The move from elementary school to middle school is a big transition for kids. It’s an equally big transition for parent group leaders for many of the same reasons. The school day is structured differently, students change classes rather than stay with one teacher, and new kids—and parents—from a handful of other schools make up the school population.

Parent groups function differently in middle school. Sometimes it can be difficult for parent group leaders to adjust. The result is that parent groups often operate at a low level in middle schools or don’t exist at all. That’s too bad because there’s plenty of need. Turning that need into opportunity is a matter of adjusting your focus and, often, changing some entrenched attitudes about middle school PTOs.

Build a Core Team

If you’re coming into middle school from an active elementary school parent group, you might need to tread lightly at first. Not all middle school parents will share your enthusiasm, especially if the parent group has operated loosely in the past. Don’t be surprised if you get a lukewarm response to your initial plea for parent volunteers. But don’t give up, either. While there are many ways parents get into the elementary classroom, from Open House night to the year-end picnic, lots of parents might never have set foot in the middle school building. The idea of parents as volunteers in the school might sound completely odd to many of the very people you need to enlist.

Start by recruiting a core group of like-minded middle school parents. Call others you know who were involved in their elementary school PTO. And remember to reach out to parents you haven’t really met before.

Most middle schools enroll students from more than one elementary school. You’ll need to be diligent about contacting folks from all the feeder schools, not just the one your child attended. You’ll also be working with parents who have different experiences with the PTO. Pulling together a new group of volunteers for a common purpose is a challenge. But the benefits the PTO can bring to the middle school should be enough motivation to help your team move ahead.

Communicate With Parents

Clear communication is essential for any parent group, but it can be especially challenging in middle school to get the word all the way back home. In an effort to pack in maximum instruction time, many middle schools have dispensed with homeroom, thus eliminating a convenient forum for distributing information. The students might be expected to relay audio announcements to mom and dad and carry paper announcements from locker to backpack to kitchen. Try as they might, though, middle schoolers aren’t always the most reliable messengers.

For the PTO, consider using email, websites, and postal mail to distribute key information to your parent community. Be clear and specific with PTO announcements. Always include a contact name and phone number, dates, times, locations, and even advice on parking if that’s relevant. Make it easy for parents to understand PTO news so they know exactly what’s expected, the benefits, and how they can get involved.

Connect With Staff

When you’re building a PTO from humble beginnings, don’t ignore the effect your efforts can have on the staff of the middle school. It’s not unusual for a middle school teacher to have spent her entire career in that environment. The teachers (and the principal, too) might not have any firsthand experience with an active PTO in the school.

In fact, they might only have heard horror stories about overzealous PTO parents who have tried to impose the elementary school “room mom” concept on the more sophisticated middle school environments. You might be starting at a disadvantage. Assume your staff is as new to the concept of PTOs as any first-time kindergarten parent would be.

Middle school teachers might not be innately familiar with parent groups, but they do know their own needs. Perhaps the best way to find out how your group can partner with and support the teaching staff is to ask. Position your PTO volunteers as a valuable resource for teachers. Acknowledge up front that you understand that most teachers are not looking for omnipresent busybodies who must constantly be handed volunteer tasks that involve construction paper and scissors. No, your PTO’s volunteers are available to help in ways the teachers might not even have envisioned—yet.

Ideally, gather together a group of teachers for a brainstorming session. Ask them “How could you use a group of reliable parents to help you do your job?” With a little creative thinking, you might find out that the teacher who oversees the yearbook could really use some help tallying orders and distributing the books. You might hear that the science department would love some help lining up parents to assist on dissection days. The media consultant might admit that she’s had a hard time reshelving books since her aide was cut from the school budget. Ask. Write it down. And then deliver.

Prove to the staff that the PTO is there to support them, not demand from them. Establish your group as a partner to the teachers. Later, when you need their support for an event or their help getting the students excited about a new PTO program, they will be more likely to step up enthusiastically.

Connect With Clubs

Unlike elementary schools, most middle schools have a number of school-sponsored clubs and extracurricular sports teams. These groups usually do their own volunteer recruitment, fundraising, and organizational tasks. Sometimes the sponsoring teachers handle these support activities, and sometimes parents of children in the groups are expected to volunteer. Often, the kids themselves take on the day-to-day leadership. These special-interest groups have many of the same issues that a schoolwide PTO has, but they function independently from the PTO.

This situation creates a special challenge for the middle school PTO. You want the PTO to cooperate and not clash with these groups. That’s not always easy. Parents are likely to get fundraising appeals from a variety of organizations besides the PTO. The band is selling cookie dough, the football team wants you to buy a gift card, and the chess club is looking for donations for their annual tournament.

All these announcements and flyers and order forms refer to different groups, have different due dates, look and feel different, and clutter the kitchen counter at home. It’s no wonder your PTO newsletter might get lost in the shuffle. At worst, you want the PTO to peacefully coexist with school clubs and teams so there’s no conflict among the groups’ activities. At best, the PTO can be a resource to the clubs to provide an extra measure of support.

Again, the secret to success in this situation is to partner, not impose. Each club or team has its own built-in pool of parent support from the families of the children directly involved in the group. It’s best to assume initially that those folks will handle the administration of the group.

You also want to respect the leadership of the sponsor teacher-coach. Don’t muscle the PTO into that role. And never volunteer the PTO to handle the finances for an independent club or team.

But there are other ways the PTO can support the clubs and teams that will ease the load on the teacher-sponsor, enhance the experience for the kids, and give more parents an opportunity to be involved. Think in terms of how the PTO can promote the enrichment and extracurricular activities as a whole. For example, you could organize a club and sports fair so that students and parents can get firsthand information about those groups. Maybe a PTO parent would be willing to be the media contact for the clubs. She could submit press releases and photos to the local papers, extolling the successes of the students. At the end of each sports season, the PTO could sponsor a team appreciation rally to thank the student-athletes and adults for their participation regardless of their win-loss records.

Parent volunteerism doesn’t have to end on the day your child completes elementary school. With some awareness of the unique characteristics of middle school and some careful attention to explaining the benefits of a strong parent group, your invigorated middle school PTO can become an integral school partner. Share your vision with others and keep your enthusiasm up even through the occasional setbacks. The result, and the reason you keep volunteering, is the benefit your parent group brings to the students.