Green Light, Red Light
When parents at Longfellow Elementary School in Idaho Falls, Idaho, complained that children didn’t have enough time to eat lunch, PTO President Cindy Ozaki took action.
The problem was the school’s “green light” system, which even she didn’t totally understand. When the green light flashes in the cafeteria, it’s a signal to children that they can go out onto the playground, not that lunchtime is over. But many of them didn’t realize this. Despite the negative feedback, the principal refused to eliminate the system.
Ozaki chose a problem-solving approach rather than confrontation. She worked hard to make him understand the confusion created by the system, and she suggested changes ranging from getting rid of it to altering its timing.
“I asked him, ‘Do we need to use the light system at all or can we have lights put on at different times? Could we use more parent volunteers in the lunchroom?’” says Ozaki. Once the principal realized the confusion, he was willing to make changes. He agreed to allow more time before the light went on, while the PTO offered to explain the system to parents so they could decode it for their children.
Another issue that required a similar approach was the chaos of morning drop-off in front of the school. After a funding cut led to the loss of one janitorial position, there was no one to put out barricades in the morning to impose order. Ozaki listened to the principal’s ideas—to paint diagrams on the driveway or to have parents help put out barricades—and then presented her own alternatives, such as having parent volunteers direct traffic. Then she waited.
When the principal looked into the matter further, he discovered that city regulations outlawed the diagrams and barricades—his ideas—so he asked the PTO to implement their suggestions. Parent leaders drew a map of the drop-off procedure for a parent newsletter and recruited weekly parent volunteers as a backup safety system. The PTO had to gauge where the principal was more flexible and to back off from trying to dismantle systems he believed in. They made clear to the principal that they were a resource for him as they put their ideas forth and then waited in the wings as he made the final decisions.
Clearing the Static
Sometimes persistence is necessary. Ellen Millour, PTO president at Gulfview Middle School in Naples, Fla., remembers that the school’s brand new $25,000 sound system wasn’t functional a week before a scheduled Italian dinner and raffle last year. She mentioned the problem to the principal, but nothing happened. A few days later she asked him whether help was on the way. He said he’d left messages that hadn’t been returned, signaling through body language that the matter was closed. But Millour knew that they were running out of time, so she didn’t just walk away.
Instead, she says, “I turned around and then came back and said ‘It sounds like you need to call him again. Can I help track this man down for you to get this sound system fixed?’ The hair went up on the back of his neck. He got mad and walked away. I was kind of scared because obviously I didn’t want to make this guy mad. But I knew in my heart it had to be done.”
Millour let the matter rest at that point, and the sound system got fixed. The principal even told her later that she was right to press him. Millour agrees but also believes that one must know when to let something go, too. “You can never make anyone do anything else,” she says. “If you offer to do it for them, I think they’ll understand how important it is. But I didn’t harp on him every single day about it either. You’ve got to get the point across quickly and let the principal get back to being an administrator.”
Trying to rebuild a relationship with a principal who has felt attacked in the past can be a delicate dance. At Jefferson Elementary School in Emmaus, Pa., some hard feelings had resulted from, among other things, a former PTO officer’s angry letter to the newspaper. The new PTO president’s first task was to tear down the principal’s defenses.
“I went in and said ‘What can we do?’ instead of ‘This is what we want to do,’ ” says PTO president Jessi O’Donald. “We started from square one. I had to build trust so the principal realized I wasn’t going to attack her every step of the way.”
The PTO invited the principal to attend their post-PTO meeting get-togethers to help establish a friendly atmosphere, and she said she’d come once a year. “We all agreed we wouldn’t talk about PTO,” says O’Donald. “She got to know more of the families in the PTO and we got to know her a little better.”
That foundation helped when disagreements arose. When the PTO wanted to institute an after-school clubs program, the principal wanted to reduce its scope and didn’t like the idea of charging students $10 to participate. O’Donald’s response was “We’re a small PTO with limited funds; we have to charge something.” But the principal didn’t see it that way, and they reached a stalemate.
