Danielle Eaton had a two-step plan in mind for the School 16 PTA in Yonkers, N.Y., winner of Outstanding Outreach to a Multicultural Parent Base in PTO Today’s 2012 Parent Group of the Year search.

First, the organization needed to be strengthened. If that hurdle could be cleared, Eaton then hoped to organize more functions involving students, parents, teachers, and administrators. It was a tall order for a group with a history of limited parent involvement struggling to reach a broad multicultural base. Ironically, her two-step plan ended up finding its biggest success to date rooted in dance—the old two-step, but with a unique spin.

“Our biggest obstacle has always been getting parents to come out,” says Eaton, who presides over the PTA with copresident Christina Brito. Whether it was attendance at PTA meetings or participation in fundraising events, the numbers just weren’t there. For so many of the families at the 491-student preK-6 school, English is not the first language, and that creates a barrier. “Parents are nervous or maybe it’s because everybody is [in] a two-person working household and there’s just no time,” Brito says. More than 70 percent of School 16’s students are on reduced-price lunch programs. “We knew we had to do something to try to get these parents more involved,” she adds.

A small core group of women, Eaton and Brito included, first educated themselves on how to effectively run a parent group, attending conferences, consulting websites, and reading all that they could. Once they felt more confident, it was easy to embrace an idea presented by a particularly enthusiastic parent, Aixa Rosario. She suggested that the school stage a multicultural event to educate students about the different cultures in their midst. It was first envisioned as a collection of displays the children would research and assemble in class, featuring places as diverse as Puerto Rico, Colombia, Japan, and Jordan. However, the event took on a life of its own when Rosario got the inspiration to include an international dance performance.

Attendance at the school’s first-ever multicultural night broke all records. “Our parking lot was full for the first time, the streets were packed with cars. It was standing room only,” Eaton says. Although this in itself was heartening, the weeks leading up to the grand event were just as unifying.

As it happens, Rosario is a Pilates and dance instructor. Soon she was teaching the children dances representative of the countries they were now studying—numbers like the cumbia and merengue. Meanwhile, a few parents discovered talents they didn’t even know they had, such as the ability to sew costumes and to solicit donations effectively. Brito crafted a letter, and a few committed volunteers went door to door asking neighbors to contribute what they could—a grassroots effort that netted some $300. The group also received a small corporate donation, and together these funds helped defray the cost of fabric and decorations purchased for the event.

The excitement leading up to and on the night of the event was palpable. You could see it in the faces of the children, according to Brito. Some of them had never been exposed to such dances. “All the preparation really made them feel like they belong to those four walls, that it’s their building,” Eaton says. Each class proudly set up tables in the gymnasium displaying information, items, and food from their assigned country. Maps of the world were purchased to hang behind the tables, and each corresponding country was circled. International flags dotted the room.

Music and dance drew families in; as well, they got to see their child perform. And while many cultural and language barriers were bridged, the playing field was leveled in another unexpected way. Special education students danced alongside mainstream children and there was no distinction. “They were all stars that night,” Eaton says.

Plans are already in the works to stage a similar event next year. The benefits of doing so are seen as twofold by School 16’s newly invigorated PTA. It’s not only an effective way to bring together the culturally diverse school, but it also provides students with educational enrichment opportunities. A severely slashed school budget has caused physical education time to be reduced and music programs to be cut altogether.

Brito believes the event has shown parents that the School 16 PTA is about having everyone, regardless of language, come together and support students. Among other things, it has inspired the group to start a tradition of hosting a welcoming breakfast in September. Entering a new school year, the leaders of the School 16 PTA feel confident that they can further engage and keep improving relationships with parents, students, and teachers.


Reaching Out to Parents

Use these tips from the School 16 PTA to engage a diverse parent population.

Think creatively when planning events and be open to suggestions. The more colorful, the better!

Adopt a one-on-one approach. Walk up to parents and engage them in conversation at school pickup time. Many are surprisingly open to volunteering opportunities when asked directly.

Draw on resources within the school community. If a parent or teacher has a special talent they’re willing to share, it could form the basis for a spirit-stirring event, as with Aixa Rosario, the dance instructor.

Have a parent translator on hand at all parent group meetings. This will both encourage attendance and make sure no one feels left out.

Remain persistent. Seize opportunities outside of school to go up to parents and introduce yourself. It may happen slowly at first, but eventually you’ll get a lot more parents involved.