Preparing for the PTA (or PTO)

Ways to make it work for you


Linda Downing Miller


Ten tips Before my daughters started elementary school, my knowledge of PTAs was based on the old song about Harper Valley’s. The lyrics involve a group of snooty PTA women officially scorning the dress and behavior of a young, widowed mother. The mother (played by Barbara Eden in a television series) verbally “socks it” to the PTA by revealing some of the members’ unsavory secrets. You go, girl!

I now know a little more. For instance, there’s a difference between PTAs (affiliated with a national parent-teacher association) and PTOs (independent, local groups). PTAs get involved in promoting initiatives and even advocating legislation at the state and national levels. Both PTAs and PTOs offer local programs and activities that many school administrators, teachers, and parents applaud: cultural events, money for curriculum “extras” and fun fairs and potlucks that draw communities together.

I also know parent-teacher groups can seem intimidating, particularly to parents encountering them for the first time. How do you find your way in, especially if it seems like your PTA—or PTO—is run by a clique of Harper Valley harpies?

Here are some suggestions:

1 Get thee to the coffee (or meeting). Most parent-teacher groups kick off the school year with at least one event designed to involve new parents. These groups need volunteers to run their many activities, even if a close-knit set of friends seems to run the show.

“We spend about $8,000 just to include new people in the process,” says Linda Schembari, past PTO co-president at Mann School in Oak Park. Last year, Mann held a coffee for interested volunteers and a potluck for new families. The PTO also organized a mentoring program pairing new families with veteran parents.

“We try very hard to encompass everyone in the school,” agrees Elyce Meador, recent PTO president at Hannah Beardsley Middle School in Crystal Lake. She also admits to getting involved cautiously at the start. “I sat back to see … what the environment [was] like,” she says.

Attending a regular meeting can help provide a feel for a group’s environment—or at least the board members and teacher liaisons.

That said, regular attendance is not a requirement. In spite of what Schembari calls “very poor” meeting attendance at Mann School, she says the school’s PTO has “a lot of terrific, independently working circles” of volunteers.

2 Find opportunities that fit. If you have a knack for crafts and cookies and want to get to know your child’s teacher better, consider being a “room parent.” This job typically involves planning parties for a classroom of kids around holidays.  

If you have a full-time job without flexible hours, or if you hate picture frames made of craft foam, consider helping at a weekend fun fair. If you hate fun, how about editing the group’s newsletter? (I tried that last year.)

Wheaton parent Dianna Weglars was nonplussed by the sheer number of committees when she first encountered the Lowell Elementary School’s PTA. But, she says: “Really, almost everyone should be able to find something. … If you volunteer on a committee, you meet people that way. [It’s a] ‘You’re all in this together’ kind of thing.”

3 Make your own opportunities. If your interests don’t mesh with existing activities, propose your own. Start-up money is available for good ideas, provided organizers manage participation fairly and openly, Schembari says. 

Before serving twice as Lowell’s PTA president, Mary Anne Vitone put her theater degree to use by forming a drama club that performed skits about bullying and caring. Three years ago, two parents launched an afterschool chess club for kids at Lowell. The annual year-end Discovery Day allows parents to share a specific talent with kids.

Motivated parents at Mann last year launched a knitting club and a Japanese club.

4 Don’t try to do it all. Backpacks overflowing with school and PTO or PTA communications can cause indecisive parents unneeded stress. Don’t feel obligated to participate in every fundraiser or volunteer for every event. No need for wrapping paper? Toss the fundraising packet. Next week, there will be more opportunities.

“Do what you can. Don’t take on more than you can,” Vitone suggests. “When you make the commitment, you need to follow through.”

Laura Bulandr, recent president of St. Norbert’s Home & School Association in Northbrook, agrees. The group’s fall family dinner is just one example of a short-term commitment.

“If you want to help, you can help on that one-function scale,” Bulandr says.

5 Consult your kids. Most young kids love the idea of having a parent show up in the classroom, though for some, the experience can be disruptive. Older kids may be less excited about having parents at school. Touch base before you sign up.

“I did grade school for a long time until my oldest one was in middle school,” Meador says. “Neither one of my two older ones wanted me to move into high school volunteering.”

6 Don’t assume you’re not wanted. If you regularly pass a gossiping group of PTO or PTA board members on your way to work, you might feel excluded by virtue of your lifestyle. (They obviously have time on their hands. Are they talking about those store-bought cookies I left for the teachers’ lunch?) Don’t jump to conclusions.

Bulandr volunteered at St. Norbert’s for more than four years as a full-time working mom. Association meetings there are scheduled during the evenings and mornings to accommodate different schedules. “We’ve tried to adapt over time to fit our community,” she says.

And these groups aren’t just for moms. “I am surprised by the number of dads we have,” Meador says. One recently served as treasurer at Hannah Beardsley.

7 Be persistent. Not getting called after expressing interest in volunteering can feel like a snub. In some cases, it’s more the result of lost information, a simple oversight or an overabundance of willing parents.

“We have volunteers coming out of our noses. If we do get a complaint, we get a complaint that they were never called. We are doing better,” Meador says.

Try following up at least once. (School newsletters usually publicize upcoming activities and supply contact names.)

You might also look for ways to volunteer in the school outside the organization. Many teachers welcome an offer to share a hobby or career interest with your child’s class,

8 Speak up for change. Because PTA and PTO volunteers change from year to year, programs are often simply passed on to the next willing leader—without discussing whether they should be continued.

At Lowell, Vitone notes that the Market Day fundraiser is no longer as lucrative as it once was, but since volunteers have stepped up to lead it, the program continues.

Schembari says Mann’s weekly PTO lunch brings in a significant amount of money, though the offerings—pizza and hot dogs—are not exactly healthful.

“For the most part, parents love it,” she says. “I don’t have a problem with two slices of pizza. If we got a groundswell of complaints, we’d probably change it.”

9 Expect some controversy. Parent-teacher groups have nonprofit status and are limited in the amount of funds they can carry over from one year to the next. Spending decisions can sometimes get heated. At Mann, I’ve heard rumors of past ill feelings over a proposed tile project. At Lowell, a discussion over whether to spend money on a large sign outside the school polarized some parents and staff.

“You have to be very diplomatic,” Vitone says. “Whenever you’re spending money, the question you’re always asking yourself is: ‘How is this benefiting the children?’ ”

10 Accept leadership.     Don’t worry. The leaders of your local PTA or PTO might not be as power-mad as you fear. They may have been less than eager to take on a leadership role.

“Sometimes we do have trouble getting board members,” Vitone says. “Two years ago, four out of five of us hadn’t expressed interest.”

Schembari was similarly recruited to take the helm of the Mann PTO. “I’ve been in education for 30 years, so they just came to me and asked me if I could do it.”

Board positions and lead committee roles are typically filled in the spring by a nominating committee. Schembari says if several people express interest in leading one committee, the Mann PTO will identify multiple co-chairs.

In labor-intensive jobs, co-chairs can be invaluable. Schembari called a friend and me at the close of the 2003-04 school year to ask us to consider editing the newsletter. It seemed time to step up. (It really wasn’t that bad.)

And not one person criticized my clothes. 

Linda Downing Miller lives in Oak Park with her husband and two daughters.


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