The troubled economy is on everyone's mind. You can't step into a nail salon, dry cleaner, or grocery store without hearing conversations about how bad times really are. Some say education is a recession-proof field, but those in it know this is not true. The budget votes are looming and everyone in the education world is on edge, waiting to see if their district's budget will pass and for some, if their job will be safe. Core content classes such as mathematics, language arts and reading will always be offered, but "extras" such as art, music and physical education could be the first programs to be reduced or have their formats changed. Regardless of how each state and district handles their budget issues, here are some tips to make sure your child is not missing out on experiences that make them well-rounded and enhance their education.

  • Take advantage of free programs! Check your local paper or library for extra-curricular events that are free of charge. Some local businesses offer "demo" classes or free workshop days. Exposing your child to a new activity without making a long-term financial or time commitment is also a good way to make sure he really likes it, without wasting your money.
  • Hire a private instructor. Ask a friend (or a few friends!) if they would like to split the cost of at-home sessions, whether it be art classes, karate or music lessons. This could save you money in the long run, especially if you can provide the supplies the instructor may need, which cuts down on her overhead, and in turn your out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Go on a family field trip! Depending on your budget and availability, this could be a weekly or monthly event. You can visit museums or galleries to expose your child to famous works of art they would otherwise only speak about in school. You don't have to be an expert on the subject, either! Many museums offer guided tours or audio recordings to lead you through the experience. Does your family enjoy the outdoors? Take a day trip to a local beach and you have an instant science lesson, complete with a hands-on experience. Discuss the animals that live there, how erosion affects the beach, and how pollution affects the water. Remember, family field trips can be free, or at least only cost you the gas it takes to get there!
  • Start a sports club in your community. Call some friends and meet at a local park once a month (or once a week if everyone's schedule allows) to engage in some stress-free, just-for-fun games. The children can vote on the sport they play that day; this prevents burn out from playing the same sport every time and will limit those "Not again!" complaints you hear from your child so often. Less structure can be beneficial and this opportunity teaches your child about flexibility and compromise. All you need is a ball and some friends!
  • Create a book club for your child and her friends. Have everyone put the name of a book they would like to read in a hat and pull out the next selection. Parents can take turn hosting the events, complete with healthy snacks. Parents should read the book ahead of time or consult the librarian to ensure the book is age-appropriate. Have a few questions in mind to get the conversation going. You may have to mediate the first few meetings to get the ball rolling, but once your children have gotten used to the format, they will have no trouble sharing their opinions!

Attend local board of education meetings to hear presentations about the budget and what programs will be impacted. Don't be afraid to ask the board of education or your administrators questions; you have the right to speak up and be a part of the discussion about your child's education.

Don't forget about your school's PTO. Many parent-teacher organizations sponsor fundraisers throughout the year that support school-based programs, after-school activities, or assemblies your child may participate in for free. Remember to volunteer for some of these events as it helps make you an active member of your child's learning community.

Jennifer Cerbasi teaches at a public school for children on the autism spectrum in New Jersey. As a coordinator of Applied Behavioral Analysis programs in the home, she works with parents to create and implement behavioral plans for their children in an environment that fosters both academic and social growth. In addition to her work both in the classroom and at home, she is also a member of the National Association of Special Education Teachers and the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.