The first time I heard any reference to a PTA was probably when I was my children’s age. It was the song, “Harper Valley PTA,” written by Tom T. Hall and performed by Jeannie C. Riley.
Released in 1968, the song inspired a movie a decade later and a television series a few years after that, which is probably when I first heard it. Of course, I didn’t realize the meaning of the catchy tune until later in life, and I am fairly certain there is no correlation between it and reality – at least in the 21st Century.
As a newspaper reporter who occasionally covered events sponsored by a PTA or PTO and later working as a communications specialist in school districts that have active parent organizations, I had a good sense of what they were all about.
But I still wasn’t sure what to expect when I attended my first PTO meeting at my children’s elementary school last month.
For them, it was the first meeting of a fresh school year coming off a period where the organization was less active. For me, my children were in a new school, and I didn’t have a good feel yet for the culture there.
I’m not much of a “joiner,” so I was stepping outside of my comfort zone a little. But I wanted to be involved with supporting education at my children’s new school, and I was also pretty sure I wouldn’t end up as a Harper Valley morality enforcer.
The PTO meeting was in the school library and free child care was offered. My children did not have to be told twice about this and raced off down the hallway to paint and play games. I took a seat at the table, where the principal, several teachers and about a dozen parents were gathered.
There wasn’t any discussion about the length of hemlines. We talked about how to encourage family reading, as well as expectations and goals for the year. It was fun, inspiring and full of good energy.
I’m hopeful we’ll see success this year.
There seem to be many more demands on a family’s schedule in today’s hectic world – sports, dance and music lessons and clubs, just to a name a few. Children, in many cases, come from single parent families. Families where both parents work are now the norm. When Tom T. Hall penned his poppy country music tune, they weren’t.
For answers to questions about how a parent organization like a PTA or PTO can help fulfil their missions in a busy world, I turned to Laurie Williams, co-president of the Cooperstown PTA, which serves the Cooperstown Central School District.
The Cooperstown PTA has had some great success through the years and runs one of the key community events in the area – The Crayon Carnival.
“I think the reason we are so successful is there is a small core group of people that is extremely dedicated to doing the work,” Williams said.
There are lots of parent volunteers who get involved for specific events or lend a hand in other ways, but success boils down to a few parents who have the vision to lead, said Williams, who noted that the “co” prefix before president is quite intentional.
Having co-officers, isn’t just about sharing the work load.
“It’s so you can train someone on the job,” Williams said.
Like elsewhere in life, there is a natural attrition rate for volunteer organizations in schools. As students age from elementary into the middle and high school years, they take on more activities such as sports and the fine arts that can often divert a parent’s free time. And, of course, the goal of education is graduation and eventually parents have empty nests – or at least children no longer in school.
A succession plan is important for the longevity of an organization, Williams said.
Another key to the success of the Cooperstown PTA is to economize and work “smarter.” Understanding that the time that parents have to be involved is more limited than in previous eras, the Cooperstown PTA has embraced technology.
Google Drive is used to store files and work collaboratively on planning and on promotional materials, such as flyers, without having to set up special meetings. Changes one person makes can instantly be seen by another person on the other side of town, according to Williams.
The files they use are passed down to the next year’s PTA leadership team.
“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” she said.
Parents who are looking to start a new organization, or perhaps revitalize an existing one, should start small and focus on doing a few things really well, Williams suggested.
“It doesn’t take a huge crop of people,” she said.
That reminds me of a quote from the 20th Century’s pre-eminent cultural anthropologist.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Although Margaret Mead was likely not thinking about Crayon Carnivals and family reading nights, she was certainly someone who understood the value of education – just like the folks who spend a couple hours each month volunteering for our children.
For more information on PTAs and PTOs; the differences between these organizations; and ways you can contribute to your own school communities, please see the following links:
Jake Palmateer is a public information specialist for Capital Region BOCES. He is the father of a 6-year-old son and an 8-year-old daughter. Their adventures include camping, hiking, metal detecting, painting, stargazing, reading, fishing, soccer, mowing the lawn and baking cupcakes.
Copyright ©2016 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission