If there was ever any doubt about the importance of community, that changed in spring 2020 with the spread of the new coronavirus, widespread school closures, and shelter-in-place orders. Suddenly, the communities of people we’re a part of became a lifeline—a way to stay informed, get help, and help others.
No matter what the new school year looks like for you, and whether students learn online or in person, you can work to strengthen the sense of community at your school. When parent groups and schools work together, everyone benefits. Parents feel welcome and are more likely to take a more active role in their child’s education. Teachers feel appreciated. And research shows that kids attending schools with a strong community are more likely to be academically motivated. It’s not always easy, but it’s worthwhile. Here are some ways parent groups can work to create camaraderie, engagement, and a sense of belonging.
Help People Feel Connected
Get social. Parents new to a school may not know how to reach out and meet other parents, and parent group leaders can play an important role in setting a warm and inclusive tone. When parents attend a PTO or PTA meeting for the first time, take steps to make sure they don’t feel like outsiders. Introduce yourself, and introduce new parents to others in attendance. Think about other ways to promote parent bonding, such as coffee gatherings or an adults-only paint night.
The Central Christian School Parent Teacher Fellowship in Hutchinson, Kan., promotes parent bonding with quarterly coffee gatherings that include snacks and icebreaker games.
The PTF provides pastries, fruit, and breakfast casseroles and uses simple icebreakers to draw people out. PTF president Janice Miller says that by the end of previous coffee gatherings, “some pretty funny stories came up through the icebreaker games, and parents were much more relaxed.” The coffee gatherings are going strong this year under Miller’s leadership. Besides advertising the events well, Miller says using structured activities to promote interaction is key to creating a welcoming group environment.
Invite staff members to your meetings and events, but be understanding if they can’t attend. Keep in mind that teachers have limited free time, and may want to use it to get involved at their own child’s school.
Help build a parent-principal connection. Most parents have few opportunities to talk with the principal. Your group can help the principal connect with parents by planning a Q&A session at a PTO meeting or providing coffee and doughnuts for a “breakfast with the principal” session one school morning. Parents will enjoy the chance to ask questions or give input, and most principals will appreciate the chance to communicate directly with parents.
Step Up Communications
Use multiple methods to communicate with school families to make your group more visible and feel more accessible to parents. Paper flyers and newsletters are important for reaching parents without Internet access and can help get the attention of moms and dads with crowded email inboxes. When it wasn’t possible to send flyers home with students after schools closed in the spring, many groups moved their activities online, holding videoconferenced meetings or organizing virtual scavenger hunts or school spirit weeks. Some PTOs shared videos from teachers to students to help the school community feel more connected.
Many groups also communicate with parents on a group website, a Facebook page or group, emails or e-newsletters, and text messaging. Using a mix of these methods can help you reach more families. Translate PTO communications into another language to reach non-English-speaking parents, if possible.
At Greenfield Elementary, a small New Hampshire school, the PTO improved communication by creating a website and overhauling its Facebook page, the result of which was a 250 percent increase in “likes.” The group also started publishing key activities in local and regional newspapers and using a website to coordinate volunteers. In addition, the PTO now stores files in the cloud to enable collaboration among members and smoother transitions at the end of each school year. “I think our biggest learning is to ask how parents want to be communicated with and really listen to their response,” says PTO president Angelique Moon.
Parent surveys showed Facebook as the favored means of communication, but parents specifically wanted paper copies of PTO meeting minutes. As a result, the group provides both. Moon says the PTO continues to tweak communication for improved results.
Keep school staff in the loop. Touch base with the principal before PTO meetings to let her know what’s on the agenda. At many schools, parent groups have a regular meeting agenda item for the principal to share information with the PTO. If your group doesn’t, consider inviting the principal to your meetings.
Get teachers’ input. Ask teachers how your parent group can support them. If teachers ask for funding for classroom tools and the money is in your group’s budget, set up a transparent process where they submit applications for review. Ask a teacher to serve as a liaison to the PTO, attending parent group meetings to provide feedback and sharing information with teachers at staff meetings.
Get parents excited about your parent group’s activities. To get more families to your events, talk up the benefits or freebies when publicizing them. For example, mention that at family reading night, kids will get a free book and parents can learn ways to support reading at home.
