A high-profile goal or signature event will rally your school community and build excitement.

by Craig Bystrynski


Do you know what your group will be able to accomplish this year?

Silly question, right? You have 10 months ahead of you that could unfold in many untold directions. Maybe somebody will come up with an idea for a great family event that will define your year. That happened to the Albertville Elementary PTO in Albertville, Ala., where they staged the "Womanless Fashion Show." The husbands dressed up in women’s clothes to show off the latest trends. People talked about it for months.

At Hollifield Station Elementary in Ellicott City, Md., a school with a large and varied population of nonnative English speakers, the key event was American Culture Night. Parents rotated through mini-classes to find out more about school policies and expectations. They learned, for instance, that American teachers expect students to maintain eye contact and participate frequently in class—contrary to cultures where students are taught to look away from elders and not question authority. The parents also learned about the importance of parent involvement in education, a concept that is unknown in some cultures. The result: a broader reach and a new direction for the PTA.

At Scotch Elementary in West Bloomfield, Mich., the PTO rallied 70 parents and community members to participate in an "Ellis Island Immigration Simulation," which occurred over two school days. The event tied together a major curriculum focus covering nearly every area of study and involving the entire school. During the simulation, students moved from station to station in the school cafeteria to have their passports checked, be examined for head lice and general health, take a citizenship test, and more. The project created a stronger bond between the school and PTO and brought in many volunteers who didn’t traditionally support PTO activities.

For your group, the signature event might be an auction or a movie night or a talent show. Or something entirely different. On the other hand, maybe you’ll be called upon to respond to some emergency. A power surge fries all the computers in the lab. Can you find the funds to buy some more? The city inspector finally condemned that rusty old playground equipment. What do you do now?

Parent groups are good at responding to difficult situations and pursuing new ideas on short notice. Especially if you haven’t done any long-term planning, these kinds of issues can define your year.

Here’s another question: How will you build your group this year? Everyone wants to increase parent involvement, but do you have a plan? Holding an orientation event for kindergarten parents is good. Creating a welcome packet helps. So does keeping a high profile at all school events. But if you really want to build momentum rather than just attracting new people here and there, you have to get people excited. Terrific events do that. A night of hilarity like the Womanless Fashion Show makes people think the PTO is fun and successful.

You could spend some time planning a special event to use as a springboard to build involvement. And that’s a good idea. But that event only occurs once a year. After you do it, the question is what are you going to do for an encore?

A way to build more sustained excitement is to create a goal for your group, to plan now what you are going to accomplish by the end of the year. Come up with a big idea and get people to rally around it. People like to know that their donations of time or money (or both) are accomplishing something. That’s why major projects like outfitting the computer lab or building a new playground can be so great for involvement. People can see what needs to be done, and they want to help do it.

But your rallying cry doesn’t have to be about buying or building something—especially if your school doesn’t need a new play structure or computer lab. You could pursue a more educational goal. For example, maybe your school’s literacy test scores are low and the principal would like to bring them up. Your group could focus its year on reading and literacy events. You could organize family reading nights, bring in an author to speak, hold a book fair, donate new books to the library, create a reading contest, or give kids prizes for reading a certain amount.

For example, Birch Primary School PTA in North Olmsted, Ohio, created the "Million Minute Reading Challenge." The stated goal was for students to spend a total of 1 million minutes reading during the school year. Of course, the real goal was to get kids excited about reading and to complement the curriculum and their education. It succeeded fabulously. The challenge kicked off with a rally and the release of more than 300 helium-filled balloons on Oct. 1. It ended in early May with an assembly, a parade, and a picnic after the goal had been met.

"We met not only our objective of having the students acquire a love for reading, but we surpassed that by becoming unified as a Birch family that had one common goal," said teacher Denise Ressler. (Read the full story of the Million Minute Reading Challenge.)

How do you create your own big idea? Talk to the principal and teachers about what they’ll be focusing on this year. Talk to your group members about what they think is important. Survey parents on different topics. There are many ways to gather ideas.

The Million Minute Reading Challenge developed from brainstorming to address Birch Primary’s low reading scores among second- and third-graders. At Scotch Elementary, the school’s theme for the year was "Mission: Possible." The immigration focus was based on the principal’s idea that emigrating to the United States in the early 1900s was "one of the greatest missions ever undertaken by ordinary people."

Your big idea will work best if it’s supported by the principal and the teachers. But it doesn’t have to be curriculum-oriented. Maybe your goal is to build community, to create a more unified atmosphere and more support for the school’s important work. In that case, you might look for ways to bring various groups together. A multicultural potluck, where people bring foods from their own culture, can be a great unifying event. A cultural talent show, where people demonstrate native dance and other arts, for example, is another great unifying event. String similar events and projects together, and soon you have a theme.

Whatever you choose to do, be creative. People will rally around a powerful idea, and it will generate a lot of excitement for your group. So don’t be afraid to think big. It’s what leaders do.

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