Middle School PTO: A Blueprint for Success

Middle School PTO Blueprint for Success

An in-depth look at what works and what doesn’t in middle school, and how middle school PTOs and PTAs are different from elementary school parent groups.

by Christy Forhan


Your child is moving on to middle school. If you take all your cues from your adolescent, you might think your days as an involved parent are over. Surely it’s uncool for Mom or Dad to be in the hall when kids are changing classes. Your kid will be shunned by their friends if you show up to help in the science lab. And puh-leeze, don’t even think of chaperoning a school trip. Middle schoolers are all about self: figuring out who they are and how they fit into the bigger picture. They don’t need your help, thank you very much.

That might be how we feel as parents of middle schoolers. Our happy-go-lucky babies are maturing into complex young adults, and it’s an awkward time for both parent and child. The children are testing their newly developing independence, and the school is fostering an environment to encourage that growth. So where does that leave the parents who just last year baked hundreds of cupcakes, organized the first-ever Family Reading Night, and planned the in-class art appreciation workshop? Is there still room for a PTO in middle school?

Yes, indeed. The benefits of parent involvement don’t end when children hit middle school. In fact, many experts agree that the need is even greater for parents to stay connected to school during the so-called tween years. The middle school PTO can provide some of that connection.

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The basic PTO model is the same: a structured group of concerned parents, with the cooperation of the school administration and teachers, engaging in activities to support and enhance the educational environment of the school, and build closer connections between home and school. But there are unique aspects of middle school that affect how your PTO engages parents, the types of events your group might plan, and the format and scope of fundraising sponsored by your group. For example, your group might need to scale back its expectations for parent volunteer hours (see “Middle School Parent Involvement Tips”, below). You’ll want to actively include the students in your event planning (“Middle School PTO Events”). You might consider changing the format and focus of parent group meetings (“Middle School PTO Meetings”). And you need to integrate your PTO’s fundraising efforts into those of the other school-sponsored groups (“Middle School PTO Fundraising”).

PTO doesn’t have to end with the start of 6th grade; it just has to adapt.

The Basics: Some Things Don’t Change

Partner With the Principal
The relationship between the principal and the PTO is just as important in middle school as it is in elementary school. The PTO’s ability to be successful still depends on a cooperative partnership, a collaboration of equals, and lots of dialogue. Your PTO cannot plan student functions, access school resources, or communicate with teachers without the support of the building principal. Discuss ideas early and often. And don’t be afraid to encourage your principal to take a few parent involvement risks.

If your principal came up through the ranks as a middle school teacher, she might never have worked in a school with an effective PTO. As a parent group veteran, you might need to educate her on the advantages of a PTO. If you respect the principal’s role as school CEO and stay confident in your experience as a PTO leader, you’ll have the basis for a strong, effective relationship that will serve your school now and into the future.

Organizational Basics Still Apply
The middle school PTO will still handle money, still make decisions, and still have some form of meetings. So like any other enthusiastic organization that wants to survive beyond the tenure of its current leaders, the middle school PTO needs to have bylaws. Bylaws keep the leaders in check and keep the goals of the group at the forefront. They define the basic structure of the group and take emotion out of the operation of the PTO. Follow them if you have them; write them if you don’t have them.

Your PTO’s regularly scheduled business meetings should incorporate the basic guidelines of Robert’s Rules of Order. That means there’s a printed agenda, minutes are taken, and you vote on decisions only when a quorum is present. Your PTO also needs to adhere to universal financial controls, such as the development of an annual budget, the preparation of monthly treasurer’s reports, two signers on every check, and a paper trail for every transaction. From an operations point of view, the middle school PTO won’t look that different than the elementary school PTO you left behind.

Middle School Parent Involvement Tips

Connecting parent to school is still a vital mission of the middle school PTO. But the nature of middle school affects both the level and the type of involvement you can realistically expect from your parent community. First of all, the educational environment in the typical middle school is different from elementary school. Students move from teacher to teacher with each class period. They are expected to take on more responsibility, and the schoolwork is harder.