Recognize Different Cultures
Honor the different cultures of families in the school to help build a sense of community. The Harrington Elementary PTO in Chelmsford, Mass., held a heritage festival for the first time last year that proved popular with families and teachers alike. Former PTO president Justyn Thoren had noticed that of the school’s 500 families, less than half were attending PTO events. She wanted to change that, so with feedback from the school community the PTO came up with a new event, the heritage festival.
To invite participation, the festival committee asked parents to make and donate their favorite appetizer. Parents were also invited to set up a table display for their country of origin or the region of the United States they had moved from. Participants brought in traditional clothing, handouts, games, or some other interactive element to represent a variety of countries, including Brazil, Columbia, Venezuela, Bosnia, China, India, Scotland, Canada, and South Korea.
The PTO also invited community vendors who could provide an international connection. A real estate agent created a display of homes from around the world, a music academy brought in drums, and a tae kwon do academy performed demonstrations.
The evening featured dance performances, a dad’s Celtic band, international stories read by the school librarian between performances, and simple passports for students to have stamped at the tables. Teachers got involved by having their classes work on curricular projects related to heritage, which were displayed around the school.
Part of the reason the festival was so successful was that it was new. But it also was inclusive, connecting families and teachers through the curriculum, international cultures, the arts, and the community. “The outcome was people felt very welcome,” Thoren says. “We sent a personal invitation to every teacher to cordially invite them, and many showed up.”
The food contributions were a huge hit, broadening the definition of acceptable treats. “We had many parents who had never baked for a bake sale, and this event allowed them to bring in something meaningful to their family,” Thoren says.
Focus on Working Together
Identify a common goal that families and school staff can work toward, such as creating an outdoor classroom or setting up a tutoring program. Keep the school community up to date as your group makes progress toward the goal.
Connect families who may not have met. Pair new volunteers with parents who know the school inside out. See if the dads club and choir parents can work together to serve food at bingo night. Bringing together different groups for a common project can help build a sense of community. Look beyond the usual fundraiser or family event to something new that will bring in families who might not otherwise participate.
Barb Owens, president of the Shuksan Middle School PTA in Bellingham, Wash., recommends looking beyond the usual fundraiser or family event to something new that will bring in families who might not otherwise participate. At Shuksan Middle School, which has many Spanish-speaking families, that event has been a tamale fundraiser. The PTA and principal Jay Jordan spearheaded the fundraiser not just to raise money, but to be more inclusive of Latino culture.
Families and staff come together one Saturday in April to make hundreds of tamales in the school kitchen to freeze and sell to families, staff, and community members who preordered them. The PTA pays for a district kitchen staff member to oversee production according to health department codes. Parents loan their tamale steamers, and everyone works together with the assistance of on-site staff interpreters. Jordan has been pleased with the event’s success in bringing families together. “It’s a unique event that’s more important than the money it’s raising,” he says.
Increase community partnerships. When a school is new and is looking to build a sense of community, local partnerships are invaluable. After Berewick Elementary in Charlotte, N.C., opened, its PTO wanted to promote parent group membership, volunteer participation, and community partnerships. The PTO won a grant for a community garden and outdoor classroom and reached out to the larger community for help with its construction. With the help of Lowe’s staff, college students, and families, the school built six raised garden beds that students maintain during the school year.
Meeting once a month on Saturdays, students and parents plant or tend vegetables to donate a percentage to Friendship Trays, Charlotte’s meals on wheels program, as well as the food bank. Because a high percentage of Berewick’s students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, some kids benefit directly from food bank donations. Everyone benefits from giving back, as well as from the school’s new partnerships and the inclusive culture around growing vegetables.
Express your appreciation. Thank parents and staff members for helping plan or making the time to attend meetings or PTO events. Everyone likes to be appreciated. Some parent groups plan formal volunteer and teacher appreciation efforts, but a simple thank-you said in person, by email, or in a card can go a long way, too.
Celebrate your accomplishments. Don’t forget to publicly communicate what your parent group has accomplished or how it helped the school reach a goal. Make an announcement at a school assembly or family event, write about it for a parent newsletter or email, or lead a round of applause at your next meeting. When parents see that your PTO gets things done and understand the contributions it makes to the school, they will be more likely to want to get involved.