As parents, we mark the end of summer with a few important rituals. You take the kids shopping for new clothes, pick out school supplies, receive your child’s teacher assignment. The kids become anxious, sad to see the end of vacation but excited about what lies ahead. The summer quickly pushes toward a close, and everyone’s attention turns to school.
The parent group can have a direct role in getting the school year off to a strong start. PTO can spruce things up around the school, help make everyone feel welcome, and encourage parents, students, staff, and faculty to get reacquainted. Internally, the PTO needs to get organized for the year ahead and set expectations for the projects and activities planned.
Your main goal should be to create a community that supports your school, the teachers, the staff, and the children. Whether school’s already started or you’re still gearing up, there are many things you can do now to accomplish that goal successfully. Here are 38 ideas to recharge your PTO engines.
Buy a Little Breakfast
Do something special for the kindergarten parents. Whether sending their first child off to school or their last, kindergarten parents have a heightened sense of emotion. The PTO can acknowledge this special transition with a simple parents-only breakfast on the first day of school. This boo hoo/yahoo breakfast is a great opportunity to introduce new parents to the activities of the PTO and for “old” parents to reassure the first-timers that their babies will be just fine.
Let Them Know How You Feel
Hang a big sign on the school fence, over the front door, or near the bus loop on the first day of school. Add a bundle of helium balloons at each entrance to show this is a special day. Place welcome signs on the classroom doors. Distribute personal notes of well-wishes to each teacher and staff member. Make it clear that your school is a great place to be and that your PTO is proud to support the school.
Be a Part of Open House
Whether your school calls it Open House, Meet the Teacher, or Curriculum Night, be sure the PTO has a presence at this parents-only school event. Staff a display touting the successes of the past and the plans for the future, including the date of your first meeting. Set out committee sign-up sheets and membership forms, if appropriate. Provide samples of your fundraising merchandise. Be sure to have at least one officer on hand to answer any questions and engage parents.
‘Treat’ the Students Right
Make a memorable, positive impression with the students. Have volunteers distribute doughnuts to each classroom at the start of the first day of school, courtesy of the PTO. Or if sweets are taboo, consider a specially printed pencil or folder for each student.
Hold a Special Kickoff Meeting
The Haviland Elementary PTA in Waterford, Mich., sponsors a family ice cream social in conjunction with the first meeting of the year. After ice cream, the parents gather for the business meeting while the children are supervised in the gym.
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Distribute a Welcome Packet
You want to make a great first impression with parents, right? Then delay sending home your fundraising appeal and distribute an information packet first.
Prepare a comprehensive packet that includes the PTO’s mission, key projects and plans for the year, the names and phone numbers of the officers and committee chairs, meeting dates and locations, membership information, a volunteer sign-up form, and other appropriate information. Market the PTO!
Make the Teachers Feel Special
The PTO at John S. Hobart Elementary in Shirley, N.Y., sponsors a “Welcome Back Luncheon” for the faculty and staff the day before school opens, complete with small welcome-back gifts.
Set an annual calendar of meetings and events sponsored by the PTO. Post the calendar in the school on the PTO bulletin board and in the school newsletter. If you have monthly meetings, try to follow a consistent pattern (for example, the second Tuesday of every month) so your members can work the meetings into their personal routines.
Don’t Assume They’re Listening
Prepare a list of executive board meeting dates, times, and locations, and distribute a copy to each officer. Don’t assume everyone marked the dates in their day planners.
Post a list of all the officers and committee chairs, along with their phone numbers, in the PTO display case. Update the list as changes occur. Make it easy for parents to know who to call with their questions.
Don’t Scare Them Off
You’re likely to have several new attendees for your first meeting of the year. Make sure this meeting starts and ends on time. Don’t let it get bogged down; you don’t want meeting attendance to seem like a drag. Be sure to explain to the attendees what they can expect from future meetings so they know the value of attending. Set start and end times for all meetings, and work hard to stay on schedule. Your members will appreciate your consideration of their time.
Help Them Make a Commitment
Every PTO has a variety of ways members can get involved. When recruiting volunteers, describe the time commitment and estimated workload so people know what’s expected and can select a job that suits their availability, their interests, and their talents.
Show Off Your Successes
Create a display in the school lobby or other common area where you show ways the PTO has benefited the school in the past.
Consider including photographs of family events, assemblies, and special projects; statistics of fundraising success; lists of items purchased with PTO funds; thank-you notes received; testimonials from members and staff; and more.
If your PTO does not already “own” a prominently located bulletin board or display case, ask to take over an existing case or purchase and install a new one. Assure the principal that the PTO will keep the display current and newsworthy. Our own PTO replaced a faded chess club sign that had filled the primary display case in our main lobby for six months. When we asked for permission, the principal said, “What chess club sign?”
Orient the Team
Gather your committee chairs for an orientation meeting. Discuss tips on keeping the executive board up to date, managing the committee’s budget, working in the school, and working with their volunteers.
Encourage chairpeople to contact all the members who sign up for their committees, even if not all of the people will be needed.
