Starting a PTO from scratch is fairly straightforward. It's a challenge, but it's a clear challenge with itemized steps to follow. Writing bylaws. Getting a tax ID number. Maybe applying for nonprofit status. Getting insurance. A new leader can simply go down the checklist and be confident of success.

The same is true of the new leader of a really successful group. The key then is to continue the tradition, follow a well-tested path, and perhaps make incremental improvements where you can.

The real challenge—and it's perhaps the most common predicament we hear about—is what to do about an existing PTO that's stuck in the middle. The group has been around for years and years but has withered. Volunteer support is difficult to come by. Enthusiasm has waned. It's the toughest challenge for a new PTO leader.

How do you kick-start a tired PTO? I'll give you five steps:

  1. Find a couple of allies. You can't be the only parent who wishes things could be different. Identify and recruit two or three other parents who want to make a change, then start working together toward improvements. It makes the work easier, and you'll need the support during the most frustrating days.

  2. Get positive and fun. Stop lamenting your challenges, especially publicly. Stop using guilt and pressure and threats ("the PTO will have to shut down") to communicate. Start celebrating your school, the kids, and the volunteers you do have. People are attracted to positive.

  3. Get some wins. Start small, but pick a project or two that you can handle well and make them go great. Of course, make sure folks hear about that success afterward, too. Start with one win. Make it a tradition. And then go for two. A few strong successes are far better than a whole slew of just OK efforts.

  4. Stop comparing outside your school. Your measuring stick is where your school was when you started. If you had eight volunteers and you get to 16, you've made a 100 percent improvement in volunteerism. That's huge. What's the benefit of worrying about the school down the street that regularly has 40 volunteers? You'll get there if you stay positive. You won't if you focus on what you haven't accomplished yet.

  5. Think long term. The toughest fact is that PTOs and school cultures change slowly. If you have two or three children, you'll most likely be at your school for four years or more. Try to make change and improvement each year, with a focus on building a sustainable group. I've seen too many well-intentioned volunteers blow in like a hurricane (making every change possible as quickly as possible), then burn out.

You don't need to be a superhero to make a difference. A school without a well-working parent group is missing such an important asset. Where's the life? Where's the color? Where's the support? Where are the connections? Many small, smart steps taken over time are the key to reviving a struggling PTO. And a revived PTO can mean a revived school and kids learning in a better environment. That's worth the hard work.