In general, the classroom culture is more serious in middle school than in elementary school. This could mean there are fewer opportunities for in-class PTO volunteerism or PTO-sponsored enrichment activities like assemblies and field trips.

You might not be able to set up 20 parent-led, in-class weekly reading groups like you did in elementary school, but your PTO volunteers can definitely contribute to the ongoing success of your school. You just need to acknowledge the unique aspects of the middle school years and set your plans accordingly.

Work Around Changes in Parent Availability
Once children hit middle school and are somewhat self-sufficient, many parents increase their own work hours. This year, you may have trouble finding volunteers for daytime PTO activities. Don’t assume a lack of names on your committee sign-up sheets means that middle school parents have lost interest in PTO involvement. Many parents still want to be a part of the school community, but they have to work, too. The secret is to adapt your PTO activities and projects to accommodate this shift in priorities. Define projects with very specific time commitments, identify “at home” tasks, and plan some activities with the working parent in mind. Make it easy to be involved at any level. Build your PTO around a theme that celebrates every contribution, such as PTO Today’s 2 Hour Power pledge program, which asks parents to volunteer for two hours and that’s it.

Make New Friends
In larger school districts, the middle school draws students from more than one elementary school. Therefore, the parents of middle schoolers also come from various schools and PTOs. As a middle school PTO leader, you need to acknowledge this fact and actively work to blend the parents into a new, cohesive PTO. It’s far too easy for the more dominant elementary school PTO veterans to monopolize the middle school PTO. Be sure you have representation from all the feeder schools on your leadership team, even if that means defining a new board position as “ABC Elementary School Representative.” Depending on the past successes of the feeder PTOs, your middle school parents will come in with different experiences and expectations. Embrace those differences and use them—and all your eager volunteers—to build a stronger PTO for your middle school.

Look Beyond In-Class Volunteering
Because of the increased intensity of learning, day-to-day volunteer opportunities may be fewer in middle school than in elementary school. There may still be some in-class need for volunteers, but your PTO will want to look outside the academic classroom for additional ways to enrich the school. Work with your principal and staff members to identify volunteer opportunities in the media center, art room, music program, front office, sports programs, performing arts, etc.

Develop a schoolwide awareness that PTO volunteers are available for any need. Define a point person (volunteer coordinator) whose job is to solicit volunteer opportunities from staff members and match them with available parents. Middle school students (and parents) are no longer connected exclusively to one teacher. Thus, the PTO can serve as the connector: volunteer to opportunity.

Consider Extracurricular and Cocurricular Enrichment
The middle school PTO can also coordinate (or assist the teacher sponsor with coordinating) ongoing clubs and special interest groups appropriate for this older age group. For example, the PTO could sponsor student council, homework club, math club, leadership club, earth science club, yearbook club, cheerleading, running club, and more, depending on the level of interest of your students and parents. Add club sponsorship to the list of ideas you discuss with your principal and use your volunteer coordinator to match ideas with people.

Enhance What Works
Often, the best way to integrate a new PTO into a school is to enhance something that is already in place. This approach is especially applicable to a middle school environment where PTOs are less common, less intuitive. You want to demonstrate that your PTO wants to be a partner with the school, not a disruption. For example, offer to recruit tour guides for 6th grade orientation, assemble the programs and provide decorations for the 8th grade awards assembly, organize a canned goods drive in conjunction with the social studies department’s unit on the Great Depression, provide parents to assist with picture day, offer coffee and baked goods during the teachers’ morning staff meetings. Keep an eye out for opportunities to ease the load, extend an experience, or preserve a tradition.

