Creating involvement at the middle school level can be tough, but Rosemont Ridge PTO has the magic touch. That made them PTO Today's 2004 Parent Group of the Year.

by Craig Bystrynski


By all accounts, the Rosemont Ridge Middle School PTO didn’t accomplish much during the 2002-03 school year. A committed group of parents served as classroom volunteers at the West Linn, Ore., school, but there was little central organization. The group ran a couple of after-school dances, but they were lightly attended.

The PTO leaders were dedicated, but they just didn’t get much support. In fact, interest was so low the previous year that the group had almost folded.

“That was a tough time,” recalls Shelley Connolly, who attended meetings but, she acknowledges, did little else to help. “We just kind of stumbled. Nobody knew what to do.” The group wanted to get parents involved. Connolly spoke with other parents in the school and discovered that many of them wanted to get involved. They simply didn’t know how to help.

Certainly, involvement can be tough at the middle school level. The curriculum is more difficult. Kids don’t stay in the same classroom all day like they do in elementary school. They’re picky about the activities they’ll participate in. And when it comes to having mom and dad around, well, ugh.

But in February 2003, the local school board made a textbook decision, a decision that made the parents coalesce and moved them to action in a way that had not happened since the school opened in 1999: The board decided to eliminate math textbooks for middle schools as a cost-cutting measure.

“The rallying cry was no math textbooks—what are we going to do?” recalls Connolly. She offered to get a group of parents together to brainstorm courses of action. That session addressed ways to raise funds for textbooks. But that wasn’t all. The parents also talked about the need to provide more activities for the kids and more support for the teachers.

They developed a needs list for the school. It included math textbooks at the top, along with funding for a part-time instructional assistant. It also included items such as field trip transportation, science equipment and supplies, and a second photocopier for the 700-student school.

The next question was how to get this information to parents and build support. One mom had experience at a private school where the principal gave a yearly state of the school address. “We really thought that was a great idea,” says Connolly. “Bring parents together; use it as a forum to communicate what was going on at the school. But then, also, because the budget cut was really looming and people were worried about it, it was to say ‘OK, here’s our plan.’ ”

The address was given in April by principal Thayne Balzer. Connolly followed with a presentation of the needs list. About 200 parents attended one of two sessions, one at 9 a.m. for parents who dropped off their kids in the morning, and one at 5:30 p.m. Balzer told parents the school was doing well academically, but it had many unmet needs. Filling those needs, Connolly told them, would cost $149 per student.

“Between the two sessions, we had over 200 parents come out, which we were really pleased with because this was the first time this had ever been done and we had no idea what to expect,” says Connolly. “And we right on the spot probably collected 50 checks. It was fantastic.”

The PTO eventually raised $60,000 in direct donations. Connolly was elected PTO president, and the group worked throughout the summer to capitalize on the renewed parent interest.

From a starting point of six members, they built a parent group that includes more than 40 officers and committee chairs. “When we first got going, we averaged 25 to 30 people at a PTO meeting, which was so exciting I literally wanted to go around the table and hug everybody,” says Connolly.

The newly invigorated group ran an array of parent involvement activities, hosted four wildly popular “Fun Blast” events for students, organized welcome overnights for 6th graders, sponsored overnight field trips, created an inspiring career day for 8th graders, helped build an outdoor recreation center for the school, created a new grade parent volunteer program, ran monthly teacher appreciation activities, relaunched a program to curb bullying and aggression, and lots more.

They also won enthusiastic praise from the teachers, principal, and even district administrators.

“The work they’ve done in the last year is absolutely fabulous,” says principal Balzer. “They’ve taken us from a school with many supportive parents to a place where there are networks of support. They are helping us create a strong sense of community....They are helping students experience our school as a place where they can have fun with friends....They are helping teachers with tasks that often take time away from teaching. They are working with our entire staff to support student learning...and stretching students’ horizons beyond the walls of our school. And they are helping parents learn new ways to support their adolescent children.”

