Not a lot happens in the small town of Coxsackie, N.Y., but thanks to the PTO, Coxsackie Elementary is another story. The 282-student, K-4 school in the Catskill Mountains buzzes with social and educational activities organized by parent volunteers. The Coxsackie PTO’s sizable volunteer base, creative programs, and strong community support earned it the Judges’ Choice Award in PTO Today’s 2012 Parent Group of the Year search.
Hurricane Irene hit the area in late August 2011, causing flooding and street closures in Coxsackie and heavy damage in surrounding towns. Although floodwaters didn’t reach Coxsackie Elementary, they delayed the start of classes for a week, until county roads were deemed safe. “There was a renewed sense of community, I think, that happened because of Hurricane Irene,” says vice president Jenny French. “There’s a sense of bonding that happens.”
To encourage social bonds among parents, the PTO sponsored an adults night out at a local restaurant in the fall. Parents could enjoy dinner, drinks, and dancing and enter raffles for donated prizes. “We proved PTO members can have fun,” says president Lynda Aucompaugh.
Parents got the message. A volunteer coordinator surveyed parents on their interests and boosted the volunteer ranks by more than 50 percent from the previous year, to about 50 frequent volunteers. Faculty involvement increased, too. At the same time, fundraising revenues jumped from about $10,000 to $18,000.
“We do have a giving community, and it is very similar to small-town USA, but I think it really stems from the way we have increased communication,” says Aucompaugh of the increased parent support. Through an email list, website, and Facebook page, the PTO keeps the school community informed about what it plans and how much money it raises and spends.
“Our whole thought process is we need to run it like a business,” Aucompaugh says.
The PTO focused on offering free or low-cost events at the Title I school, including a soup and poetry family night. For Dr. Seuss’ birthday, the PTO hosted a birthday party at the school and invited families to a discounted screening of The Lorax at a local movie theater. The PTO provided popcorn and drinks for free. At a Breakfast With Santa event, families could get free pictures of their children with Santa Claus. No-cost refreshments were provided at another event, where parents and kids could try speed stacking.
The PTO’s nutritional committee launched the monthly Tasting Tuesday program, where students could try healthy foods like star fruit and pomegranates during lunch. Each student received a sticker for trying the food. Afterward, students voted on whether they liked each one or not. (One vote showed that Coxsackie Elementary students preferred red bell peppers to green ones.) As a result of the program, the school cafeteria has added a healthy rice dish to its menu. The Aucompaugh family has started eating bell peppers at home, too.
PTO leaders are quick to point out that they couldn’t have accomplished so much without the support of numerous businesses and organizations. Two mothers headed up the effort to boost business support. A public relations professional who commutes to New York City offered to approach some businesses. When donations started coming in, a stay-at-home mom began to visit local establishments during business hours to ask for help.
The sole local grocery store and a food co-op provided food for the Tasting Tuesdays. A florist supplied flowers for Secretary’s Day. Companies said yes when asked to buy ads in the PTO’s first school yearbook, which was given to students for free.
To promote a dinner and basket raffle held the day of a school budget vote, a local company donated a sign displayed on the town’s main street. The locally owned phone company inserted flyers for the event into its monthly bill. School district employees saw the event promoted in their paychecks, and were given a reduced price on the barbecue chicken dinner. Community members came to the school to vote, eat dinner, and talk with their neighbors.
The group completed some school improvement projects last year, too. The PTO donated an outdoor courtyard and learning center to the school, and won a Lowe’s Toolbox for Education grant to install permanent cork strips for the display of student artwork. This school year, the Coxsackie PTO plans to build a wall garden and grow herbs and spices for the cafeteria.
Throughout the year, the PTO’s programs drew positive press from the local newspaper. The PTO has built goodwill in the community through good communication, organization, and professionalism. Still, leaders give much of the credit to the school’s parents.
“We’re such a small school and we have the most wonderful volunteers who are so willing to give,” French says. “There’s not a lot of things to do in the community, so people are very focused on their kids. They’re very willing to open their hearts and their wallets for the kids.”
Approaching Local Businesses
Coxsackie Elementary PTO leaders offer these tips for making connections with local businesses and organizations.
• Use parent connections. Identify where parents work and approach businesses owned or managed by school parents.
• Appoint some members to reach out to community institutions. The PTO benefited from a few outgoing volunteers who were comfortable asking for donations.
• Say “please” and “thank you.” Ask courteously for support and thank each person verbally and with a thank-you letter or email.
• Keep good records—especially if more than one person is asking for contributions.
• Thank donors publicly. The Coxsackie Elementary PTO mentions event sponsors on flyers and posts messages on Facebook, including a link to the business’s Facebook page, when possible.