To hear all that the Hattie Cotton Elementary parent group accomplished last year—recruiting national celebrities to a reading night, launching a parent volunteer program, and drawing record attendance at events, to name a few—it’s easy to see why it calls itself the Cotton Action Team. What makes these achievements even more impressive is that at the beginning of the school year, the parent group at the Title I school was preoccupied with creating its bylaws. Before students went home for the summer, the Cotton Action Team had energized dozens of parent volunteers and gained attention in the Nashville media.

In the fall, an unprecedented showing of fathers pitched in for an arts and crafts night, helping students build wooden boats and airplanes. The next semester, more than 450 parents and students packed the cafeteria and gym for a free movie night. Throughout the school year, volunteers could be found in classrooms or the parent center. Hispanic parents, not CAT officers, organized the teacher appreciation luncheon, where they served a Mexican meal.

The Cotton Action Team generated so much parent involvement by keeping fun foremost on the agenda. Just as important, it planned each event with the needs of families in mind. Ninety-four percent of the school’s students qualify for free or reduced-price school lunches, so the group provided free dinners donated by local restaurants to encourage attendance at family fun nights. Because 30 percent of the school’s students come from Spanish-speaking households, a school or volunteer translator was present at CAT events.

The parent group’s careful planning paid off. Hattie Cotton Elementary is in an East Nashville neighborhood with a large transient population, and approximately 200 students transfer in or out of the 500-student school each year. Despite the high turnover, about 300 people paid the $1 fee to become CAT members last year. Because Hattie Cotton had the highest parent group membership of any school in its high school cluster, it was awarded a Dell computer as part of the company’s PTO/PTA membership drive.

That level of participation is remarkable considering that just a few years ago, the group was practically nonexistent. When retired Title I Family School Coordinator Nancy Pigg joined the staff five years ago, only one parent regularly attended CAT meetings; everyone else that came was a school employee.

Last year, the board consisted of five parents and five staff members. Cotton Action Team cochairs Antoine Buchanan and Denoris Hamer helped bring about this change. Both are energetic multitaskers who aren’t shy about meeting people or asking for donations.

Buchanan and Hamer served as CAT cochairs for the past two school years, but they played different roles. While Buchanan was the enthusiastic visionary who brought new ideas to the group, Hamer, in charge of programs, was the detail person who helped carry them out.

“You’ve got to have the yin and the yang, and with those two you’ve got it,” says Connie Hukowicz, a special needs teacher active in the parent group.

CAT membership has increased steadily for the past four years; but, leaders say, the group really took off after Buchanan, two teachers, and Principal Karen Hamilton attended a PTO Today conference in spring 2005. There they got ideas for events and guidelines for writing bylaws.

“They came back and got organized and structured. From that point on, everything was an even greater success,” Hamilton says.

Buchanan and Hamer became familiar faces around the school, frequently hanging out before and after classes to talk with other parents. “I’m a people person,” Hamer says. “I walk up to them and introduce myself, ask if they’ve been to our family nights, and say they’re always welcome in the school.” Buchanan, the only father on the PTO board, frequently approached fathers at school and asked them to give whatever time they could. According to Hamilton, there has been a marked increase in male participation at school.

Both cochairs speak some Spanish and conversed with Spanish-speaking parents as best they could. When Hamer needed help communicating in Spanish during non-school hours, she asked a neighbor to make phone calls for her. Buchanan recruited a friend to translate at some events. As required by school policy, all written materials the parent group sent were printed in English and Spanish, with the help of the school translator. One tangible result of the group’s outreach efforts is that next year two parents who speak English as a second language will serve on the board.

Making Parents Comfortable

While meeting new people and interacting with school staff came easily to Buchanan and Hamer, they knew that some parents still found the school intimidating. Their strategy to make parents feel comfortable was simple: Extend a warm welcome and have a good time.

They started on the first day of school, meeting and greeting parents and handing out brochures (in English and Spanish) about helping children succeed academically. They followed up with a series of family fun nights that helped build a sense of community. At each event, at least one session was tailored to the school’s Hispanic population.

“The family fun nights and the hands-on activities made it a safe place families could come,” says Mary Jo Shelton, who teaches English-language learners and serves on the CAT board.

For a reading night last spring, more than 15 Nashville celebrities attended as guest readers, including country music stars Lorrie Morgan and Sammy Kershaw, Miss America 2004, Nashville Kats arena football players, local news anchors and reporters, and a popular Spanish-radio DJ. The students loved meeting people they had seen on TV, and after celebrities read to students, they signed autographs and posed for pictures. Students received free books; parents picked up tips for reading with their children at home. “You can relax and have fun and also have a learning experience,” Buchanan says.

