Pewaukee Public Schools K-8 PTO

Location: Pewaukee, Wis.
Community: population 12,789; suburban
School size: 1,700 students, grades K-8
Annual budget: $68,000

The PTO for Pewaukee (Wis.) Public Schools has faced the same challenges as many parent groups. Despite a track record of successful events and steady support of their three schools, officers worried that too many parents remained uninvolved, leaving a core group of volunteers to do all the work.

Keeping track of information had become overwhelming, so they wanted a better system for passing that information along to a new group and for training new leaders. They also sought a better way to communicate with each other and with all parents. And though their annual fundraiser brought in a lot of money, they thought it could be run more efficiently.

So for the 2007-08 school year, they set goals to improve in all of these areas. Their outstanding results made them the national runner-up in PTO Today’s eighth annual Parent Group of the Year search.

Volunteer Power

The Pewaukee PTO wanted to increase the overall number of volunteers, with a special emphasis on involving parents with traditionally low participation, such as dads and working parents. One of the things they did was use PTO Today’s 2 Hour Power pledge program—which asks parents to commit just two volunteer hours to the PTO—to alleviate parents’ concern that if they agree to volunteer, they’ll be drawn into an overwhelming “black hole” of commitment.

One parent who worried about the time drain was Brad Schlaikowski. Although he hadn’t gotten around to signing the volunteer pledge, he nevertheless found himself offering to take charge of a science program after chatting with the PTO president at their children’s soccer game. “I thought I’d stay up until 12 on a bunch of nights between my 40-plus-hours-per-week job and family life and this science event,” he says. “But if you just add an hour here or a few minutes there and make phone calls while your son’s practicing soccer, it’s a lot less time than you think it’s going to take.”

The parent group also made a special effort to involve newcomers. At the orientation session for kindergarten parents, leaders promoted the pledge program and held a drawing for an educational toy. Anyone who volunteered was eligible.

Recognition was important, too. The name of every parent who committed to volunteer was posted on a wall in each school’s lobby—even before they did anything. “It was a great visual for others who may have been a bit wary about volunteering,” says PTO president Kirsten Bell. The result: The number of volunteers shot up 86 percent, from 287 to 533.

One of the PTO’s most notable successes consisted of recruiting more dads to participate. A leader behind this effort was Greg Derzay, who had gotten involved with the PTO as a result of his expertise in website creation. Next he offered to spearhead a fundraiser and decided to recruit some men for a committee of fathers.

“When I asked guys to volunteer, I promoted it to them as an all-dads thing,” he says. “They were interested in that kind of idea.” Derzay emphasizes that it’s not that men don’t want to work with the PTO. “One of the problems,” he says, “is that we don’t necessarily ask them. We assume it’s the moms doing all this.”

Schlaikowski has just taken on the role of treasurer. “I’m an advocate for dads being part of the PTO,” he says. “We’re going to get more of them. It just needs to be seen first that it’s happening.”

Committee Chair Training

For those members who took on leadership positions, the PTO developed a how-to manual and implemented a training event in August, before the start of school. Held at the local library, the event included dinner for 35 chairpeople and a session covering details such as how to publicize an event in the newspaper and whom to contact for which needs. Photos of attendees and their titles were posted on the PTO website.

After the event, each chairperson received a thank-you note and a gift card. “It was the first year we did this,” says Laurie Fernandez, PTO vice president for Pewaukee Lake Elementary. (The group has three vice president positions, one at each school.) “It helps the volunteers to be able to work independently and to have everything they need.”

Website to Wiki

Another self-improvement effort involved the PTO website. Derzay, a software architect who had previously developed sites for churches and other organizations, took charge of the website to make communication with parents easier. But it soon became clear that an even more important function could be allowing PTO members to communicate with each other and to store all their information on the site.

The website is clean and basic. It features drop-down menus that link to resources for PTO volunteers and other parents, from contact information to meeting minutes to an electronic suggestion box. “We used to have a password-protected portal but decided that nothing we talk about is that sensitive,” Fernandez says. “So everything on the [website] is viewable by anyone.”

While the site is now complete and being widely used, it still requires maintenance, and all information to be posted has to go through Derzay. “If I left today, the website would die,” he says. “It’s important to make a site maintainable and sustainable. It must live on its own.” With that guiding philosophy, Derzay is hoping to implement another overhaul. His goal is to use wiki technology so that the site can be managed by multiple people, even those without technical skills. Just as with Wikipedia, everyone would be able to post to such a site; it would no longer depend on a specific person to keep it updated.

Bye-bye, Binders

The new website helped with organization, too. To make for smoother officer transitions, leaders created an electronic event summary form that details each step required, along with all letters, emails, signs, and documentation that have been used. “A lot of events had been documented in binders,” Fernandez says. “These binders were passed from person to person. Our concern was, what if they got lost? Now this information is hosted on the Web.”

This documentation, while creating another step for event chairpeople, is a great asset for their successors. “Last year when I was running an event, I was saying, ‘I don’t want to write this,’ ” Schlaikowski says. “But this year, all the work is done for me. It says ‘This worked well’ and ‘Change this for next year’ and ‘Be sure to emphasize this.’ If I had this data last year, it would have made a world of difference.”

The new forms helped the PTO evaluate each event with a more standardized set of criteria. “We, as a board, could understand the event better and could look at it and make suggestions,” Fernandez says. Based on this new information, “some events didn’t make sense [to run] anymore.”

Charging Up a Fundraiser

One event in need of an update was the PTO’s annual fundraiser. “We had been with the same company for over 10 years and had always done the fundraiser the same way,” Fernandez explains. “But there were concerns about service, and the process was cumbersome.” The change to a new company resulted in a streamlined system, with the vendor taking over some tasks previously done by the PTO, such as creating student sales packets. “We made the vendor more accountable,” she says. “If she wanted our business, she had to do a little more work. Our fundraiser is her largest account, so we’re a pretty big sale for the company, and we can ask a lot.”

The PTO also stepped up its promotional efforts, publicizing the fundraiser at parent orientation and registration rather than at student assemblies and nowhere else. The outcome was more than $100,000 in sales of magazines and candy and a profit that grew from $38,000 to more than $50,000.

The accomplishments of the Pewaukee PTO have been recognized not only by PTO Today but also closer to home. “They are a great example of how to make a difference in the lives of many children,” says Pewaukee Lake Elementary principal Deb Ristow.