Just three years ago, the Home & School Association at St. Katharine Drexel School, the 2010 Outstanding Parent Group at a Private or Parochial School, was on the verge of collapse. Its president was battling a serious illness, and no one else was available to take charge. The absence of leadership led to disorganization and miscommunication. Parents sometimes arrived at meetings to find the door locked.

Although the organization had been a fixture for more than 30 years at the 294-student, preK-8 school in Beaver Dam, Wis., it couldn’t keep up the momentum. There just weren’t enough volunteers to take on leadership roles, and those who remained active felt frustrated and burned out.

“The group had been strong in years past and did remarkable things but, in short order, the group was falling apart,” says Jennifer Bohlig, an HSA member with four children at the school.

The group needed a turnaround. They accomplished it by recruiting an energetic president and changing their entire mission, reducing the number of fundraisers, and adding fun events. “We are no longer considered a fundraising group,” Bohlig says. “Our new mission is bringing families together and showing teacher appreciation.”

Parents poured their energy into family fun nights. They wanted to bring families together and help them feel part of something bigger. Activities included bingo, sledding, dances, karaoke, holiday parties, crafts, and storytelling. The group served free dinners, which helped boost attendance. And 450 people attended their annual Catholic Schools Week chili supper. The events attracted not only participants but also scores of volunteers. With each new event, volunteer enthusiasm grew.

Spread the word—schools thrive because of hard-working parent groups

Communication was a major priority. The revamped HSA board created a fresh logo that featured a sketch of a house, an apple, and a book. The goal was to reflect the new mission and project an image of inclusiveness and warmth. The principal provided space in the school news letter. Parent group leaders made sure the HSA column always contained relevant information, not fluff. The group sent home scores of flyers, all bearing the new logo.

The HSA sent a letter to each family, explaining its mission and outlining its plans for the year. Soon, word got around: The Home & School Association was back and stronger than ever.

Parent group leaders went through the school directory and reached out to any parent who had expressed any interest in participating. They promised that meetings would last only an hour and would include quality child care. And parents didn’t need to attend meetings to be involved. By creating meaningful and flexible volunteer opportunities, the group saw interest soar. “Our volunteer base is so big now, help just floods in,” says Beth Jewell, the 2009-10 president. “The parents feel a sense of belonging.”

The group ramped up teacher appreciation by providing meals during conferences and in-service days and funds for classroom supplies. “Knowing teachers are at the heart of the school, we worked hard to make sure teachers and staff know they are treasured,” Jewell says.

To help new families feel connected to the school, the parent group created a mentoring program. During the summer, mentors contacted new families, answered their questions, and invited them to family events.

To stay organized, Jewell brought to every meeting a large poster board outlining the schedule of more than 30 events, reminded members of their goals, and emphasized the importance of not becoming overcommitted. With every proposed project, members asked, “Does it fit our mission?” and “Do we have enough time?”

The group zeroed in on just two fundraisers: the fall carnival, a beloved tradition that dates back 27 years and is open to the whole community, and a bowlathon. “During years of struggle, these two fundraisers were pulled together with a handful of committed parents and some duct tape,” Jewell says. Now both events are thriving again, with more than 150 volunteers to help plan and run them. Families come out in droves, enabling the group to make money and serve its mission.

With the group on a roll and the days of disorganization behind them, leaders are looking toward the future. “They have built such a great foundation,” says current HSA president Heather Eggers. “We just want to welcome families with open arms.”

Reinvigorate Your Group

As parents at St. Katharine Drexel School set out to rebuild the Home & School Association, they learned that small details can have a huge impact. Here are some little touches that mattered:

  • Meetings always include child care, provided by a trusted, background-checked school employee. Children are also welcome to sit on their parents’ laps during meetings.

  • Meetings are always limited to an hour at most.

  • Volunteer opportunities include one-hour stints for making pizza and other quick hits so that time-strapped parents can feel like a part of the organization.

  • Evening events always include dinner—especially necessary during cold winters when families need extra motivation to get out of the house.

  • To send a message that the HSA isn’t just for women, parents recruited two fathers to serve on the board.

  • To make sure the group’s momentum won’t be lost, current leaders identify potential new leaders and groom them for the following year.