Albert Hill Middle School PTA

Location: Richmond, Va.
Community: population 200, 123; urban
School size: 480 students, grades 6-8
Annual budget: $30,100

On a glorious sunny day in spring 2008, families from Albert Hill Middle School gathered to celebrate Mother Nature. They learned about worm composting and saw turtles rescued from a construction site. Students got to wear a harness and climb a tree and take home an energy-efficient light bulb. They shot hoops with crumpled aluminum foil and bid on trash-to-treasure works of art using recycled materials.

“The thing with middle schoolers is, to draw anybody out you have to have fun and it has to be interactive,” says Shelli Jost Brady, Albert Hill PTA’s curriculum enhancement chairwoman. “And with this age, it’s hard to get parents to come out.”

The PTA succeeded on both fronts with its Eco-Fest. The students swarmed the schoolyard; parents, who were excited about the theme of giving back to the community and the planet, volunteered eagerly. “This event was the first of its kind for our school,” Brady says. “Once we had a core group to outline things, we were able to get tons of volunteers. People were charged by the message.”

Albert Hill Middle School in Richmond, Va., is the 2008 Parent Group of the Year winner for Outstanding Family Event. The event was especially poignant for Albert Hill families because their children have witnessed several tragedies wrought by mankind and nature. When Brady’s daughter, Kyle, was in 1st grade, she struggled to understand the 9/11 attacks. When she was in 2nd grade, the sniper killings in Maryland and Virginia had families paralyzed with fear. The next year, Hurricane Isabel struck Virginia.

Such destruction could have made her children feel powerless, but Brady worked hard to teach them that they are powerful. The school’s focus on going green fit perfectly. “We wanted our children to learn that...small acts make a difference,” she says. “If they saw themselves as resourceful, they wouldn’t have to have the best clothes or the biggest house or even the brightest brain. If you are resourceful, you can figure anything out.”

Getting Organized

Albert Hill already engages its 480 students in a variety of extracurricular academic programs, such as a robotics competition. And students learn about the environment in science class. But an element was missing, Brady says. She envisioned an event that was less academic and more holistic. “The children didn’t know how simple their efforts could be and how important their efforts could be,” she explains.

The PTA latched on to the idea in September of a “go green” theme for the year. A group of 17 parent group leaders decided to expand their annual spring event, a fundraising yard sale. “Our thought was that ‘green’ involves reusing, recycling, and repurposing products, which in a way is the purpose of a yard sale,” Brady says. “This initiative would also complement our other efforts and programs to foster a nonviolent community by respecting ourselves and our environment.”

Parents started actively planning the event in January, a short time frame that members plan to lengthen the next time. A group of eight parents volunteered to flesh out the Eco-Fest concept, coming up with ideas and pursuing opportunities to partner with local organizations and businesses. They held meetings every three weeks. Activities were added to the agenda if they were relevant to the green theme and if they bolstered interaction among students, faculty, family, and community.

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In the end, leaders came up with a mix of fun and educational activities, such as tree climbing with professional supervision and games promoting recycling. A reverse dunk tank, where teachers and the principal got soaked by having water dumped on their heads, conserved water while still being fun for students. Vegetarian hamburgers were added to an otherwise traditional menu. A local natural foods store provided information on organic foods and sold inexpensive tote bags. The festival included more typical attractions like a bake sale. A karaoke stage was so popular, parents could barely pull kids away long enough to eat.

“To watch the interaction between the staff and the administration and the students as if they were family at a family reunion, that moved me,” Brady says. “The bonding was what really impressed me....It was priceless to watch teachers and administrators engage students in merriment throughout the day.”

The event went smoothly thanks to solid planning and volunteers who covered everything from distributing tax receipts after the auction to getting proper permits ahead of time and arranging for volunteers to handle cleanup with an eye on recycling as much as possible. In addition to raising environmental awareness and creating lasting memories, the festival raised $1,800, some of which will go toward a planned outdoor learning garden and a rain barrel irrigation project. PTA leaders didn’t have to dip into their budget much because they had so many in-kind donations.

PTA leaders are full of ideas for next year and are already in the preplanning stages. The main goal for future events is to involve the community more. Albert Hill is in a residential neighborhood, but most of its students come from beyond the immediate community. “The neighborhood has wanted to be a bigger part of this school, even the residents who don’t have kids,” Brady says. She envisions garden clubs and other women’s groups pitching in, along with members of the general population who want to be involved in public education but don’t know how. The green theme is something everyone can relate to on some level, giving the PTA hope for continued enthusiasm.

For now, PTA leaders bask in the satisfaction of a successful family event that merged education, fun, community service, and a responsibility to take care of the environment. “We hope,” Brady says, “that we were able to open some eyes.”