As for the math textbooks, the PTO was so successful at raising money that the school board decided to fund the textbooks after all. The reason: Rosemont Ridge would have been the only one of three middle schools in the district to have them.

Great Events

Among its most notable accomplishments, the PTO at Rosemont Ridge created a series of extremely popular activities that engaged students and parents. While many middle schools struggle with how to get kids interested and parents to participate, the Rosemont Ridge PTO developed one creative idea after another. And each one seemed to hit the right chord.

The year began with the Wet ‘n’ Messy Barbecue, a welcome back event held on the second day of school. Nobody knew how the event would go, because nothing like it had ever been done at Rosemont Ridge. But PTO leaders wanted to start building community at the school, and this seemed like a good beginning.

They hoped to attract 100 or so parents and students, says Nancy Steele, PTO fun events coordinator. When the thermometer reached 101 degrees, a blistering temperature for the usually mild Portland area, she wondered whether that many would even come. But she soon learned that the spirit of the previous spring did carry through into the fall—nearly 700 people turned out.

A 25-foot inflatable slide beckoned at the entrance. A DJ hired from a local radio station played music. Boy Scouts sold shaved ice. The PTO sold hamburgers and hot dogs, using buns and condiments donated by a fast-food chain. This was the first of many business partnerships they would forge during the year.

The football field was set up as an obstacle course. Participants pushed a wheelbarrow, threw objects through a hanging tire, and finished by tossing a roll of toilet paper into a toilet bowl. The toilet was donated by Home Depot.

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“We actually recruited the high school varsity football team to come in and help get things going,” says Steele. “We thought, what great mentors, and they were more than willing [to help out].”

The dunk tank rated among the most popular events of the day. “Teachers were reluctant to participate in the dunk tank because it hadn’t been done before,” says Steele. So she found a parent willing to donate tickets to a Portland Trail Blazers NBA basketball game. A drawing was held for the tickets—open only to teachers who spent time in the tank. “That got teachers involved, and they were very excited about it,” says Steele.

The evening concluded with the Wet ‘n’ Messy element of the festival. First came the flour toss. Kids sat on the ground in rows. The first person in line filled a sand pail with flour, then passed it over his head to the next person. The pail worked its way down the line until the last person poured the flour—or whatever remained of it—into a 5-gallon bucket. The first group to fill its bucket won.

But things didn’t go quite as expected. PTO vice president Lorrie Oltman recalls that her son, who was first in line for his group, filled his pail, then dumped it over the head of the person behind him. “I thought, Well, that’s not really the point!” she says. That didn’t matter to the kids, though, who spread the flour gleefully.

Recalls Steele, “We had lines of kids covered in white flour, just dying hysterically. They loved that.” The flour toss was held at a few scheduled times, all during the last hour of the barbecue. About 75 kids participated in the last, most raucous toss.

Next came the sponge-in-the-bucket game. The first person in line soaked a sponge in water, then passed it over his head. The last person in line squeezed it into a bucket. By the time the game ended, dozens of kids covered in flour had soaked themselves in water, creating a mild paste. “The only ones who didn’t like it were the parents who had to drive them home,” says Steele. “But [parents] had a good time laughing about it, so they were pretty accepting of it.”

The success of the event played a big role in building momentum for the new year. “I think it started the school year off right,” says Connolly. “People came and knew there was something different happening at Rosemont Ridge.”

Career Day

Perhaps the group’s second most important event came at the end of the year and almost didn’t occur at all.

The 8th grade career day grew from one parent’s desire to inspire her son to think beyond 8th grade. The parent, Helene Callagan, pushed for the event, but she had to convince skeptical PTO leaders that it would work.

The question was, says Connolly, “With everything else going on, could we really pull this off?”