O’Donald asked if they could take a step back and each think it over for a day. When they met again, both felt more willing to compromise. O’Donald said she was willing to limit the number of classes for the first go-round while the principal was willing to ensure some funding by asking parents who could to donate the $10 fee. O’Donald recognized the benefit of not pushing her point of view on a resistant principal, of allowing the principal time to understand the PTO’s position better, and of meeting the principal halfway.
One Good Turn
One way to cement a principal’s support is to help the principal with his pet projects. At Monticello Trails Middle School in Shawnee, Kan., the principal feels it’s important to buy new uniforms for all the sports, including track, which has 150 students on the team. So the PTO offered to help.
“Once we’ve purchased track uniforms and come through on other levels, we have the strength to say ‘By the way…,’” says PTO President Angela Van Holland.
Good communication is key, too, says Van Holland, who describes it as a back-and-forth process of clarification and compromise.
When the PTO said they wanted to do a program on cybercrime for parents, the principal said no. “He perceived that the cybercrime thing was for children and thought I was trying to do a program for kids, and he wanted to remind me of the PTO’s function,” says Van Holland, who found the principal’s reaction frustrating. Determined to make him understand that the program was for parents, she didn’t take no for an answer and went back to him with a detailed explanation of how the proposed program was to teach parents about the dangers computers posed for their children.
Once the principal received this clarification, he admitted that he’d misunderstood the program’s target audience. He just needed the PTO to explain their intent more clearly. Sometimes what seems obvious to the PTO isn’t obvious to the principal.
Just the Facts
Thinking ahead and respecting the principal’s authority have worked for Dianna Flett, PTO president at Margaret Brent Elementary School in Stafford, Va. One issue involved a new policy preventing parents from accompanying their children into the building each morning for the sake of safety.
“I don’t disagree with the policy,” says Flett. “We do have sex offenders in the community. But I talked to the principal and said we need to get the word out about this new policy way before the start of school so parents don’t get their feelings hurt. She was very open about my suggestion; she did say ‘You’re right to make sure the parents are OK with this.’”
On another issue, Flett managed to change the principal’s mind. After several well-publicized E. coli outbreaks at petting zoos elsewhere, the principal nixed a request for a petting zoo at Brent. Not convinced that such a decision was justified, the PTO conducted research to find out what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested, and they talked to the school nurse and the woman who would be bringing the animals.
“It gave us a place of knowledge to work from as opposed to a place of emotion as in ‘Aw, we really want to have a petting zoo for the kids,’” says Flett.
Then they went to the principal and discussed alternatives such as sanitary stations. “I didn’t give her an ultimatum; I didn’t preempt her authority,” says Flett. “I gave her two or three options and let her have ownership. She could still refuse them.” Convinced by the research and the PTO’s approach, the principal allowed the petting zoo.
At Mabelle M. Burrell Elementary School in Foxborough, Mass., Laura Canfield became PTO president last year just as a new principal took over. They’ve gotten to know each other as they worked together to smooth over several issues of concern to parents—like field trip funds, for which the PTO had allotted a certain amount of money to each grade. When one class sought to add a trip and thus exceed its budget, the PTO voted to have each family who could afford it pay $5 to cover the cost. Some parents unhappy with the vote took their concerns to the principal.
When the principal called Canfield in to discuss the vote, it wasn’t to pressure her. “It wasn’t ‘You need to change the decision’; it wasn’t her place,” says Canfield. “She was acting as an intermediary. She was saying ‘I just want to let you know this is what was said.’”
After considering the potential impact of the hurt feelings and inspecting their treasury to be sure they had the money, the PTO reopened the issue. The vote was reversed at the next meeting. Canfield’s willingness to reconsider apparently won her some points; on another debate related to another field trip, the principal sided with the PTO.