At Morgan County Elementary School in Madison, Georgia—a town of 3,600 where the mayor drives a school bus—you can't get very far into a conversation without someone mentioning "community." It might be when the parent volunteer coordinator talks about efforts to attract parents from all walks of life to get involved in school activities. It might be when a PTO board member beams with pride at how the schoolchildren act as greeters at the town's annual tour of antebellum homes. Or maybe it's when a parent takes you aside to make sure you know how the PTO helped her after her husband died.

So it's no surprise that in the aftermath of the September 11th tragedy, the students at Morgan County Elementary reached out to those who were directly affected in the big city to the north.

The school's guidance counselor thought it would help the 815 third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders deal with their fears following the attacks if they focused on the people who help keep them safe. So each child wrote a note to someone directly involved in the attacks: New York firefighters, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, President Bush, and Georgia legislators, among others—expressing their concerns, their pride, their thanks, and their prayers.

When PTO members heard about the plan, they organized a march. Over the course of a week, the children made flags and red, white, and blue banners, and each class decided to dress in a theme—in Native American garb or wearing Uncle Sam hats and Statue of Liberty crowns. When the preparations were made, the entire school marched to the town square singing patriotic songs, and the children mailed the letters one-by-one at the post office. The whole town turned out for the event that included a rally honoring local police, volunteer firefighters, and other emergency workers.

The effort—dubbed Tiny Tributes—drew local, regional, and national media attention, including a feature on World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, and the children are still receiving responses from the people they wrote to.

Though Tiny Tributes is a high-profile example, it is only one of many ways Morgan County Elementary PTO shows it cares for each and every student and values their place in the community. And it is only one of the reasons MCES was selected as PTOtoday's 2002 Parent Group of the Year.

Everywhere a Sign

"At MCES, children come first," the board wrote in its Parent Group of the Year entry. "For the PTO, that means providing a safe, fun, well-organized place to learn and achieve."

Everywhere you look at MCES, there are signs that the PTO backs up its mission. In the lobby, one bulletin board highlights the events and achievements of the PTO, surrounded by thank-you notes from the students. Another wall is completely devoted to the teacher of the month, featuring pictures of her from childhood to adulthood and displaying her special interests and, to the great interest of children, her elementary school report card. "It helps enforce the feeling of family and shows the kids the teachers were young once, too," says PTO Secretary Anne Trulock.

Another bulletin board is covered with individually decorated paper lizards, each signifying a student's accomplishment in the Booksharp program that encourages children to read for pleasure. Not only must the children keep track of the books they've read during each nine-week period, but before they can get up on the board they must pass a reading comprehension test, administered by computer, to prove they've read and understood the books. Each child has a personalized reading goal, and PTO mentors tutor the children who are falling behind. At the end of the term, the PTO throws a pizza party for the kids who have met their goals.

At MCES, respect for fellow students is just as important as academics. Banners in each wing of the school keep track of how many days that grade has remained "fight free." And in the cafeteria a wall of paper plates keeps track of which tables have displayed good manners. Subdued voices, decorum, and napkin use are taken into account at each meal. Incentives like "candlelight dinners" are given to intermediate winners; the table with the most plates at the end of the year wins bragging rights and dinner out at the best restaurant in town.

Another highlight of the year is the PTO-sponsored Author's Tea. Finger foods are served at this dress-up affair where children gain poise, confidence, and speaking skills while reading their own poetry in front of parents and peers.

Bringing People Together

The residents in this primarily rural community 60 miles east of Atlanta range from dairy farmers (cows roam in a pasture across from the school) to families who live in stately homes that line Main Street. There are parents who attended the "black school" in town before desegregation and others who were among the first to go to integrated schools. Recently, some Spanish-speaking families have come to town, as well.

One of the ways the PTO honors and celebrates the cross-section of family backgrounds is its Family Learning Fair, where kids show off their talents and interests. They may bring in a chicken or lamb they are raising or display a doll or rock collection. Some bring in their sports or horseback riding trophies, and others talk about their scrapbook of places they've visited or the quilts they've made. This event draws hundreds of participants and their families.

But the PTO is not alone in its efforts to involve parents in supporting the children's education. "The community as a whole is very committed to the schools," says MCES Principal Jean Triplett.

At MCES, the parent involvement effort is coordinated by Debbie Smoak, who has worked in this full-time, paid position for 10 years. She works with the PTO to contact each new school family and give them a welcome packet that includes a membership card, auto decal, a list of all board members and chairpersons with their phone numbers, a yearlong calendar of events, a list of the PTO's goals, and an itemized budget.

Parents are further welcomed when they visit the school: There is a special room set aside for them to have a cup of coffee, leave their things and relax while they're visiting or volunteering.

"Parents come in because they want to make a difference—with no hidden agenda," Smoak says. "They just want to make the school a good place for children."

Leadership Counts

While it's clear the whole community cares about the kids, at MCES parent involvement is boosted by the infectious enthusiasm of PTO President Ollie Rivers.

When Anne Trulock called her three years ago to ask if she'd run for president at MCES, Rivers didn't need to think twice. She whooped with joy and told Trulock, "I've been waiting my whole life to be president of the PTO."

"Ollie has an incredible ability to get people from all walks of life together," says Trulock admiringly, adding with a grin, "And no one can say 'no' to her."

Last year Rivers entered the school in the Parent Group of the Year contest and received an honorable mention. Principal Triplett told Rivers she should be proud, but Rivers was disappointed and vowed to keep improving and entering the contest until the PTO was deemed the best.

Well, congratulations, Ollie, you and your PTO have taken the top prize. But we think you'll agree that the big winners are the students at Morgan County Elementary School.