The first step in planning what comes next for your PTO or PTA is figuring out where you are now. Parent groups can do amazing things for schools and for kids, but it’s important to set realistic goals and to take the necessary steps before reaching for every star.

After years of observing parent group successes and challenges, I can tell you that the good news is that those steps are fairly well-defined. Depending on where you are now as a group, your next steps (and the pitfalls you should watch out for) are outlined below.

The Startup PTO

If your group is just starting (or, because of years of languishing, is starting over), then you have some terrific opportunities in front of you. You want to see some nice successes in these early years while also cementing the foundation for future growth.

For the Startup PTO, the recipe is twofold: First, work hard to find a base of parents (five or more) who will most likely be around for several more years and who can serve as leaders in getting things established or reestablished. Second, while getting things off the ground, find two or three manageable new initiatives that you can execute successfully.

Pitfall: Work hard to avoid the fundraising trap. Otherwise, your easiest early success could be running a traditional fundraiser and handing over the profits to buy good stuff for the school. While that’s certainly not bad, it does set a tone for what your group will (mostly) be about. And it’s difficult to attract loads of volunteers to a group that’s primarily about fundraising.

Secret tip: Do all you can to talk positively about your school, your new parent group, and your volunteers. Use spirit and appreciation and fun in your marketing. No guilt!

The Going-Along PTO

This is the group that’s been operating for a while now and doing fine, just fine. You run several fund­raisers, host several family events, provide teacher appreciation funds—all good stuff. But it’s getting tougher and tougher to keep energy up and renew volunteers, and some of your events seem a bit less well-regarded than in years past.

For the Going-Along PTO, my recommendation focuses on energy. If you feel like your group has a case of the blahs, then tackle those. Have the hard discussion to cancel an event or two or shake up the fundraising mix, and definitely try to upgrade one of your existing efforts (or a whole new effort) to become a signature event for your school. Think of what John F. Kennedy did when he told the country we were going to the moon even before scientists knew how it could be done.

Signature events attract more and better volun­teers and get your group the positive attention it deserves. And they’re a great cure for the blahs. Attracting those kinds of volunteers and that kind of positive attention is also a great step for groups to eventually graduate to Highly Effective.

Pitfall: Be careful about counting on just one single super volunteer to make your signature event a standout. She may be great, but she won’t be around forever. For sure, use her skills and enthusiasm, but work hard to make sure that the systems for your signature event don’t rely on one hard-to-replace person.

Secret tip: The Going-Along PTO tends to give off the clique vibe even when not trying to. The same folks do the same events in the same way, and to outsiders that appears to be a closed loop. Work to dispel that impression. Mandate that new blood be brought into all roles whenever possible.

The Highly Effective PTO

The Highly Effective PTO has reached a level within the school where parents (and the parent group) are truly considered integral to the school’s success. Parents are brought into school policy and planning discussions. The work and goals of the group are integrated closely with the needs of the school. And teachers, administrators, and parents are a team.

Think about a school where math test scores just won’t move. The Highly Effective PTO at that school will be a part of the discussion to help solve the problem; they will collaborate with the math staff on, say, a series of math-based family events, they will perhaps be the engine behind an after-school math enrichment program, and they may even be a fund-driver for a new math curriculum.

It’s a powerful role for a PTO or PTA and a great thing for a school. The trick is that it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time to build the systems and trust and success and parent leadership that seem to be prerequisites for opening those doors to true partnership.

Pitfall: This kind of integration also comes with responsibility and a need for maturity. Teachers are still the first experts on math instruction, and not all school processes and discussions are best aired at an open PTO meeting. The Highly Effective PTO leader will keep things in balance.

Secret tip: The Highly Effective PTO should try to let others within the school get the glory. You don’t have a job or career on the line; you just want a great school for the kids. Let the superintendent or the principal or the teachers be the heroes, while you (with their help) go about making a big difference for your school.

No matter which profile your group fits, focusing first on growing parent involvement and staying positive remain first priorities. With hard work and a step-by-step approach, you can and will find success. Good luck!