Every September, families at Oakhurst Elementary gather on campus for a casual cookout. As kids devour hamburgers, moms and dads new to the community get a chance to chat with longtime residents. “It’s a really good time,” says Beth Thompson, PTA copresident at the Decatur, Ga., school. “I think it goes a long way to get parents to mingle.”
Holding a casual back-to-school event is a great way to connect with parents. It establishes your group as fun and family-friendly. And it gives you, as a leader, a chance to connect in a personal way with people who are new to the school. Those newcomers can be a terrific source of volunteers, but first impressions are key.
You’ll have the most success if you reach out to newcomers as soon as they arrive. That’s when they will be most in need of information and school connections. Frame all of your contact in terms of what you can offer them, not what they can do for your group. You’ll have plenty of time for that later, and if you lay the groundwork, you’ll have a much more receptive audience.
Provide information about your parent group in the registration packet for new families. A single sheet with contact information, some key dates, and a short list of your accomplishments will do. Be sure to state clearly that your group is friendly and welcoming to everyone. And don’t include fundraising on your list of accomplishments; say “purchased six computers for the computer lab” rather than “raised $12,000.”
Establish a welcome committee. A simple phone call to newcomers offering information about the school and community can make a big impression. Don’t try to sell the person on getting involved; simply let her know that you’re calling from the PTO and give her contact information in case she has any questions. Give this task to someone who is naturally friendly and outgoing.
Get More Parents Involved
Reach out to new families as soon as they appear on your radar screen, whether it’s at the pool over the summer or at the pediatrician’s office. Consider carrying business cards with your group’s contact information. Tell people to use them “if there’s anything we can do to help.”
Become a source of information about the school, such as pickup and drop-off points, paying for school lunches, and any other information new parents need. Make good information the first thing you offer new parents.
Touch base with new families as the school year progresses to see whether they have questions or concerns that you can help with. Even if the questions are more teacher- or administration-related, you can steer them in the right direction to find answers.
Remind your kids to make an extra effort to reach out to new students. Encourage them to invite new classmates to your home, which gives you an inside track to get to know their parents.
Don’t assume that your school is welcoming just because you are a close-knit community. Sometimes it can be harder for a new family to feel comfortable in a small school family than a big school that gets flooded with newcomers. Make an extra effort to assure families that your parent group is open to everyone.
How a school building looks, the procedures for visitors, and the attitude toward visitors can all have a strong effect on newcomers. That initial impression can determine whether a parent feels comfortable enough to return or decides to avoid the school whenever possible.
Make your foyer as warm and welcoming as possible by painting a mural, hanging a sign, or brightening the area with plants.