In nearly a decade now of working with parent group leaders, I’m continually impressed by the near limitless enthusiasm and the generous spirit that you folks bring to your school work. And as a frequent reader of parent involvement research and trends, I’m more convinced than ever that your work is vital for successful schools. That’s why it drives me bananas when I hear a “just a PTO” tone in parent group conversations.

It happens all the time when I talk to people outside the parent group world. I can understand those folks not seeing the key role played by parent groups (though I do take the time to fill them in). But the real frustration for me comes when the speaker or emailer is a parent group leader herself. I’m saddened because I can almost guarantee that parent involvement at the speaker’s school isn’t where it could be.

When parent groups are looked at as “that nice little mom’s club,” real damage occurs. Typically, groups that cast themselves in this light live up to their own low expectations: “We don’t need insurance; we’re just...” “We couldn’t take on that large a project; we’re just...” “We can’t invest in leadership development; we’re just...”

These are the groups least likely to have solid financial policies in place (“Who’d steal from us? We’re just...”) and most likely to hesitate before making any bold changes. These groups shouldn’t be surprised when parents don’t show up in droves to join in.

The real tragedy is the opportunity lost. When I see groups that truly understand the value of involvement—school spirit and pride, higher test scores, fewer discipline problems, and more—and the key role that their group plays in building involvement at their school, I know that good things are happening. These are the groups that proactively develop new leaders and enthusiastically welcome new ideas. These are the groups that know just how important their work is, so they take the time and make the investment to train their leaders. And rather than reinventing the wheel with each new election, they put policies in place to ensure that next year’s leaders can build on this year’s success.

People love to be connected with successful, well-thought-of, enthusiastic PTOs. The good feelings rub off. On the other hand, people run screaming from a group that's “just a PTO.” Ever wonder why some of the most talented parents in your school community don’t connect with your group? Maybe it’s a “We’re just...” message your group is subtly sending that turns away those talented folks.

What can you do to get your PTO out of the “We’re just...” rut?

Most important, you can make sure that your words and your actions don’t reflect a “just a PTO” mentality. How do you speak of your group? Do you believe that getting your group more organized and more put-together is worthwhile? Are you thinking of this year and the years down the road, even after your son or daughter has moved on? Those are the marks of a group that understands and values its key role in school.

Another big step is proactively speaking about your grand visions and goals for creating a strong school community. Talk about creating a special group and a special school. Talk about all the fun and camaraderie you’ll have while doing your great work. Make sure everyone knows that your parent group leadership expects success and excellence. Folks naturally respond positively to optimism and high expectations. You can guess how folks typically respond to the opposite.

You’ll be amazed by how much your group can do once you start believing in your potential and acting like you’re worth it. You are.