The PTO at Black Mountain (N.C.) Primary School is just two years old, and already the group offers a complete package of family events, community outreach, teacher recognition, and fundraising. The young PTO’s efforts to mobilize parent volunteers and strengthen the home-school connection helped it win recognition as the Outstanding New Group in PTO Today’s 2010 Parent Group of the Year search.

The journey started in 2007, when Margaret Hurt’s oldest son started kindergarten at Black Mountain. She asked about joining the parent group. She learned that the school had a “PTO on paper,” but the group was not active.

As a child, Hurt attended schools with lots of involved parents. She understood the value of parent involvement because her parents had been active in PTO leadership in public schools. She wanted to recreate that spirit at her child’s school. She and a core group of parents started from scratch. They reached out to PTO parents at other schools and conducted research about what other schools do, looking for ideas they could replicate.

The following school year, Black Mountain’s PTO—a real PTO, not just a parent group on paper—was launched with Hurt as president. The group worked together to define the PTO’s purpose and goals.

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

Parent leaders held focus groups with teachers to find out what they thought a PTO could do at Black Mountain, which has 510 students in grades K-3. They surveyed parents, teachers, and the principal. This generated a list of areas where they could help, such as appreciating the staff, caring for the school’s vast grounds, and changing the weekly message on the school sign. They soon found other ways to support the school, such as coordinating the book fair, field day, and cultural arts performances.

To accomplish their goals, Hurt knew they needed a strong, well-organized board, a solid communication plan, and a variety of activities. “We needed options for ways for families to plug in and have fun participating at school,” she says.

A top priority was building a stronger sense of community at school. “Family events have made that possible. When families are having fun at school, that goes a long way,” Hurt says. Popular events include a movie night, skating night, Sundaes With Santa, and an end-of-the-year picnic. “We have so carefully tried not to charge fees or do anything that would preclude someone from participating,” Hurt explains.

One of the PTO’s most successful events has been War Pony Welcome, a back-to-school information fair named for the school’s mascot. The event includes refreshments and student activities and serves as a recruiting opportunity for the PTO.

A comprehensive communication effort let parents know they were needed, even if they could spare only a small amount of time. “We send regular parent emails listing ways to become involved or any new needs, and we try to be very visible at school functions so we can help link parents to projects that might match their skills and interests,” Hurt says. The PTO, which does not charge dues, worked not just to recruit parents as volunteers but also to let parents and community members know about all the great things going on at Black Mountain Primary.

As the parent group gained momentum, leaders added projects. They implemented a room parent program. At the request of teachers, the PTO launched a tutoring program that pairs community volunteers with struggling students. By serving as a liaison between the school and community groups, the parent group can leverage volunteers from outside the school.

To help students realize the value of giving back to others, the group organized a food drive to stock the nearby food pantry, engaging students as well as parents. Sometimes Black Mountain Primary students themselves receive food from the pantry, Hurt says.

The group sponsored potluck luncheons and coffee breaks for teachers on early-release days. They gave teachers money for school supplies and organized duty-free lunches. “I don’t think you can put a value on the way it can make teachers feel to know they are supported in their partnership with parents,” Hurt says.

Diane Jackson, a kindergarten teacher who serves as the liaison between the staff and the PTO, says the energetic parent group has affected students in many positive ways, from making the campus safer to expanding the school’s recycling program.

Parents have also helped teachers solve problems. For example, monthly staff meetings were starting at 3:30 p.m. and lasting two hours, making teachers late to their second jobs or their own children’s day-care centers. The PTO recruited a church group to handle after-school bus duties so that the meetings could start (and end) earlier.

“That’s been morale-boosting,” Jackson says, adding that parents helped stock her room with a play cash register and other kindergarten staples through a school supply program sponsored by a local grocery store. “I am so proud of how active the group has become,” she says.

Today, the PTO has eight board members, 15 project coordinators, and 30 room parents. The group has made succession planning a priority, putting policies and procedures in place meant to ensure that the group keeps thriving even after the current crop of leaders is gone. A PTO leadership social and swap night gives current leaders a chance to provide information to new leaders.

The PTO keeps its focus on supporting students’ education. Says Hurt, “There are so many ways a parent can really influence the education their child is receiving.”