Be Prepared for Communications Challenges
So much of what a PTO does depends on the sharing of information between school and home. Your Students’ Night Out won’t be a success if the parents don’t know anything about it. In elementary school, it was easy to send home a flyer in students’ backpacks, insert a blurb in the weekly school newsletter, and ask teachers to make an announcement in their classrooms. You could even stick a reminder directly on the kids as they lined up for the afternoon buses.

Much of that changes in the middle school environment. Middle schoolers are expected to be more self-sufficient, to manage information coming from six or seven different teachers each day (sometimes without the benefit of a homeroom), and to deliver news to their parents that they may feel is irrelevant in their self-focused world. Yes, we want to teach our adolescents to be responsible, but the PTO should also be realistic about this age group. Your Doughnuts With Dads chairperson will be disappointed to see the flyers she just distributed scattered through the halls after the final bell because kids couldn’t jam them in their backpacks fast enough to catch the bus.

That is not to say that your PTO leaves the students out of the communications loop. No, not at all; middle schoolers still like special events, still want to have fun (sometimes even with their parents), and still want to be part of something special at the school. But at this age, assume that students are the recipients of news, not necessarily the messengers.

The most effective communication from middle school PTO to home is done adult to adult. Build a Facebook page for your PTO, tweet about PTO activities, capture email addresses for parents (or piggyback off the school’s distribution list), add your events to the school’s online calendar, and identify a core of parents who will help spread PTO news to their friends and neighbors. Post signs outside the school near the pickup area. Have a physical presence at any adult-oriented event such as parent-teacher conferences and Curriculum Night. Plan activities far in advance and repeat the information over and over, through several different channels, to increase the likelihood that your messages make it home.

Establish a New Group Identity
The fundamental mission of a PTO is the same regardless of age group. What you did through your elementary school PTO and why you did it is basically the same for the next level. However, your middle school parent group might benefit from a unique identity. Remembering that the typical middle school combines parents from more than one elementary school, that you want to tap into more than just the supervolunteers that led the PTO last year, and that the middle school PTO can be a genuine parent education resource, you might want to select a name that suggests something different from the elementary schools. The label “PTO” might actually deter middle school parents by calling to mind endless fundraisers, cliques, membership dues, and the black hole of volunteering. Consider your community’s specific situation, and consider selecting a name that will market the group, not “label” it.

Middle School PTO Events

A big part of the role of the PTO is to sponsor events that create a bond between students, parents, and school staff members. The challenge is to design events that fulfill your goals but cater to the unique environment of the middle school years. Adolescents are mature enough to help plan events, they know what they like, and they can provide great ideas to the PTO. Your events will be much more successful if you include the students in the brainstorming and planning.

Ask for a meeting with the student council or leadership class, or a similar group of students. Invite a student representative to join your PTO’s executive board. Let them tell you what will work, then go from there. The PTO can provide the adult perspective and the leadership, but students can design a logo, make posters, sell tickets, select prizes, and DJ the event. You may be in charge, but the kids will decide whether the event is “cool.”

Consider the different levels of student maturity when planning PTO events. A 6th grader in September is barely out of elementary school, whereas an 8th grader in May is looking ahead to high school. Twelve-year-old girls are usually more mature than their male counterparts. Events that are fun for younger students could be decidedly “dorky” to the older kids. Accept that fact and plan accordingly. You may want to design events specifically for each grade level or gender.

You’ll also want to consider the time of year that your school is focused on its mandated achievement tests. With increased requirements for federal and state testing, schools are integrating more and more test preparation into their schedules. So if your state runs its annual proficiency tests in October, don’t expect to get much attention from the teachers in September. On the other hand, if your testing is completed in early May, the teachers might be anxious to be involved in a special PTO-led project to close out the year.

In middle school, it’s also OK for the PTO to plan events exclusively for adults. Parents of middle schoolers share the common challenge of raising an adolescent, but it can be hard to connect with other parents when the kids are more self-directed. The PTO can help build the connections.

