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Today’s school parent groups have nothing to worry about—if they connect with families in modern ways.

by Tim Sullivan


I’ve been writing this column for years now, and each time I sit down to write, I try to start with the fundamental belief of PTO Today: Parent involvement matters.

The research says so (unanimously). Every bit of my personal experience says so (clearly). And all the stories and success profiles highlighted by PTO Today make the case (undoubtedly).

But more than ever before, there seems to be this low murmur of resignation that real parent involvement is a thing of the past, that schools and parents just aren’t what they used to be or that parents simply don’t care or won’t get involved like they once did.

It’s an easy story for mass media outlets and a convenient scapegoat answer for all that ails our kids and schools, but—sorry—I couldn’t disagree more.

Just because parent involvement is different today doesn’t mean that parent involvement is gone. Far from it.

Does the traditional 10 a.m. or 7 p.m. PTO or PTA meeting look different today? Yes, these meetings are generally not as well-attended as they were in the past (though I think even in 1972 and 1952 there were still 20 percent of the people doing 80 percent of the work—that’s an evergreen volunteer truth).

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Is PTA membership way down (one of the measures that Robert Putnam used in his book Bowling Alone to illustrate a decline in civic participation)? Yes, it is. But that’s due far more to a decline in formal PTA affiliation by groups as a whole (choosing to organize as independent PTOs) than it is to a decline in individual parent involvement.

Even traditional financial measures of support can be cited to demonstrate lower parent involvement. Yes, there are fewer candy bars being purchased to support schools today than 30 years ago. Traditional fundraising sales have struggled in recent years, but those sales are not at all the only measure of parent financial support.

All of these statistics are too convenient and definitely flawed. Meetings are less attended overall, but how many parents get updates on school activities from school and PTO Facebook pages and email updates? Today, parents can and do volunteer without ever setting foot in the school building. Those parents are definitely engaged with their kids’ schools.

Our research here at PTO Today shows that PTO and PTA budgets are higher than ever before, and virtually all of those dollars come from parent support. Whether it’s direct donations or fun runs or school galas, parents are still supporting their schools They are just doing so in some new ways to go with the old, and that’s more than OK. It’s great.

There’s a fundamental contradiction in all of this parent criticism. There’s this frequent cry in the media that parent involvement is dying followed the next week by a feature on the dreaded but ever-multiplying Helicopter Parents. It’s impossible that both of these plagues can be true. It’s hard to make the case that parents who are supporting their schools financially and checking grades and assignments online and emailing with teachers and school staff about school challenges are somehow not involved.

My take: Today’s parents still care about their kids a great deal. Just as their parents did and just as parents always have. But that caring takes on different forms all the time. If schools and PTOs and PTAs stubbornly stick only with 1986 tactics, then they are disappointed in the results and blame apathy.

On the other hand, the most effective schools and PTOs and PTAs start with the correct assumption that parents care and want to be involved, and they work to build parent communication and parent involvement opportunities that work for today's world and that meet parents where they are today.

These changes include how schools and groups communicate (multiple ways, mostly digital), the types of events they run (downplaying meetings, emphasizing the fun and the practical), an openness to and enthusiasm for nontraditional volunteer roles and styles, and a heavy emphasis on the cause (the “why”) when it comes to fundraising.

Parent involvement isn’t dead or even dying. With the right school leadership and parent group leadership, parents will be involved at your school in wonderful, creative, positive, and essential ways. It’s happening at tens of thousands of schools across the country, and it can happen for your school, too.

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