The Timberline High School Parent Organization in Boise, Idaho, recommends distributing folders with this information, plus phone lists, schedule of events, procedural items such as reimbursement request forms, the PTO’s bylaws, maybe even magazine articles on volunteerism. That way you give everyone the same information, even if someone did not attend the orientation meeting.
The PTO treasurer should educate the committee chairs on financial issues, including the amounts of their committee budgets, the correct way to ask for reimbursement, controls for tracking payment collections, and how to make deposits after a fundraiser.
Ask for Suggestions
Set up a PTO suggestion box in the lobby or other common area. Let parents and staff know they can feel comfortable bringing a suggestion or potential solution to the attention of the PTO officers.
Figure Out Whose Job Is Whose
Before confusion sets in, clarify with the principal which activities are run by the staff and which are the PTO’s domain. If your school holds a book fair, for example, should the PTO recruit helpers, or does the school librarian see that as her job? Will the book fair money run through the PTO’s account, or does it go directly to the school? Will teachers ask for classroom helpers themselves, or should the PTO handle a blanket request?
Attend to Money Matters
If your budget includes accounts over which the principal or teachers have discretion, be sure to let them know how much money they can look forward to. They, too, need to do some planning for the year. If your budget for assemblies is $4,000, the staff member who schedules assemblies needs to know that amount right away, before any programs can be booked.
Also, be certain the staff knows how to get funding from the PTO: by formal grant request, through the principal, by submitting reimbursement requests, or by requests consolidated at the grade level, for example.
Find Your Bylaws
This is good time to find—and read—a copy of your group’s bylaws. If you have only a paper copy, recruit a volunteer to type them up in an electronic format so they can be updated and saved easily. Make copies for all of your officers and committee chairs. Keep a copy on hand at every meeting. If your group has no bylaws, seriously consider developing a set for your PTO as a first priority this fall.
Prepare Your Budget
Update your budget from last year, or create a new one from your PTO’s checkbook history and this year’s plans. Confirm recurring costs with your vendors, if applicable. Be prepared to submit the budget for approval at your first meeting of the year.
Bone Up on Robert’s Rules
Robert’s Rules of Order were designed to help meetings run efficiently. Local bookstores carry summarized versions of the rules that make them easy to understand and apply to your situation.
Some parent groups even have an assigned parliamentarian who can answer questions related to motions, voting, amendments, and more during PTO meetings.
You don’t need to go overboard in applying the rules, but if you have a basic understanding of the areas of Robert’s Rules most relevant to a PTO, you can keep the meetings running smoothly.
Ask for Help
Recruit committee chairs and committee volunteers from your membership. If you set out sign-up sheets, include the names and phone numbers of the current and immediate past chairpeople, so potential volunteers can call for more information. On the other hand, don’t fill all the positions with “old” members. Leave opportunities for parents who are new to the school this fall.
Find the Files
Somewhere in your school, or possibly in the basements of your past officers and committee chairs, are the files of past PTO events. Track those down and redistribute them to the new officers and chairpeople. Even files that seem old and outdated can provide good advice, if your volunteers take the time to read through them.
You’ll be amazed at the ideas no one remembers that were once used successfully; just read the old minutes for clues. As PTO secretary, I thought we should distribute a quarterly newsletter. In my old secretary files, I found great examples that had been published many years earlier, but the practice had died out with a change in officers.
Set Up a Binder System
Officers and committee chairs acquire a wealth of information during their time in office. Start a committee binder system to collect it all; you’ll make life a lot easier for future volunteers. Have each committee chair fill her binder with information gathered in working on events: vendors used, costs, planning issues, budget projections, and so forth.
The next time you run that event or program, you won’t have to go searching for information you already had—once. More important, you’ll smooth the transition when new committee chairs take office. Your group will be off and running a lot sooner and a lot more smoothly.
Mark Those Dates
If your school district requires that the PTO requisition meeting space, now is the time to complete the paperwork. It can be very awkward to show up for an evening meeting, only to find the school building locked. If your district maintains a district-wide calendar, submit the dates of your big family events to reduce the likelihood of conflict with other events at neighboring schools.
Make Meetings Consistent
For both regular membership meetings and executive board meetings, establish a routine to keep the meetings focused.
For example, always set an agenda, record minutes (even for executive board meetings), and provide opportunities for committee reports and open discussion alike. Start and end on time. Decide now whether your meetings will be for business only, for educational purposes, or a mix. Confirm speakers early if you want outsiders to present at your meetings.
Start Big Projects Early
Get a jump on major undertakings. Often, the details make projects take longer than it seems like they should. Get a jump on these things now; you won’t miss the last-minute stress.
For example, if your PTO publishes the school directory or sets up the telephone fan-out network, start working on those projects as early as possible. Typically, parents are anxious for the directory, but the project is far more complex than most people realize.
The telephone fan-out also needs to be updated each year as families leave and new families come to the school. If your fan-out is used primarily for winter weather advisories, then you have a little breathing room. But the sooner your committee starts on the project, the better.
