Last year's most successful PTO event at Timnath Elementary School in Timnath, Colo., netted $25. And no, there aren't any zeros missing from that number. With free admission, more than 500 children and parents packed the gym for a 1970s-themed fall family night, where a DJ taught participants to do the hustle and led them in the hokey-pokey. Families garbed themselves in beads, tie-dyed bandannas, and temporary peace sign tattoos—all available for a very affordable quarter or 50 cents.
"It could easily have been a fundraiser, but we figured parents do fundraisers all year long. This is purely for fun," says PTO president Heather Binder. "We wanted to show parents that the PTO is not just fundraising." This year, Timnath held a luau in the fall (with the limbo on the dance floor and leis for sale) and is adding a similar event in the spring due to the great response.
Timnath's family night, like many such activities at schools around the country, was not undertaken for financial profit. Instead, the purpose was to bring families together at the school. And that, many agree, is the most important job of any parent group. Parent involvement improves student perofmance and behavior and makes schools better. That's the conclusion of "A New Wave of Evidence," a 2002 report from the Southwest Educational Development Laboratory in Austin, Texas, that reviewed 200 studies. Family nights have an added benefit for PTOs. Parents who enjoy themselves at these events are more likely to take interest in the PTO and become more active. Family events are the seeds from which active volunteers and even tomorrow's PTO leaders are grown.
The New Wave report emphasizes contact among parents as well as with teachers, school staff, and the community. That parent-to-parent interaction is a big draw at Brentwood Middle School in Brentwood, Tenn., which hosts an annual family night tailgate party before a fall home football game. In a cafeteria festooned with school colors, families gather for a barbecue dinner, with tickets sold at $4 or $5 to cover costs. The event, attended by as many as 500, is a way to boost game attendance and encourage families to get better acquainted. "The kids sit with their friends at the game, and the parents sit together," says PTO president Susan Graham. "It gives parents an opportunity to visit with each other."
In Phoenix, N.Y., Emerson J. Dillon Middle School's Family Quality Time Night also allows parents to mingle. "Parents get a chance to chat with other parents they usually just see in passing as they drop off or pick up or at a teacher conference," says PTO copresident Connie Deshaies. "Sometimes they just want to ask a question, but it's not a big enough issue to call and request a meeting."
The Dillon event blends fun for kids with important information for parents. Under the watchful eye of students from area high schools and colleges, along with some parents, Dillon students compete in volleyball and basketball in the gym, work out in the weight room, play laser tag in the dark in another room, and sing karaoke in the cafeteria, where hot dogs, pizza, and drinks are available for sale. Meanwhile, the rest of the parents receive information on helping their children make smart choices about alcohol and drugs. Parents talk to county health educators, representatives from Students Against Drunk Driving (SADD), and DARE officers, who bring along goggles that simulate alcohol intoxication. The PTO, which charges $2 or $3 per person up to a maximum of $10 per family, is also thinking about expanding the event this year by offering information about college funding.
A Friday afternoon picnic draws families to the school each spring at Patrick Copeland Elementary School in Hopewell, Va. Parents eat hot dogs in the cafeteria with their children, who play games and enjoy free popsicles and cotton candy. Last year about 300 people attended, according to PTO president Sherri McGrath.
A trip to the county fair was the theme of the fall family night at Oak Trace Elementary School in Westfield, Ind., complete with contests to bake the best pie and build the best roller coaster out of recycled materials. More than 400 people attended last year, a success PTO president Nancy Schmitz attributes to the fact that it's a casual, nonthreatening way to be involved.