln Middle School, was nervous that the children would be energetic and hard to control, but she was pleasantly surprised.
“They were really nice, and really easy to play with,” she said. “They were so sweet and smart.”
The most difficult part of the project was convincing the children, who range from age 5 to 10, to put down their cell phones, iPods and other handheld electronics.
“It’s hard for them to get off and pause their game,” Natalie Gold said.
Madison Seifer, also a 13-year-old eighth grader from Lincoln Middle School, had baby-sat before, but she, too, was cautious about walking into McKinley, but found that she and the kids had a lot in common.
“I like doing Twister with them,” she said. “None of us are good at it.”
The McKinley parents aren’t the only ones who benefit from the project. Madison’s mother, Sheryl Seifer, has noticed changes in her daughter over the course of the monthly meetings.
Madison was very shy and spent much of her time reading rather than taking the lead, Sheryl Seifer said.
“This year and last year, she really blossomed. Before she was always the one off in the corner. Now she takes the bull by the horns. It was like, wow, is that Madison?” Sheryl Seifer said.
After a while, the scouts got a lot of practice taking care of the children, and Lisette Gold began to feel that her presence was more a legal formality than anything else.
“I’m off in the corner plugging in the popcorn machine,” Lisette Gold said. “They command the room, and they are in charge. They are the leaders in terms of figuring out what works best, how to manage the room and keeping the kids engaged.”
Fostering that sense of empowerment and leadership is one of the main goals of Girl Scouts, said Karen Rappaport McHugh, the service unit manager of Girl Scouts of Santa Monica.
Girl Scouts is a national organization that’s broken up by regions. Each region is formed of service units, which are then composed of troops. Rappaport McHugh heads up the local service unit, which has 32 troops and 300 girls in Santa Monica alone.
This is the time of year that Girl Scouts are the most visible, usually stationed around markets with those distinctive boxes of cookies, but the organization is about more than Thin Mints and Trefoils, Rappaport McHugh said.
“There’s an unfortunate image of girl scouting that it’s all about crafts and cookies, when it’s about building female leadership for the next generation,” Rappaport McHugh said.
Lisette Gold hopes that Troop 8355 will be able to take advantage of the concentration of troops in Santa Monica to keep the child care project alive long after the girls find out whether or not they will receive the Silver Award, for which they officially applied in February.
“This is a program that should continue at McKinley, and maybe all (of the schools),” she said. “The girls learn leadership, and the parents become more involved in schools.”
Troop 8355 will be looking for another troop that wants to shadow its efforts and learn the ropes so that the project can be replicated elsewhere.
Kramarsky will tell you, parents appreciate it.
“I love that they’re trying to keep the tradition alive, because it’s made such a phenomenal difference,” Kramarsky said.