A community is a group with shared interests. The most vibrant communities also feel a sense of camaraderie and work together to pursue a common vision. For parent groups, it can be a real challenge to create a community where everyone—parents, students, teachers, and administrators—feels like a stakeholder. But the payoff is tremendous. 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.

Moving Toward Unity

Every institution has unique obstacles. 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.

During the meetings, interaction among attendees is encouraged by seating them at small round tables, and centerpieces with snacks and a raffle for a small prize (such as a $5 Starbucks gift card) help create a festive atmosphere.

“There are over 25 different languages spoken by families at Halley, so it is so important to create an open and welcoming environment to such a diverse community,” Stroup says. “The school and PTO try to work together to create an inclusive environment, and I think that all of the students benefit from the sense of community created hand in hand with recognition of students’ diversity.”

Social events are a good way to build connections among parents. The Condit Elementary PTO in Bellaire, Texas, hosts what PTO president Pegi Newhouse calls “family bonding events” such as family fun night (with the fee waived for about 100 families through PTO scholarships) and a monthly Condit Night Out at a local restaurant.

Each Condit Night Out draws a big crowd and provides an informal setting for socializing. “I think that seeing other parents in a setting away from school, we get to know one another better,” Newhouse says. “We talk about our backgrounds, where we grew up, our interests—outside of volunteering, of course. We also invite the teachers and school staff, which lets us get to know them more as individuals. We usually realize that we all have a lot more in common than our kiddos attending the same school.”

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. “Everybody gets a name tag,” says PTO president Ann Gowgiel. “Everybody can meet somebody new and can find somebody in their child’s class.” Other social events include Donuts With Dad and Muffins With Mom, in which children have breakfast with their parents in the cafeteria and parents have a chance to chat with teachers, and a movie night held outdoors in October. All these events are free.

And a parent who’s a photographer volunteered to take and post oversized photos from events in the school lobby three times a year. “Walking in, seeing children active and smiling, creates a sense of home and community right there,” Gowgiel says.

Posting photos not only of students but also of staff and parent volunteers can help make the school feel more welcoming to visitors. So can student artwork or other efforts displayed on bulletin boards. And consider asking parents to help keep the walkways and hallways spruced up. In fact, a PTO committee might be charged with viewing the school through different perspectives, such as parents new to the school or those with limited English language skills. Are more signs needed? Are people being greeted in a friendly way?

Open to 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.

Money is also a consideration at Willis Elementary, where the PTO stopped charging parents a membership fee eight years ago. “We never wanted anybody to have to pay to be part of a group where their children go to school,” Gowgiel says.

Welcome Participation

A key point in building community occurs when a parent expresses interest in getting involved. For instance, if parents volunteer to help, it’s vital that someone contact them. “When I came here five years ago, that was my complaint,” says Jennifer Weaver, PTO president at Vestavia Hills Elementary at Liberty Park in Vestavia Hills, Ala. “I thought, ‘You complain at these meetings that you don’t have enough volunteers, but I sent my name in six times and haven’t been contacted.’ That really bothered us. Those parents deserve a call back or an email. And we will usually get to you in a week.”

And if you have too many volunteers? Find a place for everyone. Weaver says that some years her group has many more room mom 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, then acknowledge and act on those results. And 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 such 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.”

And 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,” she says. “What set me apart was that I worked full-time and the PTO met at 10 in the morning. But there are parents from much more challenging situations than I had who have a child in school who need to be involved, who need to be a part of the network but often feel like they just don’t belong. And even if they’re moxie enough to want to belong, they don’t feel like they’re welcome.”

Rob Evans, executive director of Human Relations Service in Wellesley, Mass., has seen the same kinds of issues in his consulting work with schools. “The reality is that there are often cultural differences,” he says. “For example, in Asian culture, you don’t mess with the school. There are different assumptions about the appropriate degree of parent involvement.” So consider the needs and expectations of your population, and seek ways to draw them in.

And even though it might seem like a lot of effort for limited results, keep soliciting that involvement. “We caution parent leaders against feeling like ‘I’ll just do it myself; I know how to do it,’” Raimondo says. “If you’re focusing on building community, part of the focus is in having other people around to be doing things.” She suggests building personal relationships by calling or chatting at school with parents you don’t know. “Spend time getting to know them before enlisting them in the network unless that follows naturally in that first conversation,” she says.

It can help to explain to parents why their presence at school is so important. “If someone is thinking about getting involved but is not sure, I always tell them that kids love to see their parents at school even though they may not say it all the time,” Newhouse says. “If they see parents in the hall helping to decorate for a breakfast or counting school supplies, it makes a difference to them. It makes them feel that their school is valuable and valued.”

Of course, building community is more than just getting people involved, but creating involvement is one element (and benefit) of creating a strong community. If you have that strong community feeling, you have something that people will naturally want to be a part of.

Then make it easy to volunteer. Willis uses a website where parents can sign up for specific tasks such as “picking up 700 donuts on Thursday the 16th”; the site also sends out a reminder email. At Legacy Elementary in Madison, Ala., dads can sign up for the Watch D.O.G.S. (Dads of Great Students) program at a hot dog cookout kickoff where they can write in their name on a large calendar out on the football field, says PTO president John McFarland. The Watch D.O.G.S. program has a different dad spend a day at school to welcome kids from the buses and cars, monitor classrooms, and walk the perimeter during lunch, as well as to go into his child’s classroom to talk about his job. He gets a Watch D.O.G.S. T-shirt and his photo taken in the shirt with his child; that photo goes on a bulletin board in a hallway.

Thank-yous are also important for people to feel appreciated, though that task can be overwhelming for big events. At Vestavia Hills, the PTO uses a corporate-style structure. For their carnival, for instance, the chair of the event wrote a thank-you note to each of the 32 committee heads. Those committee heads each wrote notes of appreciation to the eight people under them, then those eight people wrote to others. “Whoever they deal with is the one who does that,” Weaver says.

Perhaps the easiest way to get people involved is to offer a nonthreatening, fulfilling job. 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 too 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 community is born.

Simple Ways To Be Welcoming

Ye Who Enter Here: Take a good look at your school’s entryway. Is it clean and bright? Or has it become dingy 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.

Interior Decorating: Bare hallways tend to give a school an industrial feeling. Decorating with student artwork can completely change the mood.

Getting To Know You: Making parents feel comfortable at the school is a major step in engaging them in the educational process. Hold events where parents can bond with each other. This can be especially effective for parents who have children in the same grade.

Small Things Matter: 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.