As a single mother, April McCaffery has her plate full. She works full time, cares for her two daughters, and serves as recording secretary of the Walt Disney Elementary PTA in Burbank, Calif.

Despite her busy schedule, McCaffery decided to get involved with the PTA after she attended a meeting and found "moms like me—moms who were passionate about offering kids as many programs as possible, which is also very important to me." There was another key element that made her decide to jump in and take part. "I could also see that there was a true appreciation for what parents could do in terms of volunteering, and an understanding of what they couldn't," says McCaffery.

McCaffery is among more than 11.5 million single parents in the United States. Studies have shown that single parents are just as interested in being involved in their children's education as any other parent. The key for parent groups is to remove the barriers that might keep them from participating. For instance, single parents need to find someone to care for their children whenever the parent is away from home. Money can be tight in a single-income situation, especially if the parent is returning to the workforce. And if custody is split, a single parent may not always see the notice or flyer that you send home in a child's backpack because it is delivered to the other parent.

Provide Childcare

Childcare is a huge issue for single parents. If they don't have it or it costs too much, they won't be able to attend meetings or volunteer at school events. The Twin Cities German Immersion School PTO in St. Paul, Minn., began providing free childcare at meetings at the request of a single mother. After four meetings, the group had two single parents who used the service regularly. But they weren't alone, says PTO president Leslie Watson. "It also helps the board members who bring their children, too," she says. "It has been a win-win."

The group requires parents to reserve a spot by the Friday before the meeting so that enough child-care providers can be hired. They use local college students, who are more than willing to work for $10 an hour.

Providing childcare has had a side benefit at Walt Disney Elementary, McCaffery explains; it helps the children develop new friends. "When we go to school events, all of us have friends there. Even my oldest daughter, who never went to this school, now has kids to hang out with from getting to know them at the PTA meetings," she says.

Be Flexible

Varying meeting days and times provides opportunities for more people to attend, including single working parents. If you normally meet during the workday, consider holding your next meeting in the evening or immediately after school. There isn't going to be a perfect time that everyone can attend, but by offering options you increase your outreach possibilities.

Continue that flexible attitude in providing jobs that single parents can do at home. Working during the day and taking care of children at night doesn't leave much time for coming to school to volunteer. But if tasks can be completed at home or during non-work hours, you're likely to get a greater volunteer response from single parents.

"I generally type up the minutes during a lunch hour at work and then distribute them via email," McCaffery says.

Some ideas for at-home jobs include:

  • sorting box tops and labels for rewards programs
  • making phone calls
  • stuffing envelopes
  • sending emails
  • creating newsletters
  • working on the PTO website
  • filling ticket, merchandise, or book orders
  • creating the school directory
  • providing snacks for testing days, bake sales, or after-school activities

Vary Your Communications

Children who live in single-parent homes often have a noncustodial parent who would like to be involved in their education. However, a printed note isn't necessarily shared between homes. Be sure to vary your communication methods, not only to keep parents informed but also to reach out to the parent who may not be pulling a flyer out of the backpack. In addition to printed notes, consider using emails and phone calls, as well as keeping up-to-date information on your school or parent group website. (PTO Today offers a free email service designed especially for parent groups called Parent Express Email.)

Offer Incentives

Parents typically volunteer with no strings attached, but to encourage involvement, including by working single parents, you might provide additional incentives. Consider offering a free book for children whose parents work the book fair, or allowing children of volunteers free admission to the school carnival. If single parents can work at an event and bring their children, they're much more likely to take part. Providing an incentive also helps single parents keep their out-of-pocket costs to a minimum, again increasing the possibility that they'll volunteer.

You'll also gain more volunteers if you allow parents to complete jobs they really enjoy. "Every parent has their own talents and skills and is more comfortable doing things in which they're already confident," McCaffery says. "The happier the parent is in their duties, the more involved they'll become because they like it. Never make parents feel guilty about what they can't do; always be appreciative of what they can."

Not Just Single Parents

Single parents aren't the only nontraditional group with students in school who may need additional outreach to encourage them to get involved. The AARP reports that as many as 2.4 million grandparents in the United States are responsible for grandchildren living with them. You might make a special effort to welcome them by phoning to invite them to attend meetings or help out at events. Another idea is to assign a coordinator to answer questions grandparents might have.

You might work with local community organizations to form support groups for single parents, grandparents raising grandchildren, parents who are non-English speakers—whatever group is common in your school community. Additionally, consider providing educational workshops on topics of relevance to these groups as well as to parents in general. This will help you build a strong connection that will benefit both the school and your PTO.

In general, the best way to get the single parents, grandparents, and others in your specific school community to take part is to ask them how you can make it easier for them. If you do, you'll find it was worth the effort—you'll gain more volunteer support and more diversity that will add strength to your group.


Speaking the Single-Parent Language

  • When you're sending home notes and information, keep in mind that "parent" refers to any family member or other adult who is responsible for rearing and supporting a child, not necessarily the child's actual genetic parent. Address letters and other communications to "Dear Parent," "Dear Adult," or "Dear Guardian" rather than "Dear Mom and Dad."

  • Set aside specific jobs or time slots to be filled in by working parents, dads, and grandparents.

  • Instead of role-specific events like Doughnuts With Dad, make things more general (for example, "Breakfast With a Buddy") so kids can bring any significant male in their lives.

  • Make sure forms sent home have enough space to include information for two parents, especially for items such as school directory listings, fundraisers, volunteer forms, and email sign-ups.