Consider collecting the e-mail addresses of your members so the PTO can send meeting announcements, meeting minutes, and special event reminders electronically.
Update the Website
Now is the time to update the information on your Web site. If your PTO does not have its own Web site, contact the administrator of your school’s Web site to see whether a page can be dedicated to your group. At minimum, post meeting times and locations, officer names, and a list of the benefits the PTO has provided to the school. Consider assigning a Web master role to one of your officers or even establishing it as a new volunteer position.
Do Some Fall Cleaning
When was the last time the PTO cabinet or closet at school was really cleaned out and organized? Now is a good time to tackle that project and take inventory. You can reduce spending on office and hospitality supplies if you know what you already have on hand. Post the inventory on the cabinet or closet door, and be sure to tell your volunteers that they should use what’s on hand first. We found that when we consolidated all the boxes, we had 10,000 coffee stir sticks. Plenty for any coffee hours we might host for the next several years, plus enough for several good art projects!
Meet One Another
Get To Know Your Fellow Officers
Jackson Elementary PTO in Hebron, Ohio, holds a potluck dinner for new officers in late summer. The emphasis is on getting to know each other, not necessarily on PTO business. You might want to include spouses and children, too.
Most PTOs have at least one executive board meeting in the summer. This is a good practice that ensures your officers are organized and ready to get started right away. Discussion topics might include meeting format, key dates, next year’s budget, new projects, special challenges ahead, and the specific role and responsibilities of each officer. Even if school has already started, it’s a good idea to get together for a little strategic planning.
This is also a good time to ensure that each officer has a copy of your PTO’s bylaws. You might want to invite last year’s officers to a transition meeting, if that has not already happened.
Hi! My Name Is...
Provide nametags at every PTO meeting, not just the first one. At the start of each meeting, ask whether anyone is attending for the first time and make a special effort to introduce newcomers around. Sure, you’ll all know each other after a while. But the nametags aren’t meant to help your regular members. The purpose is to make new members feel welcome and a part of the group.
Meet the Teachers
Estes Hills Elementary PTA in Chapel Hill, N.C., hosts a back to school picnic the week before school starts. Live music, food, and fun on the school playground ensure a great time getting to know the teachers, meeting new classmates, and renewing old friendships.
Fry Elementary PTA in Naperville, Ill., assists with the annual Teacher Meet and Greet session, for which parents and students are invited to visit the teachers and classrooms during a set date and time. Students can drop off bulky school supplies to their desks and meet the other students in their class. Teachers appreciate that random interruptions during their final prep days are eliminated because the principal stresses that the Meet and Greet session is the right time to drop in. The parent volunteers help direct families through the building, provide light refreshments, and staff a display of parent volunteer opportunities.
Take photographs of the teachers and staff and set up a display in the school lobby. That way, students who visit during the summer can see their teacher’s face, even if the teacher is not at school.
Meet the Families
Host a fun family event early in the year. Make it a “fun raising” event, not a fundraiser, though you might ask for a small fee to help cover costs.
Consider staggering the event by grade level, to allow interaction in smaller groups and to make the kids more likely to meet their new classmates and their classmates’ families.
Gretchko Elementary PTO in West Bloomfield, Mich., hosts an annual Fall Family Night in early September. Preschoolers and their families come first; kindergartners and first-graders start an hour later. Activities are spread throughout the school, with snacks and games in the gym. Adults are asked to wear nametags that indicate their child’s class and grade.
Mentor the New Parents
Ask the school office for a list of families new to the school (kindergartners and families new to the area). Distribute the names and instructions among the PTO officers, and have them make personal phone calls to welcome families to the school. Remind the parents of the PTO’s next activity and encourage them to attend. At the next PTO meeting, be on the lookout for the parents you called and make a personal introduction to help them feel welcome.
Consider taking the phone call one step further by establishing a welcome committee for new families. The PTO can assemble a packet of school, PTO, and community information and distribute it to families who move in throughout the year.
Spruce Things Up
Make a Good First Impression
Set out large pots of flowers by the school entrance. If watering is a concern, by mid-August someone might be on site who could take responsibility. If you paint the pots with the school logo and the parent group’s name, you’ll send a subtle but positive message about the PTO.
Lend a Hand
If the custodial staff is getting the basics ready for school, perhaps PTO volunteers can assist by power-washing the entry way, washing the school sign and main windows, weeding the flower beds, pruning the bushes and small trees, picking up litter around the school grounds, and generally getting the school “company clean.”
Check Out Old Glory
Does the school’s American flag need repair? If it’s unlikely the school or district will replace it soon, consider purchasing one with PTO funds.
Update the Displays
Teachers are usually busy making bulletin boards or other displays for their classrooms. The school secretaries are focused on registration and administrative issues. Who is going to update the display in your school’s lobby? Ask your principal for ideas, and take on the task of creating a bright new poster, bulletin board, or display case to promote the school, it’s mission, and the new year ahead.