You have the power. A strong parent group can actually energize an entire school year. You do it by building on the enthusiasm that naturally occurs at the start of a new year. Working closely with the administration and staff, you can help keep kids excited about their school. Activities and projects sponsored by the PTO can also instill pride, promote a positive attitude, and get parents involved in the school all year long. Follow these tips to help your parent group build—and maintain—school spirit right through to June.

Start the Year With a Smile

If the first thing parents receive from your group in September is a fundraising brochure, you may be projecting the wrong image. Instead, start the year with a family activity. Let the school community see the parent group as more than simply a money machine.

Horizon Academy NW in Albuquerque, N.M., holds a fall welcome festival. Michele Clark, PTO secretary at Horizon, says the event features games run by students from each grade level. Your first PTO-sponsored event can be as big as a carnival or as simple as a movie night or welcome-back family picnic. The point is to sponsor a fun event early in the year.

Even if your group must conduct a fundraising project during the first few weeks to build cash, balance your request for financial support with something else that immediately benefits the students or families.

The PTO can help the school get ready for the new year with a few easy projects. A group of members armed with brooms and trash bags can clean up the school grounds and sweep the entryways. Custodians who are swamped trying to get the interior of the school ready will welcome the effort of your volunteers.

You also can hang a sign or balloons welcoming everyone back to school. Some groups give the students pencils imprinted with a motivational message. Even a vase of flowers left in the teachers’ lounge will establish that the parent group is ready to work with the staff for the betterment of the school.

Set Goals to Build Anticipation

Within the first six weeks of school, your group will probably have had its first meeting, coordinated its first family activity, and initiated its first fundraising project. This is a very busy time and luckily, energy levels and volunteerism are high. Now is the time to set some goals that will build on today’s enthusiasm and carry the momentum forward for the next several months.

Anticipation can be created in many ways. Some groups build anticipation for a fundraising project or academic achievement program by promising a fun activity if the goal is met. The expectation of the promised event can keep parents and students engaged, even excited, as the deadline draws near. Many a principal has kissed a farm animal, taken a pie in the face, or received a new haircut when the group achieved its goal.

Another sure way to keep interest up is to plan a brand new event for your PTO. Curiosity will naturally increase as the new event is promoted and the date draws near. Fresh ideas also can draw in new volunteers who are anxious to share their talents and time.

Horizon Academy’s PTO drew up a list of more than 30 different community activities for this year, proving there’s no shortage of new ideas when your members brainstorm together.

If your PTO sets its sights high, a long-range project can carry the group for several weeks, even months. The Delcroft School in Folcroft, Pa., planned to add grades seven and eight. The Home and School group set a goal to purchase new student lockers. After months of research and fundraising, the H&S had raised $18,000 to purchase the new lockers, and a dedicated parent donated installation.

Parent group members were motivated by their success. Holly Weber, Delcroft H&S president, summed up the group’s effort: “There was such a sense of accomplishment for us when the lockers were delivered. We get such joy and pleasure from seeing the kids and knowing that we make a difference in their lives and at Delcroft.”

Two keys to a long-range project are to update your members continually on the project’s progress and to identify ways they can contribute to the ultimate achievement of the goal.

Build School Spirit and Pride

When students pour back into the classrooms in the fall, excitement runs high. This is the perfect time to initiate a school spirit program that can carry throughout the year. Working with the principal’s input, the parent group could coordinate periodic spirit days or grade-level spirit contests. For example, one PTA in Bergen County, N.J., sponsors theme Fridays all year long. Each week, the students can look forward to something special such as crazy hair day, sunglasses day, or bring in a canned good day.

Many groups coordinate the sale of school T-shirts. When sold at cost, T-shirts are an inexpensive way for everyone to display their school spirit. Staff and students alike can be encouraged to wear their T-shirts on the weekly spirit day.

Holly Weber of Delcroft H&S says, “In the past the majority of the students didn’t know our mascot is the Dragon. Now they all seem to know, and they wear their shirts proudly.” Other spirit items such as bumper stickers, hats, yard signs, sportswear, and flags can all spread the word that your community supports the school.

Traditions play an important part in school pride. Many parent groups run successful events that everyone anticipates year after year. For example, the winter talent show can generate weeks of excitement as students and classes prepare their acts. The promise of the annual spring carnival can spark enthusiasm even in the cold days of winter.

PTO members can plan the annual fifth grade promotion reception so teachers and parents of the fifth graders can relax and enjoy the event. If committee members do a good job of passing along their experience, traditional events will improve each year. Students, teachers, and parents can be proud of “our” special event.

Celebrate Success

Throughout the year, accomplishments great and small can be acknowledged with the PTO’s help. Often the administration and teachers can identify students who deserve special recognition, but the school might lack the funds or manpower to conduct a proper celebration. This is a place where the PTO can step in.

For example, the principal of Scotch Elementary School in West Bloomfield, Mich., wanted to recognize all 700 students over the course of the year at a monthly Character Counts! breakfast. Unfortunately, his budget could not accommodate the $200 needed each month for the food. With financial support from the PTO, Scotch students and parents enjoyed fresh bagels and juice while the principal cheered their accomplishments for the month.

Similarly, the parent group might be able to order certificates or trophies for academic achievement, display photographs of students who attain certain goals, or match monies raised by the students for a community service project.

On a grander scale, the PTO can plan a school-wide celebration such as a science fair, reading achievement program, or student art show. Special celebrations that include the entire school community generate enthusiasm, pride, and excitement—key ingredients for a great year.

Partner With the School

The typical parent group exists solely to enhance the environment of a school. Without the school, there would be no parent group. So it is in the best interest of the group to treat the school administrators and teachers as partners, not opponents. While there may be the occasional principal who ignores the PTO, most principals appreciate the benefits of an ambitious parent group.

Likewise, the vast majority of teachers are thankful for the parent group’s support, and some become valuable contributors to the organization. The parent group, for its part, must respect that the staff’s overriding, full-time, primary objective is to educate your students. When the staff recognizes the PTO’s potential and the PTO respects the staff’s priorities, everyone will feel a valuable part of the same team.

The executive board should meet with the principal very early in the school year, preferably in the summertime. At this planning session, the officers and principal can discuss ideas for events, set key dates, and define a routine for ongoing meetings. The president and principal should also discuss areas such as financial management, communicating with the parents, the parent group’s access to school resources, and the principal’s expectations of the parent group and vice versa.

The parent group president should understand the principal’s management style so their working relationship is enhanced. Even if your principal has been in place for several years, it is best to cover the issues early. Renewing the PTO-school partnership annually can pave the way for a successful year, every year.