Angela Hansberger is building up the PTA at her children’s school by reaching out to the parents she meets as a preschool teacher. Their children will one day attend Briarlake Elementary near Atlanta, says Hansberger, Briarlake’s PTA copresident, so they have a stake in making sure the school has a strong parent organization.

“I heavily, heavily recruit with our preschool parents,” she says. “I invite them to any type of family event we are having at the school.”

Hansberger, who has a 2nd grader and a kindergartner, seizes on preschool parents who show a keen interest in their child’s future school and finds a role within the PTA for them, such as designing a flyer for the silent auction or asking a local business to be a sponsor. As parents get more comfortable, she nudges them toward bigger tasks—for example, leading a subcommittee for the silent auction.

Many PTOs already invite parents whose children are a few months away from starting kindergarten to come up to the school and find out how to get involved, but forward-thinking parent groups are going after those whose oldest kids are barely out of diapers. Getting these new and typically enthusiastic parents involved benefits everyone: The group builds its membership and gets more willing hands on deck to plan events; parents get a close look at their children’s future school and the chance to see how important involvement is to their success. By the time their children are school-age, they’ll be pros at parent involvement.

Reach Out at Daycare

Parents of the 3-and-younger set are easy to find. Seek them out at parks and the pool, as well as churches and local Sunday brunch haunts. Walk over and give them a card with your contact information. Tell them you would love to introduce them to their neighborhood school’s parent group. Ask whether they’d like some information sent to them.

PTO leaders can also arrange to speak at parent co-op meetings to share information about events going on at the school and let people know it’s never too soon to join the parent group. It may be worthwhile to consider an inexpensive advertisement in parent co-op newsletters, which mothers of young children tend to scrutinize.

Some schools host open houses solely for parents whose children are two or more years away from kindergarten. Such events give parent group leaders a chance to network with potential volunteers and provide valuable insight to incoming parents. Ask the principal to give an informal talk about all the positive programs going on at the school. Have a teacher discuss the ways parents can get their toddlers and preschoolers ready for kindergarten. Try to include a student performance on the agenda.

Another strategy is to host events away from the school, such as a movie in the park or a community party. Include contact information on flyers but resist anything that might be perceived as a hard sell—the goal is to make these parents feel comfortable, not pressured.

Child-care centers and preschools are perhaps the most fertile ground for recruiting parents of young children. Ida Centner, mother of a 4-year-old and a 20-month-old, was impressed that the PTA at her neighborhood school, Morningside Elementary in Atlanta, collected box tops at her children’s daycare center.

Since attending an open house for prospective parents two years ago, Centner has supported the Morningside PTA at every opportunity, including participating in auctions and other fundraisers. She took her son to the PTA-sponsored book fair recently so he could see the campus. She also supports Morningside by shopping for groceries on days when a portion of sales are donated to the school.

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“I like being involved because I like knowing what to expect,” says Centner, who keeps up with Morningside happenings through emails and an online group list. Through this cybernetwork, she knows her son will probably attend classes in an annex next year because of overcrowding. Knowing that ahead of time has helped her see the expansion as a positive, she says.

Some preschools even have their own PTOs, and their members can often slide right into leadership roles in their elementary school parent group. Albertville, Ala., mom Wanda Turk was president of the PTO when her son, now 13, was in preschool in Chicago. The group focused on some of the same things that elementary PTOs do, such as fundraisers, holiday events, field trips, and teacher appreciation lunches. But it operated on a much smaller scale than it would at an elementary school, serving as a “training camp” for Turk, who has remained an actively involved parent.

“It helped me learn the ropes without having so much accountability,” she says. “Seeing how much more could be done with parental involvement, either through donations or volunteer hours, not only encouraged me to stay involved but to also work in a way that encouraged other parents to contribute as well.”

Make Way for Toddlers

After reaching out to parents of preschoolers, follow through by making it easy for them to take an active role. As a first step, open the doors to events such as school performances, fall festivals, and weekend landscaping days. It’s important to let parents know how easy it is to be involved in the school and to assure them they can help out without being overwhelmed by a large task like organizing the wrapping paper fundraiser.

At Samuel W. Tucker Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., principal Patrick McClintock-Comeaux has found some of his most energetic parents among those with two or more years before their children enroll. An open house for future Tucker parents had a standing room only crowd and drew more interest than the always well-attended kindergarten open house.

The PTA has increased its outreach to parents of preschoolers not just to enlist them for service but also to assure them that Tucker Elementary is an excellent school. During a recent sports day, the school made room for a “toddler zone.” Even the principal’s 2-year-old had a blast. “Having them get through the door is so important,” says McClintock-Comeaux.

Ingrid Sanden, whose children are 4 and 2, got involved at Tucker for selfish reasons, she says; “I want them to go to the best school possible.” Like many mothers of young children, she is available for volunteer work in the afternoons when her kids are napping. Mothers of school-age children, on the other hand, are often squiring their kids to activities during that time, Sanden notes.

Sanden took over the school’s adopt-a-family program and was able to increase participation dramatically, ensuring that many of the students from lower-income families had a happy holiday season. This year, she plans to get started sooner and improve the program even more. She has also organized informal information sessions about the school for families who are part of her neighborhood’s recent baby boom.

She maintains an email list of future Tucker parents. “If Mr. Comeaux needs anything for the school,...I send out an email,” she says. That came in handy recently when proposed budget cuts threatened a program parents considered vital to the school’s success; Sanden’s contacts mobilized quickly, and the cuts were avoided.

Tucker PTA president Stefanie Beverly says tapping into just a few plugged-in parents like Sanden has given her group access to legions of preschool parents. She offers parent-led tours of the school and invites eager moms to events like the Holidays Around the World Bazaar, which showcases the school’s diversity. Parents who start out as curious visitors may become dedicated volunteers, willing to help out with teacher appreciation week and other activities. “The more invested you feel in a place, the more you feel it, live it, and breathe it,” Beverly says. “We try to reach out in a way that the parents can feel most useful.”

For example, parents of younger children recently sponsored current students who needed school supplies. Beverly sent an email to her faithful contact, Sanden, who spread the word in the community. “We had a response that definitely made a difference,” Beverly says.

Leadership Head Start

The real payoff from recruiting parents of preschoolers comes when parents like Sanden and Kate Stubbs Lesser finally enroll their children. Lesser, a parent at Avondale Elementary outside of Atlanta, started volunteering in the school’s library two years before her daughter, Hanna, entered prekindergarten. She is now the PTA treasurer. “The benefit of volunteering up there was getting to know the faces,” she says. “It can be overwhelming when you are putting your little one in school for the first time.”

Jill Joyner Bush, also an Avondale parent, started tutoring students and organizing fundraisers when her son, Tucker, was just over a year old. She founded the Avondale Education Association, an independent nonprofit organization that works with the parent group to make sure teachers have the classroom supplies they need to create engaging lessons. She and other volunteers whose children were not yet school-age trod carefully to avoid the perception that they wanted to take over. Gradually, teachers started to see them as a resource.

“Now that I’ve spent a lot of time up here,” she says, “I feel confident my children are going to be stimulated.” Tucker started at Avondale as a proud prekindergartner recently, paving the way for his 20-month-old sister, Camille.

Joyner Bush, already well-acquainted with the PTA, has been thinking about running for office. Her goal is to engage all parents, whether they are from the immediate neighborhood or the nearby apartment complexes populated with many families from other countries.

A group she’s sure not to leave out: moms and dads of babies, toddlers, and preschoolers—parents who are already thinking about their child’s education, just as she was three years ago. “There are parents who want to go ahead and get involved,” she says. “They just need someone to show them what needs to be done.”