Meetings are like funerals, says humorist Dave Barry: "You have a gathering of people who are wearing uncomfortable clothing and would rather be somewhere else. The major difference is that most funerals have a definite purpose. Also, nothing is ever really buried in a meeting."
Since most people view meetings as a form of slow torture, it's not surprising that parent groups face enormous challenges in getting parents together for such a purpose. Luckily, meetings are not the only thing parent groups do. Neither are they the most important activity of parent groups. With so many demands on their limited time—and the perception that meetings are a waste of that time—parents often choose to bypass these traditional powwows. While poor attendance can feel like failure, the most successful parent groups recognize that getting parents to meetings is not vital. In fact, building parent involvement in other activities can be much more effective than trying to lure everyone to sit through monthly recitations of the minutes, the treasurer's report, and other agenda items.
Still, it's good for parents to feel that they have a stake in the group and a voice in its decisionmaking—and meetings are one way to accomplish that. So here are some ideas for boosting the numbers at your next meeting.
Vary the Meeting Time
Surveys are one way to discover what times best suit your population; variety is often appreciated. To accommodate its parents' schedules, Shrewsbury Elementary in Shrewsbury, Pa., now holds meetings on rotating days: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. Coolidge Elementary in Wyckoff, N.J., holds evening meetings in October and March, with morning meetings the rest of the year. And its morning meeting time was recently moved from 9:30 to 9:15, allowing just enough cushion for parents to arrive after the morning rush. "Parents drop their kids off, come down to have a cup of coffee and socialize, and within an hour or so they're on their way," says PTO President Jeanine Rossi, adding that most of her school's parents have flexible schedules because they either don't have jobs or work part time or from home.
Vary the Meeting Place
Just as Tuesday night isn't necessarily the best day for meetings, neither is the school cafeteria the only place to conduct parent group business. Diverse locales, while perhaps not as central, offer other appeals. For example, South Jacksonville Elementary School in Jacksonville, Ill., meets at a skating rink; while kids skate for an hour, parents make decisions about upcoming events. The result is that attendance at the monthly meetings has increased from five people to 50.
Some schools hold one or more gatherings a year at a local restaurant. That technique has worked for Macedon Elementary in Macedon, N.Y., and Arthur J. Gallagher Neighborhood School in Harmony, Fla., among others. Shelburne Community School in Shelburne, Vt., holds monthly summer potluck dinner meetings at parents' homes, with the schedule set and promoted before school lets out for the summer. The PTO at Evergreen Elementary in Mosinee, Wis., plans to hold an informal back-to-school potluck lunch in a park for its kickoff meeting in August.
Encourage Attendance as a Responsibility
Some parents respond to direct appeals by teachers or the parent group about the importance of their presence at meetings. For instance, each mom or dad who accepts the role of class parent at Coolidge Elementary is required to attend PTO meetings. This helps information flow back to other parents and also helps involve parents who might not otherwise attend, Rossi says.
At Shelburne Community School, the PTO has lobbied teachers to encourage attendance. "We talked with all the teams and teachers in the school and heavily recommended that they have parent representation coming to the meeting," says PTO Chairwoman Mary Catherine Jones. The result is that each team has a parent position called "PTO Representative," with one parent taking the role, two sharing it, or a different parent attending the meeting each month. The benefit for the teachers is consideration for classroom grants, ranging from $200 to $5,000, awarded each year by the PTO.
"We tried to indicate that PTO meeting attendance by parents from teachers' teams would be a factor in our giving grants during the year," Jones says. "The more information we have about a team and its needs, the more likely that we would approve a grant. We don't literally tie approval to attendance, but teachers need someone there to advocate their interests." The result is that turnout has risen from about a half-dozen attendees to as many as 30, and Jones feels sure that the difference is what she calls the PTO's "vigorous lobbying of teachers to send representatives.' Ironically, the teachers themselves rarely attend meetings except to present their grant requests.
Make Meetings More Fun
"I've been told PTO meetings are boring," says Katie Jones, PTO president at Marengo Elementary in Marengo, Ind. One suggestion she's considering to change that perception is a "Bunko night" instead of a regular meeting. Half the parents would come at 4 p.m. and half at 6 p.m. to play Bunko, a lively game involving dice. At Coolidge Elementary, the last PTO meeting of the year is a thank-you brunch for parents, with only a brief meeting and the announcement of new officers taking a back seat to socializing. Sometimes all that's needed is a change of terminology. Lansdowne Elementary in Charlotte, N.C., stopped calling its monthly PTO meetings "board" meetings. "We took the word 'board' off to make parents feel welcome," says Copresident Jeff Highfill.
Another approach is to invite guest speakers or have students perform. The guest speakers at Coolidge Elementary are the school's less visible faces, people not everyone would know, like the guidance counselor and the resource teacher. "This gives parents an opportunity to come and meet these people," Rossi says. "We advertise each month who will be attending. They can put a face and name to some of these people so if in the future they come across them, parents will be more comfortable. It's especially helpful for our new families." In addition, a different grade level of students makes a presentation each month, such as reciting poems they've written, and parents are notified ahead of time when their children will be performing.
