Breaking Up Our PTO

The break-up of a districtwide PTO into smaller, school-based groups provided a lesson in viewing change as an opportunity rather than a setback.

by Sharron Kahn Luttrell


Five years ago, children in grades 1-5 in my district were moved out of two cramped, outdated elementary schools into a newly refurbished former high school. Adjustments were made. The PTOs at the former schools were dissolved, and a new districtwide parent organization was formed. Copresidents from each town were elected. People got used to the idea that a single PTO could serve more than 1,000 students.

Since then, the PTO has proved itself many times over to be dynamic and energetic despite a mission that has become increasingly unwieldy and cumbersome. Sixth-graders were added to the school, children in the youngest grades were moved back to the old buildings, and the student population exploded to 1,400 while the number of parent volunteers remained low. Through it all, the PTO has remained solid, doing whatever it takes to enrich education in the towns it serves.

Well, as the saying goes, the only thing that’s constant is change. Next year the district’s preK-3 students will return to their own towns, where they will attend brand-new schools. The former high school will now house children in grades 4-7. And, most unsettling to many of us, the PTO will crack apart into three separate bodies, one for each building. For those who have grown so fond of the team that runs our parent group, the split feels like the break-up of a family.

When I first heard the PTO might divide into three, I grasped at reasons why it should stay intact. A single PTO offers economy of scale. One group for all children ensures against inequities among schools. Fundraisers yield maximum participation, since parents don’t have to choose which child’s school to support.

But in the end the logistics of serving three administrations, three schools, and a projected 2,000 students in grades preK-7 outweighed the benefits of a single, all-encompassing group. After a night of thoughtful, thorough debate, the PTO membership agreed that small, school-based parent organizations would be more effective than one entity serving the entire district. Smaller PTOs would attract volunteers who now feel disconnected from a group whose mission is so vast. Officers would forge closer ties with a single administration and staff, and each building’s PTO would be able to focus on age-appropriate activities instead of scattering its efforts to please everyone from preschoolers to sixth-graders, as the current group must do.

“The bottom line is the children will benefit from having a PTO with excited, enthusiastic, and focused members,” says the parent group’s copresident.

This is true of all PTOs. And it’s also true that while my PTO’s situation is unusual, the circumstances underlying it are common to many school districts. Populations grow and they shrink. Demographics shift. Old schools are mothballed, and new ones are built.

As PTO members, we constantly struggle with change at all degrees. Principals come and go with their own notions about parent teacher organizations. Parent volunteers arrive enthusiastic, then may slowly burn out. Moms and dads join the PTO as their children enter school; others go as their kids leave.

Sharron Kahn Luttrell volunteers for parent groups at two schools in Mendon, Mass.


# Rebecca C. 2008-04-08 10:18
My daughters attend two different schools. One is a Primary (k-2) and the other the Elementary (2-5) The PTA's have a hard time attracting volunteers because the parents feel torn betweent he two abd overwhelmed by the fundraisers, bookfairs, rading nights, etc. Everything is times two. However two PTA's are needed because you ahve two playgrounds, two admiistrations, two libraries. Are there other schools out there like us?
# Brenda 2009-06-04 13:42
What does the high school do in the district mentioned in the article?

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