It was a brief three minutes amidst a long, exciting day, but it told about all we needed to know about Symmes Elementary School and the Symmes PTO. With TV cameras rolling and local media buzzing about, we announced the winner of our first-ever Parent Group of the Year search and presented Symmes PTO President Lisa Keeling with a $2,000 first-prize check. Big shots that we think we are, we figured that Keeling and Symmes Principal Ron Brooks and Sycamore School District Superintendent Karen Mantia would follow up with effusive praise for the PTO and PTOtoday magazine.

We were wrong.

In quick succession, Keeling and Brooks and Mantia each took to the microphone to downplay the accomplishments of the adults in the room and remind the 500 cheering children that Symmes has the best students in the country.

Serve the children. Deflect attention. Help the community. Keep the important goal—working for the children—in mind. Create a wonderful atmosphere for learning. It’s the Symmes recipe for PTO success and the reason why we were proud to make Symmes our first national Parent Group of the Year.

Reacting to Tragedy

Nothing makes the Symmes commitment to others more clear than the PTO’s reaction to a devastating tornado that ripped through the district in April 1999.

“The tornado displaced more than 50 Symmes families (and 100 Symmes students—more than 20 percent of the school population). Guided by our school nurse, a group of PTO members rushed to the aid of these families,” wrote PTO Secretary Susan Johnstal in her application.

PTO member Laura Barnes remembers those days as if it they were yesterday. She ticks off dozens of the group’s relief efforts with ease: providing furniture and bedding and temporary quarters for displaced families, a weekly newsletter about aid opportunities, soliciting (and registering and delivering) donations of cars, quickly finding a refrigerator for a diabetic mom worried about her insulin. The list goes on and on.

Johnstal’s application essay continues: “While providing tornado relief, we uncovered pre-existing needs that also cried out for help. Some of the children had no beds, washing machines, or reliable transportation. From the tornado tragedy grew the PTO Family Assistance Committee. Each year, this compassionate group discreetly assists families by providing them with things they need (furniture, appliances, etc.). We also collect books, clothing, and holiday gifts for fellow students. PTO provides tickets to our carnival, offers free books at our book fair, pays for class pictures, and builds a community of givers so that each child can participate fully in his/her school experience.”

Barnes, who now heads the Family Assistance Committee for the PTO, looks to the group’s simple mission statement for direction. “The Family Assistance Committee will stabilize family issues that directly impact family life,” it reads, “so that children can successfully function in school."

But the Symmes PTO’s winning credentials extend beyond the Family Assistance Committee. A quick read of the group’s calendar displays the myriad activities typical of so many groups. The all-school auction, the book fair, support for many arts and enrichment programs, an after-school drama group (The Symmes Players), and much, much more.

Their achievements, big and small, are on display throughout the school grounds. Driving up to the school, you immediately see a new PTO project in the works—the Symmes Peace Garden, which includes a multilanguage peace pole and gardens planned and cultivated by students.

Walk in the building (past the ubiquitous “Box Tops box”) and you’ll see guest badges lined up in columns of 10—makes sense when you consider that the Symmes PTO has 40 committee chairs alone. Go a bit further and notice student artwork on every wall, and you can sense the spirit in the school. It’s the unique atmosphere of schools with extra-special PTOs. And, like at all those schools, the common denominator is the children.

“We want to make the children’s school experience the best it can be,” explains Johnstal. That is what we keep in mind when we spend money, organize our carnival, bring programming into the school, and give to children in need.”

Welcoming Participation

Certainly, a large part of the Symmes PTO’s success can be credited to the tremendous support the PTO receives from the school community at large. Sixty percent of Symmes families (and 90 percent of Symmes faculty) joined the PTO this year, and more importantly, “at least 50 percent of our membership is actively involved in the PTO,” according to PTO Vice President Amal Williams.

So how do they do it in a day when many PTOs struggle to get any support?

“We have a school where people feel comfortable,” reports Keeling, a not-surprising revelation to anyone who meets Keeling and her enthusiastic six-person executive board.

The group maintains a New Family Welcome Committee to ensure that new faces know right away that they are part of a community. And, according to Corresponding Secretary Soody Fallahi, the school’s annual Cultural Fair has been another key to opening doors.

During the fair, the school community spends three days celebrating the family histories of all Symmes children, an effort that ties into the 25 different nationalities represented in the building. Thirty percent of Symmes’ student body comes from minority populations. “A lot of the parents who get involved in the Cultural Fair are exactly the parents who don’t even know what a PTO is,” according to Fallahi.

In fact, Fallahi was one of those parents just a few years ago. A recent immigrant from Iran, her background doesn’t include Harper Valley PTA or images of moms at the bake sale. “When I was not involved, I just found the Cultural Fair so wonderful.” Today, Fallahi is a leader of the PTO and a cheerleader for parent involvement.

The group makes a point to reach out to those parents who can’t be in the school during the day, as well. PTO Treasurer Karin Noland reports that the school’s “Baker’s Brigade” is often supported by parents who, while they may not be able to make every event in person, enjoy the chance to chip in.

Parent Group of the Year

The Symmes executive board was just “thrilled” to hear about the Parent Group of the Year honor, according to Fallahi. Keeling actually kept the award a secret until she could get her entire leadership team together, quite a challenge with a group so large.

“It’s really an honor for all our volunteers, all the parents and all the staff,” says Johnstal. “It’s just so nice that the entire group can feel acknowledged.” And of their perhaps-brief moment in the sun, she adds: “Our 15 minutes of fame is wonderful!”

Of course, the $2,000 grand prize is pretty nice, too. Unsurprisingly, the Symmes PTO has already earmarked a portion of the winnings to pay for summer camp scholarships for deserving Symmes students. We’d expect nothing less from a group so focused on others.