Editor’s note: For the time being, circumstances have changed since we first published this article. As the situation with coronavirus currently stands (August 2020), schools districts across the country are still deciding how they'll reopen in the fall. So while we’ve included the original ideas in the article, be sure to reference your state’s guidelines for social distancing during any gatherings or events. (We’ve also included some virtual ways to be welcoming at the end of this article.)

A community is a group with shared interests. For parent groups, it can be a challenge to create a community where everyone—parents, students, teachers, and administrators—works in sync. But when a cohesive team goes after the same goals, much more is possible.

Building parent involvement and finding volunteers becomes easier at a school with a great community. But creating a sense of community is more than that. It’s making sure that parents feel welcome and comfortable at school, engaged in its mission and goals, and included in the conversation.

Bridge Gaps, Build Connections

At Halley Elementary in Fairfax Station, Va., the PTO faces the challenge of joining two communities split by Interstate 95. Though the children on either side attend the same school, the rest of their lives are separate, from their sports leagues to the grocery stores where their families shop.

To bridge the divide, the PTO alternates the site of events, with some at the school and some at the town library, says PTO president Juliana Stroup. When events take place at the school, a bus (paid for by either the school or the PTO) sometimes picks up parents and children at the library. The group also alternates its meeting times—some meetings are in the daytime to encourage teachers and students to participate, and others are in the evening to involve working parents.

Challenge accepted! Concrete steps for a great start to the school year

Social events are always a good way to build bonds among parents and families. The Condit Elementary PTO in Bellaire, Texas, hosts what PTO president Pegi Newhouse calls “family bonding events” such as family fun night and a monthly Condit Night Out at a local restaurant. You could also hold some fun events just for adults.

Taking event photos is another way to make connections. After each Condit Night Out, photos from the event are posted on a big bulletin board by the front office, reinforcing the sense that those connected to the school are part of a community.

At Robert E. Willis Elementary in Bradenton, Fla., the PTO hosts a morning coffee on the first day of school, as well as Donuts With Dad and Muffins With Mom at other points in the year. “Everybody gets a name tag,” says PTO president Ann Gowgiel. “Everybody can meet somebody new and can find somebody in their child’s class.”

Include Everyone

As important as including people is to avoid excluding them. To help make non-English-speaking parents welcome at PTO meetings at Condit Elementary, a volunteer translates the proceedings into Spanish into headphones, and the PTO website can be translated into 12 languages.

At Halley Elementary in Virginia, ever since a house fire—caused by candles after a family couldn’t pay the electric bill—claimed the life of a student, the PTO is dedicated to watching out for its own. One-fourth of its annual budget goes to the Total Child Fund, which school counselors use to pay for field trips, lunches, school supplies, class T-shirts, and coats for children from low-income families. Counselors also have unlimited free tickets to school events that they distribute as needed.

Welcome All Participation

A key point to building community and being welcoming is reaching out to anyone who expresses interest in getting involved.

There’s no such thing as “too many” volunteers—find a place for everyone. Jennifer Weaver, PTO president at Vestavia Hills Elementary at Liberty Park in Vestavia Hills, Ala., says that some years her group has many more room parent volunteers than they need, so they split the duties. “People want to be in their child’s classes,” she says. “We had to find a solution. We break it up for different holidays so everyone still has a part.” Prompt and positive feedback is important. If parents have completed a survey about what they want the PTO to do, acknowledge and act on those results. If someone presents an idea at a meeting, don’t squash it.

Bev Raimondo, director of the Center for Parent Leadership at the Prichard Committee in Lexington, Ky., suggests writing all ideas down on a chalkboard or flip chart, then using straw polling to prioritize. “Give people three votes,” she says. “That way it becomes a group decision.”

Also consider how the way you schedule events can sometimes end up excluding some parents. Raimondo remembers feeling left out as a parent herself. “The PTO was well-established at my children’s school, and they were not always receptive to new people coming in if those new people were at all different”—for example, if they worked full-time or had other challenges to being involved, she says.

She suggests building personal relationships by calling or chatting at school with parents you don’t know and explaining why their presence at school is so important. “Spend time getting to know them before enlisting them in the network unless that follows naturally in that first conversation,” she says. Make Volunteering Easy (and Fulfilling) Perhaps the easiest way to get people involved is to offer fulfilling or convenient jobs.

Phil McMillian, who worked nights when his daughter was in kindergarten, remembers being asked to pass out popcorn to children at a school event at Waller Elementary in Bossier City, La. Before long, he had changed jobs and become the PTO president. “If you give someone a simple task to involve them, they feel like they’re accomplishing something. You get their foot in the door. They see what we do. Then they say, ‘What else can I do?’” From those first steps, a welcoming community is born.

27 Easy Jobs for School Volunteers

9 Ways To Make Volunteering Easier


Simple Ways To Be Welcoming

Create a warm environment: Take a good look at your school’s entryway. Is it clean and bright? Or has it become dingey over time? A little cleanup, some paint touchup, and a bit of landscaping can make a big difference in how it feels to enter your school. Bare hallways tend to give a school an industrial feeling. Decorating with student artwork can completely change the mood.

Bring them together: Hold events where parents can bond with each other. This can be especially effective for parents who have children in the same grade. (If needed, you can hold some smaller get-to-know-you events outdoors with appropriate social distancing protocols, or virtually with Zoom or another videoconferencing tool.)

Level the playing field: Ask people to wear name tags at events and meetings. Some may complain, but it puts people on an equal footing—even if “everybody” knows you are the PTO president. Make a special effort to meet newcomers. And appoint greeters to make sure people feel comfortable at events.

Offer a range of opportunities: Giving new volunteers of tasks that can be done fairly simply (and many from home or distanced) sends the message that you welcome them and want their participation.

Stay in touch: This one’s simple, but it means a lot—and it’s easy to do regardless of state guidelines. Regularly touch base with new families, whether informally (even a quick text) or via a welcoming committee.

Be social (virtually): Use social media in a welcoming way. Consider posting shout-outs to new families and volunteers, and encourage them to post event photos on your page.

Be mindful of your population: Make an extra effort with families for whom English isn’t the primary language. Consider printing parent handbooks in another language and having interpreters on hand for meetings.

Originally posted in 2012 and updated regularly