Callagan polled all of the school’s 8th graders. She asked them to list all of their potential career interests, from baseball player to doctor to teacher. The kids came up with about 75 job categories. She then pared down the list to the top 30 or so and began making calls, enlisting people from all over the Portland area to talk about their jobs. She brought in speakers for each of the 30 categories.

“The idea,” says Connolly, “was that if a student was interested in sports, we wanted to show them sports wasn’t just playing baseball. You could be an agent, you could be in sports medicine, you could be a trainer. You could be a baseball player, but there were a lot of other things that someone involved in sports today might find to do and get them excited.”

On the day of the event, each student had his own schedule of six sessions on different careers. “We had geologists, we had broadcasters, we had dentists, we had small-business owners. I mean, we had the gamut of what these kids could do,” says Connolly. Each session included some interactive element, such as a grocer’s challenge to kids to help him choose new products for the store.

Students really enjoyed it, and so did the speakers. “It was an amazing event,” says Connolly. “Here were all these businesspeople coming into Rosemont and loving the opportunity to work with these kids and being positively influenced by all these middle schoolers. Helene’s dream came out to be more than anyone ever anticipated it to be.”

It’s a Blast!

“Fun Blast” was the name given to four events during the year. The first, the Monster Mash Fun Blast, took place at Halloween. In previous years, after-school dances were held for 7th and 8th graders only. The Fun Blast idea arose from a desire to create events that would appeal to a wider audience, including 6th graders.

Says Charisse Ems, PTO Fun Blast planner: “We thought it would be important to include all of the student body, but knowing that some 6th graders and even some 7th and 8th graders are not mature and ready to be dancing with the opposite sex. And yet they still deserve to have a time to get together to have community with some of their friends.”

But what to do? Ems elected to ask the students. “Kids at this age, they’re very cynical sometimes, and whatever you want, they don’t want. So we decided, OK, fine. We’re going to ask you what you want,” she says.

The committee prepared a survey on everything from musical tastes to game preferences. Kids were asked what songs they liked, what groups they liked, what movies they liked, which video games they preferred. And they were told to be very specific. The only exceptions: No R-rated movies and no M-rated video games. Then Ems compiled the surveys and made lists of the choices. And the PTO gave kids what they wanted.

The Monster Mash Fun Blast included a costume dance in the school’s commons area. Games such as basketball, volleyball, and dodge ball were set up in the larger of two gyms. The smaller gym hosted an array of board games. A movie, Edward Scissorhands, was shown in the choir room, which has stadium-style seating. And Game Crazy, the video game arm of Hollywood Video, hosted a video game tournament (Dance Dance Revolution and a brand-new Tony Hawk skateboarding game).

About 500 kids came, attracted by the concept that there would be something for everyone. The old after-school dances never attracted more than a few dozen.

“A lot of special-needs kids came to the event, so they would be in there playing games and meeting people. That was just a different aspect that never could have happened with the dance,” says Steele. “And that’s something that we were adamant about. We need something for the kids who aren’t going to be able to participate or can’t participate or just plain don’t want to.”

Kids needed permission slips to attend all of the Fun Blast events, and parents were asked to indicate if they didn’t want their children to see the movie or play the video games. The five or six children who weren’t allowed to participate had their hands stamped.

Other Fun Blasts included the Sports Blast, held at a fitness and rock-climbing center; and the Island Blast, complete with limbo contest, Hawaiian shirts, and leis. The group also ran a holiday breakfast Fun Blast for students and staff one morning in December.

Looking Ahead

Connolly and most of the officers are returning for a second year. And many of the activities will remain the same. “We don’t want to reinvent the wheel,” she says. The group hopes that by maintaining the most popular events, they will create school traditions. Kids will have things to look forward to each year, and later they’ll have distinct memories of the sense of community during middle school.

“I remember my middle school years as being fun, a lot of things going on, just great memories,” Connolly says. That’s what she wants for her children.

