You can use communications to improve your group's image and boost involvement. Just put the focus in the right place.

by Emily Graham


As a parent group leader, you get to see, up close, the difference parent involvement makes at your school. You understand the relationship between spaghetti suppers and higher student achievement, how the fall fundraiser means new computers in the spring.

But is that message getting across to other parents? Can they see how the parent group’s hard work pays off, or do they just see the hard work? When you’re explaining why the PTO really matters, how you say it can make all the difference.

Talk Up the Benefits

For many busy parents, helping with the PTO can seem like just another task on a never-ending to-do list. It’s up to you to convince them that it’s worth their time. Start by educating parents about the benefits of involvement. Research has shown that children of involved parents do better in school and on standardized tests, have fewer behavior problems, and are less likely to use drugs or alcohol.

You can also score points by showing how an activity will provide a tangible benefit to the school. Explain how a parent’s work at the fundraising auction will help purchase library books or pay for class field trips. Blowing up helium balloons for an event may not seem important, but no one could argue with the importance of helping students improve their reading skills.

Emphasizing the benefits of involvement can help win over parents who are on the fence. Remind them that the PTO provides opportunities to get to know school staff members and to learn more about how the school operates. Stress how much fun parents can have, and assure them that they won’t be asked to take on more than they can handle.

Last year, the Pine Grove Elementary PTO in Rowley, Mass., regularly reminded parents how they benefit from getting involved. One month the group made a David Letterman-inspired top 10 list with reasons to attend a meeting and join the PTO. Among them: camaraderie with other parents and the good feeling you get when you see a smile on your child’s face. Inspired by magazine quizzes, leaders created a personality quiz for volunteers to encourage parents to tap into their talents to help the school. Bookworms were asked to help with a book fair or in the library. Sports fanatics were invited to pitch in at field day.

“The feedback we received each month when we sent these flyers out was that they really felt like parents could find a place that they fit in, no matter what their talents or interests,” says Pine Grove PTO president Hilary Odoy.

Share Your Accomplishments

If parents think your group is disorganized, poorly run, or irrelevant, they’ll find somewhere else to volunteer their time. Send the message that your parent group has its act together by publicizing your achievements. Don’t just say how much money you raised; tell them how the money paid for an artist in residence or a new playground structure. And don’t forget to talk about how much fun you had. Tell everyone that kids raved about the holiday shop and that fathers can’t wait for the next dads’ volunteer day.

When officers at Fairgrove Academy PTO in La Puente, Calif., realized that many parents were unfamiliar with the group, they created a brochure about how the group helps the school titled “Your PTO at Work.” “We came up with a list of all the programs we support at the school as well as the funding that is provided for bus trips, teacher wants and needs, classroom requests, and school events,” president Debra May says.

Many parents thanked leaders for their efforts and pledged to be more involved. New people began going to meetings and volunteering for the PTO’s projects, and many of them are serving on the board this year, according to May.

The Pine Grove PTO took a similar approach, producing a flyer that details what the group has done. Leaders also printed a two-page annual report that explained the PTO’s purpose, what events it sponsors, and how it spends the money it raises. A separate informational brochure listed important phone numbers, from the school nurse to local youth sports coaches, giving parents a reason to keep it after reading it.

More inclusion leads to better involvement; we’ll help you get started

Get Personal

Flyers and emails may be a good way to notify the entire school community of upcoming events, but they are impersonal. When you’re trying to sign up new members or recruit chaperones for the school dance, asking parents individually will most likely be more effective.

Open house is a great time to introduce your group to new people and to invite them to upcoming events. But keep in mind that if you come on too strong, you could be labeled a pushy PTO parent. Be appreciative of whatever time parents can give, and be understanding when they say no. Parents who are too busy to help now may be able to pitch in another time.

Personal conversations helped the Harlem Park Middle School PTA in Baltimore increase participation and build support for its campaign to keep the school open, says president Larissa Henderson. The school district plans to close the school and replace it with a high school. After PTA members contacted parents directly and explained the merit of being involved, more parents began coming to PTA functions. Some even gathered signatures for a petition to save the school. The school’s future remains uncertain, but the PTA is the strongest it’s been in years.

Put Parents First

How is your PTO perceived in the school community? Do people complain that you’re always asking for time or money? One way to change that perception is to show parents that the group is there to serve them.

The Cler-Mont Elementary PTA in Independence, Mo., sent this message through regular emails informing parents about the state sales tax holiday, contests, and discount tickets to local events. At school events, the PTA gave away donated door prizes, such as tickets to a Kansas City Royals game and bookstore gift cards, says programs vice president Marilyn Harvey. Last year, the PTA handed out 100 bicycle helmets at the bike rodeo. At this fall’s open house, the group gave kids free hats and handed out fast-food coupons to the first 100 adults who arrived.

At the K-6 Pine Grove School, PTO leaders wanted the group to be viewed as a resource. They reached out to families of kindergartners and 1st graders at parent information nights, giving directions around the building and answering questions about the school.

Say Thanks

Grassroots organizations like parent groups need positive word of mouth to grow. Volunteers should leave feeling good so they’ll come back and so they’ll tell their friends about the great experience they had with the PTO.

Parents volunteer for altruistic purposes, but they also want validation. A personal thank-you, an email, or a handwritten note goes a long way toward making them feel that the time they spent was worthwhile. Some groups thank volunteers with formal appreciation events or small gifts. It doesn’t matter how much money you spend as long as the thank-you is heartfelt.

Don’t forget to follow up with parents after a project is complete. Tell them the results—how much money was raised or how many computers were installed—and share the positive feedback from the school.

Pine Grove officers put a lot of effort into follow-up. The day after each PTO meeting, board members call or email to thank each person who attended. Within a week of signing up for a job, parents are given a task or receive a note thanking them for their willingness to help. Responding to volunteers this way shows that their help is wanted and that the PTO won’t waste their time, Odoy says. She believes these efforts to improve communication with parents have paid off.

“I keep hearing people say we have a really strong and vibrant PTO here,” Odoy says. “That wasn’t the case this time last year.”

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