In 2008, the Grace Patterson Elementary PTO in Vallejo, Calif., was on the brink of extinction. Without a formal board, the group had a mere handful of parents to plan and conduct activities, and flyers seldom went out in time to promote them. Many in the school community did not seem interested in PTO programs or happenings.

But creativity and hard work turned the situation around at the 349-student, K-5 school, earning the group recognition in PTO Today’s 2010 Parent Group of the Year search for Outstanding Effort To Overcome Adversity.

Things began to change in fall 2009, when parents and teachers met and decided to restructure the PTO. Now, interested members are invited to attend monthly planning meetings to help plan community-building events and support learning opportunities for students. New ideas for programs and activities are adopted as long as one parent member agrees to oversee everything, including promotional flyers, venue logistics, and volunteer recruitment.

The PTO also decided to offer free child care and two meeting times during each of the first three months to see whether daytime or evening meetings were more convenient for parents.

The group put extra emphasis on tapping parents’ talents. Two parents with computer skills were recruited to design meeting and event flyers, while three others were trained to use the copier and distribute the materials. A membership drive kicked off at the beginning of the year; members were asked to pay $3 and donate three hours throughout the year. More than 40 new families signed up, revitalizing the group’s previously small, overworked volunteer pool.

The new board has developed a monthly school calendar, which now provides timely notice for family events, including drum night, a multicultural potluck dinner, games night, and a huge Cinco de Mayo celebration. The PTO also started holding evaluation sessions after each event. Leaders record detailed notes on how to improve the event for volunteers in future years. Now they are working to find two teachers to collaborate with the PTO to help strengthen the connection between home and school.

The judges loved: In May, leaders held an awards assembly followed by a brunch for 50 parent volunteers. The special recognition created a buzz among students whose parents were honored.

Cool fact: To help publicize PTO events, students visit classrooms to perform humorous skits. For the group’s Read in Pajamas Night, for example, students put on robes and carried a giant “book” with details about the event.