Tyler Run Elementary PTO

Location: Powell, Ohio
Community: population 13,000; suburban
School size: 697 students, grades K-5
Annual budget: $49,000

Of all the things the PTO at Tyler Run Elementary does for the school, perhaps the most important is the way its leaders keep looking for new avenues to make learning fun. The Powell, Ohio, group puts its unique spin on more than 30 student- and family-centered annual events, including a storytelling festival where students act out tales and a post-Halloween candy drive for a local food pantry. The Tyler Run Elementary PTO’s creative approaches to events, its strong parent involvement, and its service to others helped make it PTO Today’s 2010 National Parent Group of the Year.

The PTO’s goals for all of its events were to keep them fun, simple, educational, and free. “We make every event we put together something that is fun for kids yet educational and something parents can feel good about,” says publicity chair Becca Mount.

Combining Fun and Learning

To help get kids excited about its walkathon fundraiser, the PTO provides free T-shirts to all students, with a new design each year. Instead of circling a track, students walk 1 mile through the school’s residential neighborhood. The police department blocks off roads and the fire department sounds its sirens. “We have a lot of families in the neighborhood who come out and cheer for the kids and have signs,” says copresident Diane Nelson.

The walkathon event helps reinforce the importance of making good choices to stay healthy and physically fit. It also gives students a way to give back to their school. “It makes them feel important because they realize they’re helping out our school,” says copresident Julie Boothman.

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

On the evening of the walkathon, the PTO holds its fall festival, which includes games, food, entertainment, and a silent auction. Carnival activities cost 50 cents each—the one time that students must pay to play. One of the most popular attractions is riding with a teacher on a golf cart donated by a parent for the evening. “When a parent suggested it, we didn’t know how successful it would be,” Nelson says. “But the kids line up to ride the cart. They love it because the teachers participate.”

At the silent auction, parents can bid on items such as a football autographed by Ohio State University football players and tickets to a nearby Miley Cyrus concert.

Altogether, the event has raised more than $24,000 in each of the last two years. That couldn’t happen without the participation of more than 100 parent volunteers. “We promote to parents that ‘this is your gig, you’re a part of it,’” Nelson says. “Our message is that we need everybody, even for a half hour.”

Another popular activity is the Storytelling Festival, held in conjunction with the spring book fair. The event attracts more than 400 students plus their parents and siblings. Sometimes a professional storyteller is hired to kick off the evening, during which students can pick three stations to visit.

At each station, a storyteller gives his own slant to a 20-minute production. Local person alities such as Ohio State football players and a TV weatherman have read their favorite stories. The PTO secures the participation of these celeb rities mostly just by asking. “You’d be amazed at what a personal invitation can get you,” Mount says. A local librarian uses string and paper to tell her story. Someone else might dress up and perform in different voices while reading a book. Last year, a teacher came as Geronimo Stilton, a mouse who writes books. And 5th graders who have auditioned for acceptance into a school storytelling troupe act out a story, too.

The PTO also supports literacy by sponsoring the Write Shop, a program through which each child in the school creates his own book. Teachers come up with age-appropriate themes; kindergartners, for example, drew turtle pictures while 1st graders wrote poems and older children wrote about a personal experience. Up to 30 parents bind the books by sewing pages together and attaching a cover with the title, year, and child’s name printed on the side.

“Our goal is that children learn how to become excellent writers and storytellers,” Boothman explains. “The books are something to remember the school by and to see how far they’ve progressed as writers.”

Also popular is Enrichment Day, when students pick two of 35 sessions to attend. The choices range from jewelrymaking and horse grooming (with an actual horse) to guitar, yoga, and scrapbooking. The sessions, which last 75 minutes each, are taught by volunteers, and more than 75 parents help with the event.

Working Together

Tyler Run PTO leaders have established good relationships with teachers, often teaming up to run events. For “Tyler Run Idol,” the PTO’s American Idol-inspired winter talent show, teachers serve as judges (though they’re a lot nicer than Simon Cowell). Teachers also sell carnival tickets and help with the games at the Fall Festival. A teacher representative serves on the PTO board, and the PTO provides support for the teachers’ Math and Science Night.

To further support and show appreciation for the teachers, the PTO provides dinner for them during November and March parent-teacher conferences. And in May, there’s a weeklong Teacher and Staff Appreciation Week. This includes a luncheon provided by the PTO, with teachers freed from cafeteria and recess duty by parent substitutes. And at the suggestion of the PTO, there are many small gestures by children, such as thank-you notes, flowers, and poems. Students also dress in teachers’ favorite colors or in honor of teachers’ favorite sports teams.

“Our teachers and our parents work together tremendously,” Boothman says. “There’s good communication and a good working relationship. The PTO makes sure teachers get what they need.”

At the end of the year, the teachers and staff host a Volunteer Appreciation Breakfast so that even the hardest-working members of the PTO can enjoy the celebration. Last year, more than 100 people attended.

Thanking volunteers is an important part of the PTO’s success. After each event, two corresponding secretaries send out handwritten thank-you notes to everyone who helped. “Saying thank-you is the most important thing to do,” Boothman says. “If we don’t have an environment where parents feel welcome and want to be part of the school, then it will be difficult to recruit parents to help.”

Helping Others

One of the unique elements of the PTO’s programming is the multiple layers of events, often with a focus on community service. At the Storytelling Festival, for example, families are encouraged to donate gently used books, which are given to inner-city schools in central Ohio. Each year, about 800 books are collected, and the school has received enthusiastic notes from students thrilled at the many new worlds opened to them through literature.

On Multicultural Day—when students “travel” to different countries in the school gym to do crafts like making dreidels or Kwanzaa pins—they bring no-sew blankets they’ve made, along with new toys, for patients at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus. And students are asked to bring canned goods for a local food pantry when they appear in costume for the Fall Harvest Party. Families also donate new or gently used shoes as part of the walkathon. During the 2009-10 school year, 214 pairs of children’s and adults’ shoes were collected and donated to a charitable clothing store in a nearby town.

Another service project takes place after Halloween, when students are asked to donate some of their extra candy to a local food pantry. The prize for the class in each grade that brings in the most candy is to be first in the lunch line for a week—a much-desired benefit, especially on Pizza Fridays. The school has donated more than 800 pounds of candy each of the last three years. “When you think of a shoe drive or a book drive, kids aren’t necessarily going to miss their shoes or books they’ve already read,” Mount says. “But candy means a lot to them.”

The community service projects are important learning opportunities for students, says principal Jennifer Mazza. “These service activities make our children so well-rounded and ready to go on to the next step after they leave elementary school,” she says. “They get so excited to support the community.”