Have you ever walked into your child's school to
see the PTO president gabbing with the principal like they are old
friends? Are the PTO meetings scheduled at a time that makes it
difficult for you to attend? Do you feel like the PTO is dominated
by the same set of parents year after year?
If you have ever thought your school's PTO is a clique,
you are not alone.
However, with help from national leaders, PTO presidents
around the Chicago area are trying to "clique-proof" their
Parent-teacher organizations-PTOs (for independent
parent-teacher groups) or PTAs (for those parent-teacher groups
affiliated with the state and national Parent Teacher
Association)-are a powerful force in elementary education. There
are more than 400 PTA chapters in Illinois and about 2,000
independent, school-based parent-teacher groups. These groups plan
social events, raise money and organize extracurricular activities
and community service projects. Ultimately, the goal of the PTO is
to encourage parent involvement in the school and to make the
school a better place for students and staff.
Despite these good intentions, PTOs can have a reputation
for being exclusive.
Whispers abound when it seems like the same moms are
picked to be room parents year after year and the PTO president's
kids always get the best teachers. A new volunteer suggests a
change and is brushed off with a polite but firm "we always do it
this way." A first-time attendee at a PTO meeting is embarrassed
when no one acknowledges her presence. These type of incidents lead
parents to dismiss the PTO as one big high school-like
As Tim Sullivan, the founder of PTO Today, puts it: "If
people say your group is a clique, it is." In other words, when it
comes to cliques, perception is reality.
When Rosalind Wiseman, author of the acclaimed book Queen
Bees and Wannabes on which the film "Mean Girls" was based,
traveled around the country talking to school groups, she
encountered a strange phenomenon. The parent picking her up from
the airport would confess conspiratorially that the "mean girl"
behavior did not end in high school, but rather was present among
the adults in the school: the faculty, the staff and especially the
This recurrent conversation inspired Wiseman to write
Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads. In it, Wiseman devotes an entire
chapter to the politics of parent volunteering, particularly the
Wiseman argues that the PTO must make an effort to
accommodate different family structures.
PTOs also should offer many different kinds of volunteer
opportunities, from in-the-classroom commitments to one-time
weekend or evening events to administrative work that can be done
on the volunteer's schedule, she says.
Wiseman's advice is echoed by River Forest mom Vanessa
Druckman. Druckman has moved twice in the past three years, from
New Jersey to Ohio to River Forest.
Druckman hesitated to get involved with the PTO right
"The PTO of any school has years of history and
traditions. As a new parent to the school, I prefer to have a few
years to get to know the school culture before jumping in to
volunteer for a PTO position," she says.
But smaller commitments can help ease the transition.
"PTOs should provide many opportunities for new people to volunteer
on a one-day basis…. This provides great opportunities to get to
know other parents when you're new," Druckman says.
Just across Harlem Avenue, Oak Park PTO co-presidents
Kristen Diamond and Lisa Sensat make an effort to reach out to new
families with a fall New Parent Potluck at their elementary school,
Horace Mann. "We can't afford to be exclusive or cliquey. It's hard
enough to get good volunteers," Diamond says.
Both Diamond and Sensat believe their organization
benefits from having a diverse pool of volunteers, including
parents of different ages and income levels and both working and
One change the pair instituted was alternating daytime and
evening PTO meetings to accommodate all parents' needs. As a
result, parent participation and goodwill increased.
The Mann School PTO also advertises volunteer
opportunities on its website with an estimated time commitment.
Opportunities range from one-time commitments of a few hours to
year-long projects. Ultimately the proof is in the pudding. Mann
School has about 300 families and about 100 parents who volunteer
their time in the PTO.
Sullivan suggests other small changes, like wearing name
tags, stationing a greeter at the door, always explaining "old
business" rather than assuming that everyone knows what you are
talking about, and asking people to raise their hands and be
recognized before speaking. These policies may feel overly formal
when it is just "the regulars" at the meeting, but they ensure that
when a new parent does show up, he or she will feel welcome, he
And, if newcomers feel welcome, there are likely to be
more of them.
Emily Paster is a freelance writer and River Forest mom of two.
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