Of course, that doesn't always work. One middle school parent sharing her experience on the message boards at ptotoday.com wrote, "I recall that the night the cheerleaders performed, the cheerleaders far outnumbered the adults present. So most of those parents must have just dropped the girls off at school and picked them up later."
Sometimes door prizes or awards bring people in. At each PTO meeting at Cracker Trail Elementary School in Sebring, Fla., one attendee wins a $25 gift certificate to a local restaurant or the mall. Marengo Elementary used to award two $20 Wal-Mart gift certificates based on meeting attendance, one to a grades K-3 teacher and the other to a grades 4-6 teacher, to buy classroom supplies. But since the same teachers usually won, the approach is being tweaked. This year, parents will submit their child's name at each meeting. At the end of the year, there will be one drawing, with $50 gift certificates going to one boy and one girl.
Offer Baby-sitting and Other Services
Make it easier for parents to attend by eliminating reasons why they can't, especially when it comes to childcare. Woodrow Wilson Elementary School in Framingham, Mass., offers translation services at PTO meetings for parents who don't speak English. The school also offers baby-sitting, as does Imperial Estates Elementary in Titusville, Fla. Coolidge Elementary PTO pays two parents to baby-sit in a nearby classroom at each meeting, and that option is mentioned in all monthly PTO reminders. Evergreen Elementary in Mosinee, Wis., pays the son of a former PTO president and his friend to baby-sit.
Make Meetings Shorter
Who isn't in a hurry these days? Who doesn't want to avoid meetings that go on and on? That's why a reputation for concise meetings might boost attendance.
Shrewsbury Elementary PTO cut its meeting time to an hour by eliminating unnecessary discussion about details. "It used to be someone would describe an event and say, 'Do you think we need to order potato chips? What about napkins?' " says PTO President Andrea Senn. "But committees don't need to come to the whole PTO. I told each chairperson, 'You decide for your event.' I delegate more. There's no time to get into the nitty-gritty at a PTO meeting."
Coolidge Elementary keeps its meetings to an hour or 75 minutes. "That's one of the factors that has increased attendance—the length of the meeting," Rossi says. "I feel everyone has busy lives, and if the meeting is drawn out, they may not attend. It's not that I skip anything. I'm very organized. If discussion begins throughout the meeting, I encourage people to come to me after the meeting so we can have a more in-depth conversation."
Hold Fewer Meetings
Monthly meetings are a tradition that some schools have decided needs to go the way of all-male military colleges. Lakeside Middle School in Anderson, S.C., holds only three PTO meetings per year—in September, November, and January. Shrewsbury Elementary also got rid of monthly meetings. "It was getting to be too much to do, and we were not getting anything out of it," Senn says. "Every other month worked better. I'm not a proponent of having a meeting just to have a meeting." During those non-meeting months, the PTO holds a family event instead, such as a dessert social or an arts-and-crafts night.
Beall Elementary in Frostburg, Md., also cut back to three meetings per year: in the fall, at midyear (January), and at the end of the year. "We found out we had a lot better attendance when we shortened the amount of meetings," says PTO President Butch Bowersox. "With everybody as busy as they are, it's almost worthless to try to get them all out for a meeting that didn't have a lot of content. That's why we scaled back. We realize people's time is important. For most it's a relief—one less thing off their calendar. And it's a huge help for us to have better participation."
Combine Meetings With Other School Events
At Marengo Elementary, attendance at regular PTO meetings is small—only about 10 parents and teachers. But when the meeting is held in conjunction with a school event, attendance doubles or even triples. "We have a big turnout when we have an open house night because all the parents are there anyway," says Katie Jones, who adds that meetings are also held after the science and book fairs. The PTO has also experimented with simply having a presence at open house rather than holding an actual meeting. The group sets up a table where parents can fill out a survey about their own ideas for increasing parent involvement or sign up to volunteer at the fall festival.
Every PTO meeting at Third Ward Elementary in Elkins, W.Va., is held in conjunction with another event such as a dinner, cakewalk, book fair, or performances by the choir and band. At Lansdowne Elementary, a shortened PTO meeting is held immediately preceding school concerts. "It's a captive audience," Highfill says. "It gets a lot of people updated, but no discussion is generated. Its an effective form of announcing things."
Last year, Beall Elementary decided to couple PTO meetings with events such as band concerts and movie nights, and attendance has nearly doubled. "We have more people willing to come out for events," Bowersox says. "I'm not sure if they're coming out for the PTO meeting or for the event, but for parents it's great to kill two birds with one stone. Food helps, too; a lot of our events include dinner." Fun is the focus of every PTO meeting at Chatham Middle School in Chatham, Va. Brief meetings are held before band concerts, open houses, and family nights.
Parents with full appointment books need a heads-up about meeting dates. Marengo Elementary has meetings listed on a school calendar magnet and on the school sign and also sends out reminders a week or two ahead of time. Shrewsbury Elementary goes even further: The PTO publicizes its meeting dates through a newsletter, website, school calendar, and district TV station. And on the day of a meeting, teachers put little round stickers that say "PTO meeting tonight" on the children before they leave.
Use Other Vehicles To Get the Word Out
If your PTO meetings still aren't standing room only, don't despair. Communicate the necessary information to parents through newsletters and websites. Then focus on drawing parents in for the fun family events that will keep them coming back.