National Runner-up: Supporting Students, Engaging Families

PGY 2011 National Runner-up

PTO Today's 2011 Parent Group of the Year National Runner-up worked to create fun, interesting ways to engage families and support students at its geographically and economically diverse school.

by Liz O'Donnell


A personal performance by a local band, free books, tickets to a city carnival—they are all pretty terrific prizes for the students at the Pittsburgh Phillips K-5 School. The PTO gives them away as part of the school’s “Phillips Surprise” program, which honors students for following five P’s: being present, prompt, prepared, polite, and productive. But these prizes pale in comparison with the true reward the PTO delivers at the Pittsburgh Phillips School—the reward of engaged, connected families.

In a school as diverse as Pittsburgh Phillips, PTO Today’s 2011 Parent Group of the Year National Runner-up, that’s no easy task. The school of 320 is racially, socioeconomically, and geographically diverse. Up to 70 percent of the student body qualifies for free lunches, while others go on to elite private schools. The PTO’s goal is to create fun and interesting ways to support all students and engage Phillips families because they firmly believe that engagement is key to students’ success.

Family Fun

One way the PTO connects and engages families is by sponsoring and coordinating 35 activities during the school year. These events are designed to be fun and interactive for students, parents, and teachers alike. “There’s a better chance that if you create an opportunity for an individual to have a positive experience, they’ll probably come back [to volunteer again],” says PTO immediate past president Michele Margittai.

A highlight event is field day. Run by the physical education teacher, who is also a parent at the school, and supported by the PTO and Phillips teachers, the event is a full day of outdoor physical activity. More than 50 parents volunteered and local businesses made in-kind donations to help fund last year’s event. Students exercised and ate a healthy lunch at a nearby city park, and they learned the importance of teamwork through relay races—some involving eggs on spoons, plus other games. Each student also received a T-shirt, color-coordinated by grade, with the slogan “We had fun!” emblazoned across the front.

The back-to-school picnic, with 350 attendees this year, is another popular activity and a key event for securing volunteers for the upcoming school year. Held in August, the event gives the PTO the opportunity to pass out state and federal clearance forms to parents and guardians so that they can participate in in-school functions and out-of-school field trips. Similarly, the board welcomes incoming families to the school during a kindergarten orientation, invites parents to PTO activities, and provides contact information for board members.

“As long as you continually and consistently communicate and stay focused on the mission, the rest will come,” Margittai says. “It’s really about creating for the families a way to engage and then eventually connecting them with each other in different ways.”

A big success this year and a shining example of parent participation was the school-hosted “Are you smarter than a 3rd/4th/5th grader?” event, inspired by the popular TV show. More than 175 students and their families watched students face off against their parents to determine who had the better math skills and answer questions related to the state math assessment. Winners received gift certificates to a local family game shop. The event reinforced the lessons the students had learned in class and helped prepare them for the upcoming state test, too.

Making Positive Change

While board members worked tirelessly to coordinate the PTO events, they are particularly proud of the progress they have made with the school’s playground.

Just four years ago, the playground was a small blacktop area confined by a 15-foot-high chain-link fence. The PTO raised money through a coin drive, won a grant from the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh, solicited community donations, and recruited a small army of volunteers to build a soft surface area and construct new play equipment. Kindergarten children planted gardens, and school administrators transformed part of the play area into an outdoor classroom with glass mosaic pictures and benches made from fallen timber.

Also this year, the PTO together with the school encouraged students to support relief efforts in Japan following the devastating earthquake in March. Students could purchase “cherry blossoms” made from miniature cupcake wrappers for $1; proceeds went to an aid organization working in Japan. The blossoms were placed on paper trees on classroom doors, showing the school’s support for those struggling in Japan. The students raised more than $1,500, with the PTO contributing $100 toward their efforts.

The Pittsburgh Phillips PTO firmly believes that engaging families in fun activities creates community among families, students, teachers, and staff, and it ultimately strengthens communication and increases engagement. And as principal Rodney Necciai noted, “Our PTO has accomplished so much throughout the years because of their incredible commitment to all of the students at Phillips. As we move forward, students will directly benefit from the hard work and dedication of the PTO.”

Breaking Down Barriers

The Pittsburgh Phillips K-5 School PTO knows it can be hard for busy, stressed-out families to find the time and the means to get involved with their children’s school activities, especially the extracurricular activities. That’s why they set a goal to connect and engage as many families as possible. Here are three things they did to make that happen:

Remove barriers. “Try to put yourself in [the family’s] shoes,” says PTO past president Michele Margittai. “Talk to as many families as you can. Learn what their barriers are. It could be they have no car, or they work the third shift. They may not want to fundraise, but boy are they great bakers.” Margittai says to find entry points for every family to get involved.

Stop judging the success of your program by the number of people who attend meetings. Volunteer resources are more precious than meeting-goers, Margittai says.

Find ways for families to get involved on their own terms. For the Pittsburgh Phillips PTO, that means breaking down tasks into simple, multiple steps and trying to engage people in those steps.

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