Sixteen flags fly outside of Shades Cahaba Elementary School in Homewood, Ala., representing the nationalities of the faculty, staff, and more than 500 students who make up its community. Embracing this diversity is one of the challenges facing its parent group. It’s also one of the things the group’s leaders do best.

Families joining the school are warmly embraced. The PTO offers translators at its meetings for those who don’t speak English, and classes pair up to celebrate ethnic traditions with a covered-dish dinner. The PTO also sponsors a “Family 2 Family” mentoring program that matches up new arrivals with veterans. These personal contacts answer questions and invite them to PTO meetings and other events. New families receive welcome baskets and are invited to a special dinner. The newest of new students, kindergartners, get the warmest welcome of all: Before their first day of school, they receive signs in their yards that say “Shades Cahaba loves you—Welcome to kindergarten!”

The parent group helps students from less fortunate families with a program that provides anonymous one-time assistance for living costs and Christmas gifts, funded by donations from other parents. A summertime popsicle party is another way to spread the sense of community among the entire student body and their families, as are math and science family nights, book fairs, an open house, and conference day activities.

The PTO makes a special effort to include faculty and staff, celebrating them with a back-to-school brunch, a conference day dinner, an appreciation luncheon, and snacks for the teachers’ lounge. PTO members invite teachers and the principal to periodic one-on-one lunches. To help teachers get to know the PTO further, group leaders’ photos, names, and job titles are posted in the teachers’ lounge. Staff are included in the weekly emails sent by the PTO to parents. And a teacher representative sits on the PTO board while the parent group is represented on the faculty communication committee.

Encouraging fellowship among parent volunteers is also key to the PTO’s mission. After the school’s one and only annual fundraiser, the Winter Festival (which is held on the last Saturday in February and which last year brought in $65,000), there’s a “pat on the back” party. “In the past year, we tried to do more to make sure the volunteers feel appreciated,” says PTO President Nancy Hale. “We wanted to have the opportunity to get everybody together to say thanks for the hard work.”

Parents are invited to a fall kickoff brunch at the PTO president’s home, a get-together at a barbecue restaurant, and a spring appreciation luncheon, where they receive goody bags filled with chocolate kisses, a Payday candy bar, and a note that says, “Hugs and kisses from the kids. Here’s your payday.”

Envisioning the future

One of the most notable innovations at Shades Cahaba is the PTO’s Visionary Team. Twice a year, following regular monthly PTO meetings, all interested parents are invited out to eat and brainstorm. “A lot of the time, it’s the same people making the same decisions at PTO meetings,” says last year’s president, Andi Sims. “The Visionary Team was founded so everybody would feel like they could contribute.” Another purpose was to look beyond the day-to-day challenges and dream big about the future.

Ideas are solicited in several ways. Prior to the meeting, the PTO suggestion box in the school lobby is emptied so that these ideas can be considered along with those offered by the assembled group. A box is passed around at that evening’s PTO meeting, with everyone invited to drop their ideas into it; one name is drawn from the box to receive a free meal at the gathering that follows. And, of course, ideas emerge over dinner.

Even the most promising ideas aren’t always feasible, though. Hale remembers gushing about creating a running track around the school’s field. The group tossed around the idea and encouraged her to investigate further. She did, but ultimately the track proved too expensive. Still, Hale felt good about the encouragement she received. “I had the opportunity to say ‘I’d really love to do this’ instead of going to a meeting and being shot down right off the bat,” she says. “At the Visionary Team meeting, everybody will think about what’s proposed.”

Sometimes these visions for what the school might become are truly transformative. One such idea resulted in a “benevolence fund.” Faced with the fortunate challenge of a surplus of money, parents discussed how to spend it. Someone asked about giving the money to another school, which ultimately went to a Mississippi school ravaged by the 2005 hurricanes. That, in turn, led to the decision to set aside money each year to benefit a school in need. “The idea to donate some money made all of us sit back and think, ‘What are we doing to reach out from these walls, to help each other?’ ” Sims says.

Such interconnectedness is also the goal of the Grand Pal’s Day and Art Show. Students invite a grandparent or an older neighbor or friend to the school for refreshments, a tour, and an art show. “My next-door neighbor came for my son,” Sims says. “He has not had a child in the school system for 20 years and had not realized how much the school had changed. He was proud that his child had graduated from here and that his tax dollars were going for a really good purpose. It’s a way to get community buy-in, to help people in the area feel that the school is not off-limits to them.”

Fellowship with other community PTOs is encouraged, too; groups participate in each other’s fundraising events and exchange information during informal meetings.

All of these activities might be characterized as the “Shades Cahaba Way,” the school’s nationally recognized character education program. The PTO embraces the school’s philosophy of encouraging responsibility and celebrating diversity. “We are so fortunate to have such a strong, supportive parent group,” says Principal Sue Grogan. “They are wonderful and certainly deserve the honor they’ve been given.”

Group at a Glance

Name: Shades Cahaba Elementary PTO
Location: Homewood, Ala.
Community: population 23,963; suburban
School Size: 530 students, grades K-5
Annual Budget: $80,000

Tips for Getting Organized

Part of the secret to the success of Shades Cahaba Elementary PTO is its highly organized approach to getting things done. Here are some of their great ideas:

Procedures notebooks: Each officer and chairperson keeps a notebook with a one-year history of their position, including detailed instructions about their duties, school and PTO calendars, a PTO directory, the budget, agendas, minutes, newsletters, event programs, and more. During the year, officers add information about what they’ve done and weed out older data. The result, says former PTO President Andi Sims, is an indispensable resource with unexpected side benefits. “We live by these notebooks,” she says. “They are one thing that has helped us to stay organized and focused because it’s easy to lose sight of a goal when you’re inundated with so many details on a day-to-day basis. They’re also a communication tool, a training tool, even a recruiting tool for new officers. A notebook offers more than a job description; it’s the job laid out in front of you.”

Reimbursement box: This repository in the school office separates receipts and checks from general PTO mail. Anyone with a reimbursement request or checks for the PTO puts it here for the organization’s treasurer.

Room parent coordinators: Each class has a room parent, and all room parents report to one of two coordinators. The system is efficient for transmitting information to and from parents to the PTO—and for gathering a large volunteer force quickly.

Volunteer sheets: On the list of volunteer needs that parents fill out at the start of each year, the amount of time required for some jobs is listed. “Instead of a list of things to do that can seem overwhelming, we’ve broken it into small jobs, from large jobs to cutting things out at home, so every parent can participate,” says PTO President Nancy Hale. Some tasks might require only 15 minutes at a time; supervising a class requires a block of 30 to 60 minutes.

Automated phone calling: Messages go out to parents in every way possible—a monthly PTO newsletter, weekly email updates, flyers in the weekly teacher communication envelopes, carpool signs, the school’s marquee, flyers at the after-school program, surveys, the PTO website, and a bulletin board. But one of the most effective approaches to keeping parents informed about upcoming events has been an automated calling system. The PTO uses a fee-based service called CallingPost. The corresponding secretary places a call once a month to the service with a reminder about upcoming events, which is then relayed by telephone to all PTO members. “Our key is communication,” says Sims. “We overcommunicate to parents.”