Bringing together parents (and staff, too) for a low-key event provides a relaxed environment where people can share stories, get to know each other, and build a bond over common experiences. For example, the PTO could sponsor a periodic morning coffee with the principal or an adults-only euchre tournament that coincides with a student event.

Middle School PTO Meetings

Your group still needs to meet on a regular basis to cover the business side of the PTO, such as future planning and financial reporting. That doesn’t change. However, you can transform the middle school PTO meeting to attract parents who had never participated in PTO activities before. Change the priority for your meetings from business to education. Offer a series of presentations specifically designed for your parent community. For example, counselors from your school can speak on standardized testing for middle schoolers and long-range planning for success in high school. Parents of adolescents might be concerned about Internet safety in general, and Facebook in particular. Individual teachers can speak on topics relevant to their specialty, such as a new science curriculum or technology in the classroom.

You can recruit guest speakers from your local library, parks and recreation department, and school district administration office. Also feature the school principal on every agenda to share news about the school and take general questions from attendees. Be sure to take time for people to introduce themselves so parents can start to make connections with each other. The new PTO meeting is a useful service for the school’s community.

Although the primary focus for the new PTO meeting is educational, don’t dispense with all the business elements of your PTO meeting. In your agenda, transition smoothly from the educational presentation to an update on the upcoming book drive, a report on the plans for the walkathon, and a call for assistance with the staff appreciation luncheon. Finish with the standard reports from the secretary and treasurer. As long as you have quorum by the time you make any motions, you can run the PTO. Demonstrate, through a thorough but efficient business portion, that your group is well-run and worthy of support from the parent community. Attendance will follow. A parent who attended because she was interested in the guest speaker might meet the mother of that new friend her son has been texting, and be inspired to volunteer for the dodgeball tournament. That’s the sign of a successful middle school PTO meeting.

Middle School PTO Fundraising

Fundraising doesn’t go away in middle school. In fact, in some ways it just gets bigger.

Middle schools usually have specialty classes, extracurricular clubs, and sports teams that do their own fundraising. The PTO’s fundraising is just one of many appeals from school to home. Middle school parents are pulled in several directions for their limited fundraising support: Do they buy cookie dough from the drama club or wrapping paper from the student council?

Generally, the PTO raises funds to enhance parent involvement and the educational experience schoolwide. But the parent community might view your fundraiser as yet another request for a handout. Be careful to communicate the PTO’s fundraising objectives clearly and to tie your appeal to specific categories. A single major PTO fundraiser, promoted as the way to support the school as a whole, will probably be more successful than lots of smaller fundraising programs that must compete with those of other groups.

There are several ways to raise funds for the middle school PTO. Sales fundraisers are tried-and-true. Professional turnkey programs take much of the work off PTO volunteers. However, when evaluating a sales fundraiser, be sure the prize incentive program will appeal to tween students. Also consider the logistics of any fundraiser that requires students to return materials to the school. You may want to station PTO volunteers in the halls or cafeteria to collect fundraising envelopes, especially if your school doesn’t have a homeroom period.

“-Athon” fundraisers can also work in middle school if tailored for the older audience. For example, 8th graders might not be excited about supporting the same fun run concept that they did in 3rd grade, but if you let the kids run indoors, through the school halls, the event takes on a completely fresh dimension. A walkathon might seem boring to the middle schoolers, but a dance-athon complete with age-appropriate music and dance instructors could garner their support. The middle school PTO can also manage programs that quietly raise funds for the group, such as spiritwear sales, picture day, a student directory, and a school supply store.

Because of all the competing activities in middle school, the PTO might not raise as much money as the elementary school PTO. A bigger school population doesn’t always translate into more money for your PTO. Don’t let that discourage your leadership team. Be realistic about the funds you can raise, budget accordingly, and promote the good works of your group. The most effective PTOs, elementary or middle, are the ones that primarily strive to enhance the home-school connection. Fundraising is a tool, not a mission.

Originally posted in 2011 and updated regularly.

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