What Makes a Parent Group Great?

We asked administrators, teachers, and PTO leaders to reflect on that simple question. Here’s what they had to say.


Theresa Stager
Principal and lead learner
St. Mary Catholic School, Rockwood, Mich.

Those that really excelled in their tasks and made a bigger difference than the rest were the ones that remembered everything they did was for the students, no matter what personality struggles may have occurred, disagreements in meetings, or differences in how to achieve the goal.

Hilary Lewis
2nd grade teacher
College Wood Elementary, Carmel, Ind.

I am fortunate to work in a school with a very active PTO. They find creative ways to earn money for our school and are always ready to lend a hand whenever needed. Another thing that makes our PTO so special is that they take the time to listen to teachers and their needs. They ask what we need for our classrooms and always seem to find a way to make it happen.

What makes our PTO great? I think it is the fact that they realize a great PTO comes from parents and teachers working together to educate our children.

Spread the word—schools thrive because of hard-working parent groups

Pam Scott
Central York School District, PTO Council, York, Pa.

Great parents and a great school administration. These two groups are mutually dependent on each other, and without one, a great parent organization will not exist.

In my five years serving as PTO president for our children’s school, it became apparent very quickly that the success of any of our fabulous ideas was dependent upon the willingness of the school principal and assistant principal to allow us to try new things. Never once did we hear “that’s not the way things have been done in the past.” Nor did we ever hear “your idea will never work.” Instead, we received unwavering support from administration and faculty alike. This support allowed us to reach beyond and offer new experiences for the students, recognize teachers and provide them with classroom resources, and enhance the school community.

Ultimately, a parent organization needs just that...parents. Oftentimes, our PTO executive board heard from many parents that they just didn’t have the time to volunteer. Volunteering isn’t simply attending PTO meetings; instead, it can be baking cookies for May Day, organizing the talent show, or taking pictures for the yearbook. Whatever form of volunteering, it doesn’t need to be a large time commitment. The best and most successful PTOs are those that welcome volunteering in all shapes and sizes. Perhaps it’s counting box tops in the comfort of their own home, or the parent who sends in paper goods for a classroom party. Allowing parents to give of themselves, however that may be, will once again enhance the school community.

Rebecca Kaye
Administrative staff and former teacher
Atlanta (Ga.) Public Schools

They respected teachers as professionals, took the time to learn about what was going on schoolwide, and supported all kids, especially the ones whose parents didn’t have the resources to put time and money into the school. They saw it as an investment in their community, not just in their own children.

Yolanda Delaney
Director of elementary programs
Canyon (Texas) Independent School District

I would say there are two main characteristics of highly functioning PTA groups: one, support; two, communication. They should be there to support the needs of the school and offer ways to be involved in their child’s education. There has to be trust and open lines of communication between all parents, the board, and the school.

Cindy Overturf
Music teacher
Mendenhall Elementary, Plano, Texas

The best parent groups I have worked with are the ones that are able to step aside from individual issues, social relationships, financial backgrounds, and truly become one group working toward the success of the students, teachers, and entire school. This can be so difficult as parents tend to be focused on the programs that address their child; often they lose sight of the needs of the school as a whole.

In the school where I teach, there is disparity in the income levels of the families and it is amazing to see families that might not be able to bring monetary assistance be included in the organization and to see the leadership work to find other ways that they can contribute to the success of the parent organization and the school....It is amazing when all are given an opportunity to feel valued and contribute. The involvement of all parents makes the parent organization stronger and helps all parents become a true partner in their child’s education.

Justin Tarte
Director of teaching and learning
Union (Mo.) R-XI School District

Far too often, parent groups are formed with no real mission or focus just so a school or district can say they have one. When parent groups have a clearly defined mission and set of objectives, they are positioned to be successful.

Secondly, successful parent groups thrive on transparency and open lines of communication. Since not all parents and staff members are able to be a part of each and every parent group, communicating goals and objectives as well as progress is extremely important. Successful parent groups provide frequent and detailed updates on their progress and commit themselves to be being transparent and open.

Jennifer Melton
Cherry Creek (Colo.) Schools Parents’ Council

Four key areas come to my mind:

Goals: The group knows why they exist. There are clear steps in place on how to reach the goal and it is attainable.

Tasks: There are tasks both large and small so everyone feels that they can contribute something.

Communication: Effective communication is the key of holding a group together. These days it is not only the words that you say, but how you contact members of your group (email, text, Facebook, etc.) that is important. It is difficult to get a job done if you don’t understand what is expected of you or you don’t get the message.

Community: I have observed that community is especially im­portant during the high school years for students, and parents can also benefit from these connections. Besides school pride, it develops relationships with other parents that hopefully will last after the goal is met. And don’t forget to celebrate the group’s accomplishments. Food and a relaxing atmosphere bring people together. A group that plays together, stays together.

Jenny Garwood
4th grade science teacher
Lakota Local Schools, Liberty Township, Ohio

As a teacher, I love when parent groups are willing to listen to what we need. At one school where I taught, the PTO set aside funds for teacher grants. It was such a relief to have their financial support when an opportunity arose to do something really fantastic for our students. In addition, they organized copy room volun­teers, served dinner on parent-teacher conference nights, organized events to make families feel welcome, and offered to help whenever they could. It really felt as though this group tried to solve our problems before we even thought to ask!

This parent group worked so well because they had excellent communication with not only each other but [also] the principal and school staff. Without knowing our needs, there is no way they could have met them. In addition, the selfless attitudes of the people in the group strengthened it. There was no elitist group of best friends, but rather a group of leaders in the truest sense of the word who gathered teams to support the school. The leaders of the group wanted to include all families, including those with working parents, and worked hard to find support in the community, as well.

PTO Today’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective Parent Groups

  1. Focus first on building parent involvement, not on fundraising.
  2. Create family events and long-term traditions that people look forward to.
  3. Be truly welcoming to new parents.
  4. Let people get involved gradually, at their own pace.
  5. Have fun; it’s an important element of building involvement.
  6. Place less emphasis on meetings and more on volunteerism.
  7. Trumpet your accomplishments; people are attracted to success.

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