When three elementary schools in Illinois' Unity district merged, the principal of the institution absorbing all the students suggested that the three presiding PTO presidents keep their positions to lead the new Unity West Elementary School in Tolono.

The idea, says Tri-president Angella Anderson, was that parents would stay involved if they could relate to at least one person in charge. In retrospect, though, the set-up presented challenges. "One president was out of town for most of the summer, so we couldn't get everyone together before school started," she says. "And I was never sure if I could go ahead on something without the approval of the other two presidents or if two presidents overruled the other one. We didn't quite know what our roles were."

The tri-presidency, which did ensure a balance of power among the three merging groups, is one example of how parent organizations at schools undergoing consolidation handle what is often a turbulent change. Schools' declining enrollments and budget shortfalls have only exacerbated a trend that has been remaking the public education landscape for decades. In the 1939-1940 school year, the U.S. had 247,127 public elementary and secondary schools; by 1997-1998, that number had been whittled to 90,661, according to the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Even more startling are these numbers: For those same years, the average enrollment in public elementary schools grew from 89 students to 502.

Beating the Odds

As schools grow, parents feel more disconnected and their involvement diminishes. From 1988 to 1992, schools that were consolidated or that grew due to reorganization experienced the following drop-offs in parent participation, according to the U.S. Department of Education: Parents became 12 percent less likely to respond to school questionnaires, 10 percent less likely to attend an open house, 5 percent less likely to check their children's homework—and 10 percent less likely to take part in PTOs.

Recognizing these dangers, Unity West created the new post of parent representative (one per grade) to communicate with the teachers in the new school of 430 children. "That really worked," says Anderson. "It got more parents coming to meetings."

River Road/El Camino del Rio Elementary School in Eugene, Ore., encouraged participation by changing the name of the parent group from the Parent Involvement Committee to the Parent/Teacher Club. "With the word "committee," many parents did not think they could join in," says Principal Sara Cramer. "The new name emphasized that it was a group for any parent or teacher who chose to join or come to a meeting. And parent volunteerism is high."

Activities before the consolidation can help smooth the transition. At Black Hawk Elementary in Burlington, Iowa, the teachers coordinated pen pal exchanges between students in the same grade at the two schools, then brought the pen pals together to meet during field day. For Black Hawk's spring carnival, classrooms were paired to bring a game, and the result was especially significant for the school slated to close at the end of the 2001-2002 year, Prospect Hill Elementary, which hadn't been able to hold a spring carnival for several years.

Carole Whitcomb, Black Hawk's PTO president both before and after the consolidation, also called the president of Prospect Hill. "We spent hours talking on the phone," she says. One outcome was the decision to hold joint PTO meetings beginning in winter 2002, which gave parents the opportunity to become familiar with the school and to see the progress of its expansion. One early meeting included an icebreaker in which parents had to talk to other parents to find those who met certain criteria on a handout—for example, someone with more than three children, someone who had eaten chocolate that day, and someone who had purchased a happy meal to get a toy. "It was great," says Whitcomb. "I had trouble at the end of 10 minutes to get people back to the meeting."

Finding Closure

Outreach for joint events doesn't have to originate with the school that's staying open. Reno School in Marietta, Ohio, just closed its doors, with all of its students reassigned to Phillips School for the fall semester. But Reno invited the community to a family picnic held during school hours and also to an open house. It also hosted a spring fling in the gym of a nearby junior high school, which PTO President Candy Nelson calls "a neutral site."

Letters were sent to all Phillips students to come listen to a DJ, to dance, to snack, to get their faces painted, even to play basketball outside. But admission was granted only if each child brought a parent or guardian. "It was packed," says Nelson. "I've never seen so many people at an event. There were a couple hundred or more."

Still, conflict is inevitable. "Our elementary school always had an end-of-the-year picnic, a big to-do at the park with big slides and dunk tanks," says Anderson. "The other schools did something like that but on a smaller scale. As we were trying to merge these ideas, we butted heads a little bit."

