Assembling a parent directory may seem like a challenging task: Get parents to provide their contact information and sign off on having it published. Compile the information in a single file. Proofread. Convince a printer to do the job for cheap. Distribute. Hope no one changes a phone number. Ugh.

But parent group leaders who do it say it’s worth the effort. Why? “Communication,” explains Jean Burns, president of the Greenwich Township School District PTO in Stewartsville, N.J. “What if your son wanted to have a play date with a friend in their class, but you didn’t know their phone number? What if your child forgot their spelling words and needed to call a friend for homework help? How about if you were planning a party for your child and needed to know addresses in order to send out invitations?”

The directory is also helpful when new families move to the district. “It helps them feel welcome and hopefully invites them to participate in school and PTO activities,” Burns says.

Having contact information at your fingertips helps busy families stay connected. Some moms put the directory in their purse. Others keep one in the car and one in the house. Here are some tips to make the creation of your directory as painless as possible.

Form a Team

Recruit one or two volunteers to be in charge of the directory. This is not a job that should fall to the president or another officer. If you had a directory in the past, talk about what worked well and what improvements can be made. Decide whether you’ll have an online directory, a print directory, or both. If your group has never done a directory, discuss what information would be most useful to include, such as kids’ ages and birthdays or simply grade levels. Consider asking for cell phone numbers and email addresses so parents will be as accessible as possible.

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Contact Families

Gathering the information is a task, no doubt about it. Send home an information sheet for parents to fill out. Try to include it in a packet with other important back-to-school documents. Or have parents check a box when they register their child so that their address, phone numbers, and other information may be included in a school directory. Bridget Goodner Boone, a PTO president in suburban Tulsa, Okla., said her group will try having parents input data online during an open house. In the past, the group has gotten up to 70 percent participation by sending forms home to all 650 students. Make several attempts to get parents to provide information so that no one who wants to participate is left out.

Let parents opt in if they want to participate rather than forcing them to opt out if they don’t. Offer the flexibility to have some information published, such as a home phone number, even if an address isn’t printed.

Compile the Data

As information comes in, have a volunteer enter the data into a database, such as an Excel spreadsheet. Once you have all the information compiled, ask a different volunteer or two to proofread the text. Pay careful attention to phone numbers—a wrong digit can result in a major headache for some unsuspecting family.

Organize the information in a way that is most useful to your school community. Some schools publish names by grade level and class, with an alphabetical index at the back of the directory. Other schools just list the names alphabetically and note the student’s grade and teacher.

Consider including other useful information in your directory. For example, some schools publish that year’s academic calendar, a list of teachers and room parents, and contacts for extracurricular activities. Make it a “one-stop source” for a parent’s school communication needs. Also, be sure to include a large, prominent disclaimer that the information is for personal use only and not to be used for sales or marketing.

This project is much easier if you use an online database system like PTO Today's Volunteer Manager. Volunteer Manager allows families to go online and enter their own information, thus reducing your data entry challenge.

Consider the Web

Some schools now publish an online directory instead of or in addition to a traditional print directory. The benefits of an online directory are that it’s searchable and can be updated easily. An online directory won’t get misplaced. Also, it can save the cost of printing if your parent group already has a website. The downside is that it can’t accompany a parent to the soccer game. Some parent groups are concerned that security would be an issue. Certainly any online directory should be password-protected.

Get It Published

If you’re going to publish an online directory, recruit a tech-savvy volunteer to set up the database to be as user-friendly and secure as possible. If you’re going with a hard-copy directory, consult several printers for the lowest cost. Some parent groups spend as little as $150 by taking advantage of discounts at a local printer. You might be able to get a discount or even free services in exchange for a prominent acknowledgement or ad for the printer in your directory.

Some groups use their school’s office copier (with permission), then take the copies to a print shop for binding. In a large district, the central office may offer a competitive rate on printing.

You can also contract with a school directory company to do the publishing. Typically these companies will help you organize the project and will print and bind it. Other services include online signups for businesses. Working with a directory company makes sense if you plan to turn the directory into a fundraiser by selling listings to businesses. In that case, your directory becomes a much larger project than simply creating a roster of school families.

Odds and Ends

Some parent groups have turned their directory into a revenue generator by selling advertisements. Local pizza parlors and other family-friendly establishments may jump at the chance to advertise. They may offer families a discount if they mention they saw the ad in the directory.

Some families may want more than one directory. Consider offering the first one free and selling subsequent copies at cost or at a slight markup to cover some of the production costs. Have families place orders for extras so you don’t make more copies than you need.

Halfway through the school year, send home forms again to update any information that has changed. This will give new families a chance to be listed. Compile the new information and distribute it as an addendum to the directory.

Producing a parent directory isn’t the most exciting volunteer position available within a parent group. But the document you create will be used over and over. By the end of the school year, most directories will be tattered and splattered with coffee stains. You’ll get satisfaction in knowing you created something that helped keep your school community connected.