Every communication from your parent group sends a message to parents about involvement—even if that's not your intention. If your messages are positive, cheerful, courteous, appreciative, simple, direct, and customer-service-oriented, then you're telling parents that the PTO will appreciate their efforts and that their time with the group will be enjoyable.
On the other hand, if your messages are negative, demanding, scolding, and overly complicated, then you're turning away parents, who will view your group as unfriendly, unappreciative, and difficult to work with.
Every written and oral communication has the potential to encourage or discourage participation in the PTO. So it pays to think about the involvement message you're sending.
First, make sure parents know that you really want them to get involved. "Too many parent groups make the assumption that if parents want to get involved, they will get involved, and so the group doesn't necessarily ask them," says Kati Hanna, copresident of the Parent Advisory Council at Sierra Vista Primary School in Ruidoso, N.M. The PAC sends out a monthly newsletter that includes calls for specific volunteers, along with a contact person. For example, a request for volunteers for Popcorn Days stresses that no experience is needed, that someone will train the volunteer, that parents can assist as it fits their schedules, and that "any help would be extremely appreciated."
More parents became involved as the PAC issued more specific invitations. "We wouldn't have been able to remotely get our volunteer base if we didn't communicate and ask," Hanna says. "There were parents who, there was no doubt in my mind, would have never entered our school, but we made it so easy that they got involved."
Open Lines of Communication
Take any steps you can to make it easier for parents to volunteer. Pike Creek Christian School in Newark, Del., has a huge volunteer board in its school lobby. "People pass it and don't feel any pressure," says Parent Teacher Fellowship copresident Kristal Courter. "It's there throughout the year. They can think about it if they want to sign up at the first of the year. If they change their mind, the next day they can take their name off. We talk about the board at all events and remind them about it in most of our communications."
And it doesn't hurt to offer perks to potential volunteers. At Sierra Vista, volunteers who work one hour get a free school T-shirt. They can also place free classified ads in the parent group newsletter in a kind of local Craigslist, in which parents advertise services or items for sale.
Make your PTO leaders more accessible to parents. On your website, in a brochure, in newsletters, and on a bulletin board at school include a photo of each officer and chairperson, along with emails, home phone numbers, and cell phone numbers.
However you communicate with parents, be consistent. Send newsletters or emails on a regular schedule so that parents are expecting the contact. In these communications, emphasize what the parent group does for the school. Sierra Vista uses its website to inform parents about when and how the group is meeting its goals. In its newsletter, Forest Park Elementary in Little Rock, Ark., explains some of the smaller things the PTA does, such as paying for an off-duty police officer to assist with traffic on the first three days of school.
Put a lot of effort into recognizing volunteers. Sierra Vista features a "parent volunteer of the month" article and photo in its monthly newsletter. Lamar Middle School in Austin, Texas, thanks individual volunteers in its newsletter after an event. "That's a critical thing," says PTA president Michelle Smith. "If you say thank you to parents, that's all they really want. We keep a list of who's done what and try to thank every volunteer." At South Mountain Elementary in Edgewood, N.M., where the school mascot is a coyote, parents who volunteer at least two hours with the PTO get their name on a paw print posted on a big board in the entryway of the lobby.
One of the most overlooked aspects of communicating a positive involvement message has to do with showing that participating in PTO events can be fun. Sierra Vista creates poster boards with photos of volunteers at previous events. These poster boards are displayed in the lobby and are propped behind the parent group table at special events. "We show that it's fun and that it's a united group of Native Americans, Hispanics, Caucasians, and African-Americans," Hanna says. "They may think the parent group is run by a specific group, but we show that everybody is welcome."
The PTA for Chesak and Martin elementary schools in Lake in the Hills, Ill., posts photos online for a similar purpose. "One of our messages is that we're not the PTA your parents used to know," says president Dana Wiley. "We show parents helping out at the local pool, or at an open house talking to people or helping to carry boxes. These photos take away the preconceived notion that the PTA is a lot of work and that there's not a lot of fun involved. And it changes the notion of the type of person who gets involved."