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At Westland Middle School in Corvallis, Ore., the PTOs at the two middle schools that merged were used to electing officers on different schedules, one of them in the spring and the other in the fall, says Cochair Rosemary Magee. During the transition, elections didn't take place until after school began, creating what one group considered a late start. Eventually, though, the bylaws were changed by consensus to call for May elections.

At Reno and Phillips schools, pre-consolidation joint PTO meetings revealed different ideas about how to spend money. One faction had what some considered "wild ideas," says Nelson. An example was the desire by one group to buy a playground for the community, while the other group focused on the problems of maintenance and liability. And the use of PTO funds before a consolidation can be affected, as well. "The PTO usually does a big project," says Nelson, "but with our school closing, that didn't happen. When we learned about the consolidation in December, it took the wind out of our sails. We didn't get a lot done." Plus there was a strong sense that money raised by Reno should be spent on its students before the merger. "We wanted to make sure our kids did take advantage of the money," says Nelson. "We brought in a couple of authors, went to the bird sanctuary and the zoo, had a skating party, and a lot more."

A New Beginning

A consolidation can often mean the merging of two very different congregations. "The major challenge that we faced was merging a school with a limited minority population with one that was at least 70 percent minority," says Cramer. Neighborhood meetings helped air the concerns of parents, while plenty of pre-consolidation activities helped the children get acquainted. Months of pen-pal exchanges and busing students back and forth culminated in a science assembly in which Cramer, sitting on a skateboard, was shot across the stage via the fire extinguisher she clutched.

Perhaps the most symbolic unification of cultures was the decision to add the Spanish translation to the original name of the school (River Road/El Camino del Rio). This blending of cultures is also evident in a list of the school's get-togethers in the first year after consolidation: All School Carnival, Winter Festival, Dia de Los Muertos, Bingo Nights, Fiesta Latina, Cinco de Mayo, Family Dances, and Dia de Los Niños. It can also be seen in a project in which parents helped every student in the school to design a self-portrait on tiles. The tiles were recently installed in the hallways, marking the official end of the consolidation process and, says Cramer, "the beginning of who we are now."

Dealing directly with the problems created by consolidation seems to help. At Black Hawk, the PTO allowed parents to air their feelings and invited the school counselor to a meeting. "The counselor talked about how to handle the emotions of your building closing down and how to deal with your child suddenly going from a small neighborhood school to a much larger building," says Whitcomb. "We ended up with a lot of discussion among parents about how they were dealing with the challenge."

A more specific problem involved busing, which was available only to children who lived more than one mile away from the school. A number of children who had walked to their previous school now faced a walk of nearly a mile in an area with no sidewalks. Parents successfully petitioned the school board to send a bus to Prospect Hill so that students could walk there and then board the bus to Black Hawk.

Once schools merge, the day-to-day operations of the PTO might need some fine-tuning. Handling fundraisers with a larger population can be tricky, for instance. "You have no idea what you'll make or spend," says Whitcomb. "It's kind of like starting all over again." And the increased number of students can affect other programs. During its late fall craft days, necessity forced Black Hawk to reduce from three to two the number of gifts with tags that children made for their families.

But consolidation has benefits, too, with the potential for more activities, more diversity and, says Whitcomb, the opportunity to make more new friends through interaction with other parents. Some schools, in fact, seek consolidation. At Rockridge/Lester Park School in Duluth, Minn., parents have been pushing to unify their split campus for a decade. With all K-1 students at one site and all students in grades 2-5 at another site a mile away, the principal spends half the week at each location, and there's a PTA copresident, co-vice president and, starting this year, cotreasurer at each site.

PTO meetings alternate locations, and two chairs and twice the number of volunteers are needed for events such as the book fair (held simultaneously at both places). The main challenge is communication. "There can be a problem trying to keep everything equal," says Copresident Shannon Studden. "One chair wanted to bring treats for the teachers every week. The other chair didn't know, so teachers at the other location were getting treats only once a month."