How to clique-proof your PTO

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 organizations.

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 clique.

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 parent-teacher organization.

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 PTO.

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 away.

“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 stay-at-home parents.

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 says.

And, if newcomers feel welcome, there are likely to be more of them.

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