The Ross Elementary PTO in San Diego focused on improving communication with parents and building involvement last year. The result: more volunteers and broader participation in parent group and school events.

Off to a Good Start

The start of the school year is the ideal time to let parents and school personnel know what the PTO is planning and how they can assist. The Ross PTO recognized the importance of this opportunity and used the excitement of a new year to its advantage.

At the kindergarten orientation, the principal introduced not only the kindergarten teachers but also the parent group board. “We got the chance to talk about what the PTO does,” explains Carina Wheatley, PTO president. “Not only could we introduce the PTO board members, but we had a captive audience when it came to parent participation. We have found that parents who are new to the district or new to school itself are motivated to get involved and are full of creative energy.”

The Ross PTO also holds its spaghetti dinner in the first two weeks of school. “This is a big event, and we don’t wait a month before doing a fundraiser,” Wheatley says. “Above all else, we want parents to find us to be a friendly group. We make it a point to wear our spiritwear at our events and to make sure it’s easy to see who we are.”

The Benefits of Membership

Before last year, the Ross PTO even didn’t hold a membership drive. Now, in addition to actively recruiting members, they ask for dues. They found that having parents commit to a formal membership actually increased participation.

Although a family membership was offered for just $5, more than half of parents opted for the “Blue and Gold” membership for $30. “Families were drawn to the two free food items and drinks we offered to Blue and Gold members for each PTO event,” Wheatley notes. The higher-tier membership also included coupons for local fast food chains, a discount at the school store, and free tickets to certain school events.

“We knew if we offered free food, they’d come,” says Sherry Rodgers-Hayward, Parent Group of the Year committee chairwoman. An impressive 110 families joined the PTO last year, up from 25 active families previously.

“Strange as it may sound, parents liked the idea of membership rather than just filling out volunteer forms,” Wheatley adds. “It gave them something concrete and kept the focus on bringing families in to the school.”

Family Fridays

The Ross PTO was interested in more than simply bringing parents to the school–the group wanted them to be more involved in the classroom. Family Fridays proved the perfect avenue for doing so.

At Family Fridays, classrooms were opened during the last half-hour of the day. Families were encouraged to come in for an activity, such as a spelling bee, which was often arranged by the teachers. A bake sale helped keep everyone nourished, the school store was accessible, and children participated in a free book exchange.

“We arranged for students to catch a late bus home if their parents couldn’t visit,” says Rodgers-Hayward, “so that all kids could participate. This took a lot of coordination with the administration since some of our bus kids come from lower-income regions. We also had permission slips translated into Spanish and Vietnamese so that every parent would understand what we were doing and how their kids would get home.”

The only downside was the frequent scheduling conflicts. “We would have loved to do more of these, but Fridays can get busy,” Wheatley says. “As it was, we were only able to host two such Fridays, but we want to do more next year.”

Fun Run

The PTO still had many events to keep families busy, however. One major fundraiser, the Fun Run for Ross, brought in more than $7,000.

“We wanted to host an event that encouraged exercise,” Wheatley explains. Teachers used the Fun Run as a way to get kids moving. Some even used “lap cards” to tally student efforts in training for the event.

The Fun Run, a student event, was conducted during school hours, and everyone participated. Parents from individual classrooms provided drinks and snacks. PTO tasks were divided into manageable units. “One person helped arrange the site, another did the accounting, still another [handled] promotion,” Wheatley says. “It worked like clockwork, and no one felt burdened.”

Many families ran with their children while others doled out water to hot participants. As part of the event, PTO members performed a skit that taught how to safely go door-to-door during fundraisers. “Kids need to know what to say and do, as well as what not to do. But to be honest, the skit was just a blast to put on!” Rodgers-Hayward exclaims.

The PTO also used a two-way mailer to raise funds and make it easy for parents to respond. Contributors could simply mark off a donation amount, insert a check, and send the check back back in a pre-addressed envelope.

Dress-Up Days

School spirit lagging? The Ross PTO helped boost morale by holding weekly spirit days that not only encouraged parent involvement but also fostered a bit of healthy competition, to boot. Students, teachers, and visiting parents wore spirit T-shirts in school colors on Fridays to show support. The classrooms with the greatest participation over the course of a month received goodies and $50 toward books. Year-end prizes were awarded, as well.

And for those who wanted a more extreme form of dress-up, the annual Ross Halloween Carnival offered a chance for kids to get in costume, play games, and eat good food, without the typical holiday risks.

“We set up about 15 games, plus activities for kids who like to move, such as rock climbing and inflatables,” Rodgers-Hayward says. “It’s all done on the playground, ideally on a Saturday so we have more time to set up.”

Banners, notes home, and flyers posted in local stores publicize the carnival as a fun and affordable community event. Although it’s not a big fundraiser, the carnival is eagerly anticipated by everyone, especially since at least one new activity is added each year. “We’ve had the police, fire fighters, and Army set up equipment that the kids can explore,” Wheatley says, “and we give away plenty of donated gift baskets during our raffle.”

Working Together

What most sets the Ross Elementary parent group apart, though, is its ability to inspire support among all the elements of the school community. “This PTO has proven over and over the value of working collaboratively,” says Ross Principal Charlene Green. “They take the bull by the horns in everything they do and get parents, teachers, and administrators on board to help out.”

Wheatley relates just how much the principal supports their efforts. “At one Family Movie Night, we arrived to find the school’s screens in a locked cabinet. We couldn’t find anyone to open it, and we had a fantastic turnout of families just waiting to see the movie. What could we do? We decided to cut the $20 lock to get into the cabinet.

“Most administrators would have gone through the roof! But our principal understood completely…although I can’t recommend this method as a way to build that initial bond!”

Group at a Glance

Name: Ross Elementary PTO
Location: San Diego, Calif.
Community: population 1.2 million; urban
School size: 470 students
Grades: K-5
Annual budget: $30,000
Typical meeting attendance: 10-15

5 Good Ideas From Ross PTO

Invite the Staff to Lunch
Ross PTO gets teachers and administrators on board early in the school year by holding an event where they can present the PTO’s goals and calendar.

Check-off Sheets for Volunteers
The group makes it easy for parents to help by listing specific volunteer activities on sign-up forms, as well as providing blank space for their own thoughts.

Board Members’ Photos
The group displays photos accompanied by short bios in a visible place at school to help parents put a face to a name.

Meetings During the Summer
Determine your events and calendar ahead of time. The Ross PTO puts out its first newsletter at the start of the school year.

Being Receptive to Eager Volunteers
Parents of kindergartners, especially those whose oldest children are just entering school, are often great prospects.