At a time when Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is tightening budgets and closing programs, many schools are relying on Parent-Teacher Associations for extra financial support.
But there are many schools in Charlotte without a PTA where children are suffering from budget cuts and poverty.
That is why schools like Polo Ridge Elementary on Tom Short Road and Hawk Ridge Elementary on Bryant Farms Road in Ballantyne, which have strong parent organizations, have joined CMS's SchoolMates program.
Julie Yakoboski has been the PTA SchoolMates coordinator at Hawk Ridge since last year andis the main liaison with Hawk Ridge's sister school, Nations Ford Elementary, near Interstates 485 and 77. Hawk Ridge has been paired with Nations Ford Elementary, which doesn't have a PTA, for about six years.
"Last year we worked with an emphasis to assist in the media center," Yakoboski said. "We read to them and brought them books.
"But this year we are trying to share strengths between the schools."
Yakoboski, 52, said Hawk Ridge volunteers have worked this year at the Nations Ford carnival, will participate in its book fair and take groups of parent volunteers to Nations Ford at least once a week to assist in classrooms.
"I also discovered there is a great deal of talent in their choir," said Yakoboski. As a result, Hawk Ridge and Nations Ford were scheduled to sing together at the McColl Center for Visual Arts uptown April 9 during a CMS activity.
LeeAnn Pounds is the PTA member in charge of the SchoolMates relationship at Polo Ridge, which has been partnered with sister school Ashley Park Elementary in northwest Charlotte since Ashley Park opened in 2008.
Last year, Polo Ridge discovered Ashley Park's talented cheerleading squad, and in an effort to share strengths, the Ashley Park cheerleaders and eagle mascot performed at Polo Ridge.
Polo Ridge students were so inspired by that performance that this year they started a squad as well. This past Friday, the Ashley Park cheerleaders returned to perform, and Pounds said she hopes the two schools can combine forces for a joint routine in the future.
Polo Ridge also facilitates speakers to inspire the children at Ashley Park. One Polo Ridge parent, who works for Unilever, gave a presentation on how ice cream is made. In March, children's author Stephanie Greene volunteered to spend an entire day at Ashley Park after being contacted by Polo Ridge.
Polo Ridge students have helped make fleece scarves for the 280 pupils at their sister school, and held a hat-and-glove drive that provided enough items to clothe the entire Ashley Park student body.
"I feel strongly that it's a huge advantage for our kids at Polo Ridge to have a broader understanding of the world," said Pounds. "If we want our children to be the leaders of tomorrow and compassionate citizens, they need to be aware that everyone's life is not the same as theirs, but that these kids are much the same as them in their interests and in their hearts. I feel like one of the best parts of this program is giving kids the opportunity to see children in another area of Charlotte and in different circumstances."
Yakoboski and Pounds spend hours driving back and forth between schools, meeting with teachers to discover their needs, hosting fundraisers, being lunch buddies, setting up student-to-student pen-pal relationships, holding book drives and much more.
"The kids are so excited to see us when we come over," Yakoboski said. "They like us being there, they work for us, and they thank us. The relationship is the reward."
Pounds, whose oldest child will be a sixth-grader at Jay M. Robinson Middle next year, plans to head a new SchoolMates program there. Robinson's sister school will be Barringer Academic Center off West Boulevard and Clanton Road.
"The program is trying to move away from just material donations and really build relationships," Yakoboski said. "In the high-poverty schools, the parents want the same thing for their kids as we want for ours, but most of those parents have to work."
Pounds, 43, said a strong educational environment requires people spend time with students and teachers.
In south Charlotte, Ballantyne, Elon Park, Elizabeth Lane and McKee Road elementary schools also have SchoolMates relationships; but throughout CMS, there were only 51 SchoolMates partnerships in 2009-10, with a significant lack of middle and high school participation.
The SchoolMates partnership "doesn't have to look the same in every school," Pounds said. "It can morph depending on the strengths of each school.
"For people who want to do something in the community that's helpful but don't have time to go out and join a bunch of things, this is (an) easy-access opportunity."