Adjusting to Middle School: 3 Keys for PTOs


To succeed as a middle school PTO or PTA leader, get out of the grade school mind-set, revisit your group's goals, and involve students in event planning.

by Tim Sullivan


Trust me—I know that running a middle school parent organization can be an exercise in frustration. Not only have I received the letters and emails and phone calls from frazzled middle school PTO leaders these past dozen years; I also now have a newly minted middle schooler of my own. I feel your pain.

But while leading a middle school PTO or PTA is a challenge, it’s not hopeless. Those same values that drove your elementary school work—the fact that involvement is proven to improve schools and that a community of connected parents has great value for our kids—still exist at the middle school level, with even more urgency.

Knowing that involvement is still essential, what is the middle school PTO leader to do? The key is to escape grade school thinking and approach these crazy middle years in a whole new manner. Below are three conclusions I’ve drawn from working with some of the most successful (and sometimes the most frustrated) middle school PTO leaders across the country.

1. Realize that middle school is different.

So many of the frustrated emails I get are from leaders who had great success at their grade school and can’t understand why the same model isn’t working in middle school. The Tuesday night meeting is empty. As for the ice-cream social, “Mom, if you make us go to that ice-cream thing, I’ll never talk to you again!” is a powerful demotivator.

The types of events and the expectations you had of parents in grade school just aren’t realistic for your new middle school job. The sooner you accept that, the sooner your frustration will begin to subside. This change in reality leads directly to conclusion number two:

2. The goals should change in middle school.

At most grade schools, the PTO plays a really important role in making parents feel connected to the scary place where they’re sending their little angels. The angels also love having Mom and Dad get connected. The meetings, the family events, even the fundraisers to some degree are conducted in that glow surrounding the cute little 1st and 3rd graders.

That’s not nearly as true in middle school, where parents are often more tired and nearly always less enamored of all things school-related. The fundraiser for field trips or a new playground is much more warm and fuzzy than the fundraiser to keep band class or to pay for smart boards that parents wish the district covered.

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Rather than thinking about how many parents they can get to a PTO meeting or how much gift wrap they can sell, many middle school PTO leaders start thinking much more about how they can serve parents and families. The middle school years bring so many challenges—Facebook and changing bodies and substance abuse issues and more—and each of them presents a chance for your PTO to bring parents together and to help parents with speakers or expert materials or even just networking sessions. If you can play a role here during these tough years for parents, you’ll really have a positive impact (even if your Tuesday night meetings remain empty).

I do know that parent meetings on Internet safety or teen/tween discipline tips still don’t pack them in. That’s why my third conclusion is that you need to:

3. Co-opt the kids for middle school event success.

Here’s the real magic when it comes to middle school family events: How can you make them cool? The answer is, you can’t! The kids can. If you want successful family events in middle school, engage students as idea people and leaders. (Oh, yeah, and don’t call them “family events,” either; “that’s so, like, dumb.”)

Our Parent Group of the Year back in 2004 was the Rosemont Ridge Middle School PTO in West Linn, Ore., and their signature events were multifaceted fun nights with activities chosen by students. They included video game tournaments, basketball and dodgeball games, a Velcro wall, and sumo wrestling with giant padded suits. Another middle school put on a Fear Factor event complete with eating gross concoctions.

The events were beyond cool (and what’s more important than that to a middle schooler?)—and like hiding the peas in the mashed potatoes, parents actually did help organize and chaperone and even got into a lot of the fun. Different from an ice-cream social, but still great parent involvement and parent connections.

If you continually measure your middle school efforts against your grade school successes, you’ll be eternally frustrated. It’s a different time and a different school with different needs. Your involvement is still essential. It’s OK if it looks and feels different. You can still have a significant positive effect if you meet the middle schoolers and their parents at this new place in their lives.

Originally posted in 2011 and updated regularly.

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