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Take Advantage of Technology
Many parent groups are successfully using technology to promote involvement. At Sierra Vista, parents who sign up get an email when items are added to the PAC website, and the parent group also makes use of an automated phone-calling system to remind parents about upcoming events. "We say we look forward to every parent coming, and it's made a big difference," Hanna says.
Lamar Middle School parent leaders plan to start a blog on the website. The PTA president will facilitate the blog during the first year, sending questions posted by parents to the school staff member best able to respond. Anticipated questions range from clarifications about the school's dress code to what to do if a child is being bullied. Lebanon Elementary in Connecticut is launching an electronic discussion board this fall where parents can communicate with the PTA and with each other. "This will allow us to more actively communicate to parents about things that are important to the school, and they may also have ideas," says PTA president Tom Boone. "I do hope it will spur involvement in the PTA. If people understood more of what we're doing and had a better opportunity to communicate without having to take extra time away from their families, it would hopefully get them more involved."
Forest Park Elementary has used anonymous electronic surveys to get feedback from parents. "We're making a big push this year to make sure people feel the PTA can work for them," says PTA president Cindy Pugh. "We asked what they valued in terms of things we do and where to spend the money we raised, and we have made some changes according to the survey results."
Forest Park is also using a service called Event Brite, which allows them to email event invitations to parents, who can click on a link to register. This registration information is then sent in list form to the parent group. The PTA has also used the online service CareCalendar to organize assistance for teachers who were incapacitated for extended periods, with parents signing up to bring food. "I think the electronic communications and creating a 'virtual' community with our newsletter and website are going to work well for our school and PTA," Pugh says. "It will serve us to connect with busy parents who feel we are keeping them informed in a way that works for them. Also, it is streamlining our volunteer efforts from processing PTA papers and orders to focusing on events, activities, and students." She advises a gradual move to electronic communication by starting with a survey or promotional campaign, along with securing permission to send electronic communications. And always remain aware that not everyone has online access, so keep paper as an option for those who need or want it.
Remember, too, that transportation and language can be barriers for some parents. The Lamar PTA recruited three bilingual parents to work as translators at programs and for the newsletter. There are also plans to take some programs, such as those about wellness and nutrition, into neighborhoods to engage parents where they live. And the school is part of a grant program through which some parents will train as mentors who will then contact other parents directly to find out about their needs.
Don't overlook opportunities for personal conversations. At Greenwood Elementary in Seattle, a good resource is the school's social worker, who passes on flyers and reminds parents she works with about upcoming events. Other opportunities present themselves on the playground as parents drop off or pick up their children. "People sometimes have the connotation of the PTA being a clique or full of overbearing parents," says PTA copresident Deb Fitzpatrick. "And it's funny. Out on the playground, I'll be talking to a parent and another parent will walk up to me and say, 'Hi, Prez,' and then the first parent will ask what that was about and I'll say I'm the PTA copresident. Then that first parent will say, 'I didn't think it was like that.' "
Keys for Communication
Invite parents to get involved. Make sure they know they're welcome at all PTO activities.
Make it easy to volunteer. Use a bulletin board and electronic links where parents can sign up. And be sure to include photos and contact information for all officers and chairpersons on your website.
Show volunteers you value them. Being appreciative is key. Offering a perk like a free T-shirt can be a nice touch.
Communicate regularly. Send newsletters or emails on a regular schedule so parents expect to hear from you.
Tout PTO accomplishments so parents know how the group's efforts are benefiting the school.
Recognize volunteers. Include the name and photo of each person, along with their accomplishments, on a bulletin board or in your newsletter.
Display photos of volunteers and participants to show that the PTO is fun and inclusive.
Use technology to involve parents. If parents at your school are online, you should be, too. Just be sure to keep paper copies of your communications available for those who want or need them.
Translate PTO communications for non-English-speaking parents so that they are included.
Use person-to-person contact. Recruit school social workers and others to pass on flyers and other sources of information to parents who might not be reachable through regular channels. And never miss an opportunity to engage parents, especially those who might view the PTO as a clique.