This year, the group will concentrate on compiling information on each activity and filling out binders that were started last year. The idea is to be able to hand this information to the next generation of PTO leaders so that they’ll be able to keep the momentum going.

One of the reasons the group was so successful is that so many people shared the work. And that happened because group leaders welcomed each volunteer, whether he gave an hour or a hundred hours. “That was a point we made over and over to parents,” says Connolly. “ ‘Just chaperon one event; that’s all you have to do. You don’t have to put in eight hours a week and be here all the time. At home, just do us a favor and call some people for us. If you’ve got young kids and can’t do anything else, that’s great.’ We really tried to make parents feel that their contribution in any form, with any amount of time, was going to be warmly welcomed and very important to the big picture.”

The group estimates that parents donated 15,000 volunteer hours to the school. A lot of hard work was involved, but the payoff was significant. And not just for the kids and the school. Connolly and the other officers barely new each other when they came together over concern about the textbook issue. “We weren’t a group of friends who decided, Let’s do this because we think it’s the right thing to do,” she says. “Our group is comprised of people who kind of knew who each other was, but that was it. I can honestly say they’ve become dear friends over the year, because they’re wonderful people and we’ve spent so much time together.”

Truly, it was a year to remember.

Support for Teachers

One of the goals of the Rosemont Ridge PTO was to build a stronger relationship with teachers and to be more supportive of them. Among other things, the group organized the classroom volunteers, a job previously done by the teachers themselves. They created a study hall and testing center for students who needed to retake tests, staffed by parents. They provided money to teachers to purchase supplies. They arranged for the donation of a second photocopier for the school. And they ran an impressive schedule of monthly teacher appreciation activities.

Teachers responded enthusiastically. “Probably the greatest satisfaction for myself...was just the response from the teachers,” says Lorrie Oltman, PTO vice president and volunteer coordinator. “I just kept hearing ‘Thank you, guys. Thank you, thank you, thank you’ all the time.”

Here are some of the teacher appreciation events run by the group:

  • August: Teacher luncheon, clean staff room and refrigerator.
  • September: Clean work room, unload and stock materials, decorate staff room, gather staff photos and bios for a parents night display.
  • October: Decorate staff room in a Halloween motif, provide candy throughout the month (71 pounds‘ worth!), bucket of toothbrushes on Halloween.
  • November: Turkey feast, with turkey and all the fixings prepared by parents.
  • December: Decorate staff room in winter theme, notes of appreciation to teachers and staff.
  • January: Clean and decorate staff room.
  • February: Dessert a day all month, chair massages, candy and certificates for “an excellent report card.”
  • March: Decorate staff room with mobiles, gather quotes from kids about teachers.
  • April: Lunch and flowers for Administrative Professionals Day.
  • May: Chili feed.

Welcoming 6th Graders

Two of Rosemont Ridge PTO’s popular new events were the 6th grade overnights, known as Girls’ Night Out and Boys’ Night Out.

The overnights were held in early October to help kids get acquainted and make new friends. “We have kids coming in from three different feeder schools,” says Charisse Ems, PTO quarterly events planner. “We didn’t want to have kids feel uncomfortable about being in their new school.”

The sleepovers were held a week apart. Each featured team-building activities, games, a guest speaker, and plenty of food. Girls had a dance instructor and a veterinarian as guests, while the boys had a local sportscaster and a self-defense instructor. Other activities included board games, an obstacle course, and backward basketball.

Kids were divided into groups of seven or eight and for the most part stayed in those groups all night. School administrators created the groups, doing their best to separate best friends and, for example, pairing special-needs children with children likely to be supportive. Each group had a parent chaperon assigned to it, along with a high school student who acted as a mentor.

The events were free, and 92 percent of 6th graders participated. The overnights were so successful that incoming 6th graders for this year have heard all about them and can’t wait for their own sleepover.


# LIsa McGinnis 2009-07-16 03:04
Thank you, very insightful!

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