At the arts and crafts night, about 200 parents and children made bookmarks, charm bracelets, planter boxes, and toys, including wooden boats and airplanes, from materials donated by Home Depot. Others spent the evening playing group games. Parents led all the sessions, and involving so many families helped boost participation.

“There were more men involved than ever before,” Hamer says.

The parent group’s movie night drew the largest attendance of any of its events. Group leaders transformed the school into “Cotton Action Cinemas” with signs and balloons. Because it costs so much for a family to go out to the movies under regular circumstances, admission was free. Students voted in advance on which two movies would be screened. When families arrived at school, each child received tickets for a free hot dog and drink. Concessions sold for 10 cents or 25 cents. Many children lounged on sleeping bags and pillows while watching the movie, munching on freshly popped popcorn and cotton candy.

“We tried to keep the kids happy and the parents interested,” Buchanan says of the family fun nights. “The whole thing was not to make it a chore.”

Even the Safe Kids Fair kept students talking for days. Parents and children rotated through stations to hear practical tips from a variety of uniformed officers; the speakers that generated the most excitement, however, were the Copbots, who delivered their debut performance at the school. Entertainers costumed as police robots delivered anti-drug and anti-violence messages set to hip hop and Top 40 music. The company had previously performed for businesses, but Buchanan convinced the owner, a personal friend, to bring the act to school. The Copbots have since performed for the city’s Metropolitan Board of Public Education and hope to take their message to other Nashville schools.

“If you make it fun, you get great results,” Buchanan says. “You get more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”

Parents benefited from the event, too: Their children received free identification cards at the fair, and they learned ways to keep their families safe. Because school staff members noticed that many parents were not using child safety seats and seat belts despite being required by state law, the parent group addressed the issue at the Safe Kids Fair. Many parents said they didn’t realize they were breaking the law, Pigg says, and expressed appreciation at being informed. After the event, she saw a noticeable improvement in compliance with the law.

“The parents have really responded to getting the resources they need and ideas of ways to help their children,” Shelton says. “They see us a lot more as partners.”

Focusing on Involvement

That school-home partnership was apparent when the Cotton Action Team launched a formal volunteer program. Board members put in many hours to keep everything running smoothly, but they didn’t necessarily expect the same of other parents. The volunteer program asked parents to pledge three hours of their time during the school year. Parents who couldn’t take on leadership roles or long-term volunteer commitments found that they could usually manage an hour at a time. Participants could pass out papers in a classroom, hand out refreshments at an assembly, help with a field trip or field day, or even work on a project at home.

While CAT events had typically drawn 15 to 25 parent volunteers, last year that increased to around 25 to 30, Buchanan says. More than 85 parents volunteered 360-plus hours through the program. As parents completed their hours, their names were added to the wall of fame, a school bulletin board. Children often stopped to look for their parents’ names on the board.

“They’ve taken on parent participation as a mission,” Pigg says of Buchanan and Hamer. “Their enthusiasm and their zeal has created an expectation that parents will participate.”

Like Hattie Cotton, many schools find that high percentages of low-income or non-English speaking families can be roadblocks to parent involvement. The Cotton Action Team’s success is tied to the teamwork among parents, teachers and staff. As family school coordinator, Pigg frequently met with parents in the school’s parent center. As a CAT board member, she brought the parent group broad knowledge of the school community and its needs. Hukowicz teaches, serves on the parent group board, and also is a member of the school’s Title I committee.

Hamilton praises the contributions the Cotton Action Team has made to the school, which, besides its regular programs, include helping fund student field trips. “They work hard, they’re committed, dedicated, and conscientious about what they do,” she says.

Buchanan and Hamer both emphasize how much teachers have worked with the parent group. Although the school held its own series of academic family nights, many teachers worked at CAT family nights, as well. Both Hukowicz and Shelton say Hattie Cotton has the most teacher participation outside of the classroom of any school at which they’ve worked. Hukowicz, who was active in parent groups at her children’s schools before becoming a teacher, says she’s seen how parents and teachers working together helps students. “The reason we’re [both] there is the children,” she says, “and we can’t do it without each other.”

Group at a Glance

Name: Hattie Cotton Elementary Action Team
Location: Nashville, Tenn.
Community: population 549,100; urban/suburban
School Size: 500 students
Grades: preK-4
Annual Budget: $8,000