Lessons Learned From 15 Years of PTO Today

We began as a way to help leaders, but what we’ve learned along the way has helped us, too.

by Tim Sullivan


This past June marked the 15th anniversary of PTO Today as a company. I honestly can’t believe it.

It was a leap of faith when we started. All we knew was that there were tens of thousands of really great school volunteers across the country with little or no help available to them, and we thought we could be of assistance.

I like to say that many PTO and PTA leaders get their volunteer jobs the same way accidental auction winners get expensive paintings—they scratch their noses at the wrong time in the wrong meeting. That’s as true today as it was in 1999. But today, those accidental leaders can turn to PTO Today to get up to speed quickly and lean on us for resources and ideas and support. That’s really pretty cool.

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Along the way, we added the ptotoday.com website and our School Family Nights series of involvement events. We built software programs for managing volunteers and finances. We’ve hosted more than 25,000 local PTO and PTA leaders in person at our PTO Expos all across the country.

Heck, we even got sued by the National PTA, even though we serve tons of local PTA groups (for free!). Through that process, we learned a lot about our own passion for serving all school volunteers as best we can.

Looking back, I can see several conclusions and lessons learned—about school PTOs and PTAs, about school parents, and about schools—that have made us smarter and better able to serve our readers. A few stand out.

PTO leaders aren’t superheroes. When we started the magazine, we thought of the PTO leader as the amazing mom with everything together who’s able to organize the entire auction by herself, sell all the gift wrap, run every meeting, and still get the perfect meal on the table for her perfect kids every day.

Instead, we’ve learned that the PTO supermom is the rare exception and that the vast majority of PTO moms are doing the best they can and trying to survive the crazy roller coaster like the rest of us. They just have a passion for their kids’ school, and they’ve chosen to add school volunteering to their crazy mix. Usually that means their families are eating takeout and the dining room table is a mess of PTO paperwork. And they are far from perfect.

They’re heroes in our book. But they don’t have superpowers. Just super passion.

PTOs and PTAs take all shapes. We get asked all the time to define parent groups, and we have to answer in the general, because there are 80,000 unique PTOs and PTAs in the 80,000 K-8 schools in the United States. The common denominator is a group of parents trying to make their kids’ school as effective a place as possible.

But it’s amazing how different that can look from one school to another, from tons of volunteers raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for art programs to a couple of parents not raising any money but working with passion on getting families involved with academics. We see bureaucracy and informality. We see PTOs and principals that work nearly as one, and we see wary, contentious PTO-principal relationships.

We’ve learned that there is no right answer for all PTOs, only what’s right for your school, your kids, your volunteers, this year.

Parent groups are essential. While PTO moms and dads and their PTOs aren’t perfect and while every PTO is different, all PTOs play a key role within our school ecosystems. Every bit of academic research on the subject and every bit of anecdotal evidence we’ve gathered in 15 years says the same thing: Parent involvement matters. A lot.

PTOs and PTAs are the ground troops of growing that involvement and channeling it, and we’re the equally essential third corner of the triangle—also including great teachers and effective school administrators—that make up a successful school home for our kids.

It’s been our privilege to serve school volunteers for these 15 years. We’ve had a front-row seat to the best of our country and our schools. Thank you for all you do every day. We look forward to helping you do more of it in the years to come.

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