When the Tuttle Elementary PTO board took office for the 2008-09 school year, it started with six dedicated board members—and not much else.

Tuttle Elementary is located in Maiden, a rural North Carolina community of 3,300 that has been hit hard by the economic downturn. Almost half of Tuttle’s 514 students qualify for free or reduced-priced school meals. Many parents were understandably more focused on simply making ends meet than on helping out at school. The K-6 Tuttle Elementary opened in 2006, so it didn’t have a long legacy of parent support. And although the school had a PTO, the new board had to recreate virtually every document, from event permission slips to financial records.

But in just two years, the Tuttle Elementary PTO has built a thriving parent-teacher group and provided a blueprint for how other PTOs in small, rural communities can succeed. For these efforts, Tuttle has been named the National Runner-up in PTO Today’s 2010 Parent Group of the Year search.

The biggest obstacle the Tuttle PTO faced heading into the 2009-10 school year was simply finding enough volunteers for school projects. Board members sent home flyers (in Spanish as well as English) and made phone calls to parents under the direction of volunteer coordinator Chastity McRee. Leaders also created a brochure listing a menu of “a la carte” volunteer opportunities, emphasizing that parents could help out for short periods of time and make a difference at school.

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

PTO officials also looked to grandparents, aunts, and uncles for help. “We created what we called our ‘secret granny list.’ We called them anytime we fell short,” says vice president Laura Taylor.

New PTO volunteers were put to work on a range of projects, such as developing a database and email/phone system for coordinating volunteers, drafting a volunteer handbook, and running a Christmastime holiday shop that grossed more than $5,000. The group took charge of a program that awarded students tokens for good behavior. Students could trade in those tokens for small, inexpensive prizes at the “Turtle Token Store,” named for the school’s mascot, the terrapin. During that school year, office referrals for discipline issues decreased by 25 percent.

Tuttle PTO members also made sure that teachers and staff members felt appreciated. At a welcome back event, parents delivered doughnuts and juice to all staff members. During the winter holidays, they set up a hot-chocolate bar in the staff lounge, and during Staff Appreciation Week, they held a lunchtime luau for teachers and staff.

One particularly well-received idea cost the PTO nothing. Throughout the year, the PTO encouraged students to write “love letters” to staff members thanking them for all they do. More than 150 letters were collected, and the principal liked the idea so much that she read some of the letters during daily announcements.

Mindful of the fact that many Tuttle students come from families with modest incomes, the PTO decided that in 2009, its fall festival would be free of charge to all comers. Making the festival free was more than a strategic decision—PTO members felt it was the right thing to do. “In the past, there had been large families that could not afford to attend. Our PTO did not want any child to miss this school event because of money,” explains PTO president Bo Arrington.

That said, parent group leaders certainly were concerned about losing money on the event. In previous years, the festival had cost $10 a ticket and had attracted crowds of more than 1,000. But the previous PTO had left them a successful foundation. “We knew that we had to make an already big event not only bigger but better. As any successful organization will do, we kept the elements that worked and changed those that could use a little excitement,” Taylor says.

Thanks to their hard work, the PTO recruited more than 50 parents to work at the fall festival, up from just six the year before. The number of teachers helping at the event nearly doubled, and the PTO turned to a local high school for additional volunteers.

Board members cast the net beyond Maiden to businesses across the state and found willing donors such as the NBA’s Charlotte Bobcats, which beefed up concession offerings and provided trinkets for sale to make up for the lost entrance fee revenue. At the end of the day, the Tuttle Elementary PTO cleared more than $3,000 in profit, despite dropping the admission fee.

The increased parent involvement at the school was evident at the PTO’s year-end volunteer appreciation breakfast, which grew from 15 to 50 honorees.