Schools depend on their parent groups for a wide variety of support, from family events to field trips to fundraising. All of these activities are important. But a PTO can have an even greater impact on a school by promoting activities that directly support student learning.

There are lots of possibilities, from sponsoring a reading program to running science and math nights. A good place to start is to help parents support their children’s learning at home. “PTOs can deliver training to parents,” says John-Michael Dumais, director of the New Hampshire State Parent Information and Resource Center in Concord. For instance, you might provide training that addresses how to assist with homework, how to set up a daily routine that includes regular times and a formal place for studying, or how to create an environment for learning critical and creative thinking skills. “The challenge for PTOs is not to assume that every parent is like them and knows these things,” Dumais says. He also recommends newsletters with such suggestions as what questions parents should ask at a teacher conference and frequent reminders, including phone calls, about upcoming school activities.

But it’s also possible to offer assistance to the school with particular areas of academic need. And that starts with accessing publicly available information on how well your school is doing. “My suggestion to any parent group is to get some data on your school’s needs, identify a priority need, talk to the principal, and work on a plan for how to address that need which would lead to some kind of specific activity,” says Bev Raimondo, director of the Center for Parent Leadership, part of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence in Lexington, Ky. “A lot of times parent groups go with their gut or get into things they’ve heard about from someone else or something that would be fun. But that might not necessarily be best for their school. Be more deliberate and develop a plan.”

Challenge accepted! Concrete steps for a great start to the school year

When approaching the principal, Raimondo encourages a cooperative approach. “Instead of coming with ‘We’ve got a great idea’ or ‘You’re not doing this,’ say ‘We understand there are needs; you’ve documented that. We’d like to help. Here are our thoughts, but we’d like your input,’” she suggests. But beware of areas to avoid. For example, classroom teaching methods, class size, and teachers’ professional training are off limits. “Be aware of your sphere of influence, where you do have control,” Raimondo says.

If your principal doesn’t jump at your offer, be persistent. Sometimes you have to ask more than once about how you can help. “Teachers and administrators can feel beleaguered at certain times of the year,” says Nancy Tellett-Royce, a senior consultant with the Search Institute in Minneapolis and coauthor of Engage Every Parent! Encouraging Families To Sign On, Show Up, and Make a Difference. “They might not come up with a creative way to engage parents, but ask them again at a time when they’re less stressed.”

Strengthening reading skills is an area of concern for many schools. To build their students’ abilities in this subject, several dozen parents at Hoover-Wood School in Batavia, Ill., take a 90-minute annual training class from the school’s reading specialist. Then they work individually or in small groups with children, usually for an hour a week. They read to the children or the children read to them; the parents also offer guidance to younger children on the relationship of sounds and symbols to phonics, and to older children on reading fluency, phrasing, and rate. The PTO coordinates this volunteer program, says past president Laurie Musielak.

Interactive Learning

At Bach Elementary in Ann Arbor, Mich., the PTO creates a huge diagram with themed landmarks along the way to a specific destination, which changes each year. The minutes students read translate into miles. So, for example, students can work their way from Ann Arbor to a special event in San Diego, passing different environmental landmarks along the way. They receive small prizes based on their progress, says PTO president Andrea Deranian.

The PTO at William Hatch Elementary in Oak Park, Ill., hosts a lunchtime Junior Great Books reading club, a national program, says PTO copresident Mary Cavanaugh. For 12 weeks from January through March, students meet with a group once a week at lunch. Parent volunteers lead each group through discussions of stories in a book purchased by each child for $20. The book comes with a manual of ideas for how the leaders can guide discussion.

Writing is another key area where parent groups can make a difference. To encourage students, parents at Valley Forge Elementary in Wayne, Pa., run a publishing center. Each child in the school is encouraged to write (individually or with other students) at least two books during his years at this K-4 school, usually on a theme supplied by a teacher. Students also design a cover and write a dedication page.

After parent volunteers type and print the manuscript, students add illustrations. Then a parent interviews each child to write an “about the author” page. A cover is made from pressed cardboard, with clear contact paper wrapped over the child’s cover illustration; recycled wallpaper samples are used for the back cover, and the book is bound with black tape.

The PTO budgets about $2,000 for up to 200 books per year. Each finished book is put into the school library, where it stays until the student leaves the school. At that time, the book is presented as a keepsake. “It makes it very tangible for kids what goes into making a book,” says PTO president Michele Burger.

To build skills in math and science, the PTOs from five schools in Weston, Mass., work together on an annual math or science family fun night, says Liz Hochberger, past president of the Weston Public Schools PTO. Their most recent science night featured a Starlab mini observatory, a kind of bounce house into which students could crawl to listen to a teacher inside who was explaining the constellations. There was also a speaker who demonstrated physics and aerodynamics by spinning plates and getting students to balance objects on their hands. A parent talked about how batteries work, and teens from the local high school manned tables where the younger kids could perform science experiments. Funded by the PTO, the event was free to attend.

Support for Teachers

Sometimes the way to help academically is not necessarily directly connected to the curriculum. Tellett-Royce cites an example of a junior high school where teachers wanted more advisory time to build strong relationships with students. But much of their time was spent checking notebooks as a way to help the children become more organized. So a group of parents volunteered to perform the notebook checks in the library each Monday.

“It was an easy fix,” Tellett-Royce recalls. “The kids did get more organized, but in a way that was not painful for everyone. They were not embarrassed in front of their peers, and the teachers could go on with what they were doing in the classroom.”

After-school programs also offer an avenue for student enrichment. At Wild Rose Elementary in St. Charles, Ill., the PTO organizes one-hour courses held after school throughout February. Students choose from a catalog of about 30 courses, including bird and insect behavior, rocketry, nanotechnology, fencing, and cake decorating. Parents and teachers with particular skills are encouraged to volunteer, and then the PTO seeks participation from the community, including a local museum and a dance studio.

A PTO committee brainstorms possibilities each year, seeking a mix of classes to attract boys as well as girls and both younger and older elementary-age children. About 260 of the school’s 600 students participated last year. Students can take one or several classes; some meet only once, while others may meet several times. Class size ranges from six for scrapbooking to 30 for volleyball. Charges vary from free for sign language to $35 for art. The PTO also charges $1 per class to pay for snacks.

Student volunteers from the high school take care of the instructors’ children. And lots of PTO volunteers provide snacks, classroom assistance, and overall coordination. “Our main goal is to have kids try something they might not otherwise experience and to spark their interest and crea­tivity,” says Bridget Melthesen, who coordinates the after-school program for the PTO.

Taking the First Step

Whatever approach you choose, begin simply. “Scope is always an issue,” says Shannon Griffin, program director for family and community engagement at the Wilmington, Del.-based Rodel Foundation. “You have to keep it small. Most parents are working, so time is an issue. Think big but start small; then you can build out. Prioritize what’s most important to get done in the first year.” For example, she says, a parent who wanted to create a resource center in every middle school in the district focused first on launching such a center at just one school. Another parent wanted to address the low reading scores of all 5th graders but decided to start with a single class.

“Maybe you can’t work with the entire grade,” Griffin says. “So start with one teacher with whom you have good rapport. If the project is successful, then you can sell it to the other teachers.”

If an activity does take off, it can potentially lead to remarkable improvements. Raimondo shares the story of a parent who, realizing that her child’s school had low achievement in science subjects, got buy-in from the principal to create a “science-to-go” project: tubs for classrooms with which students could do hands-on activities. She started with the kindergarten class, then worked with additional grades.

This achievement led the parent to write a successful grant proposal that enabled the school to hire a dedicated science teacher. That in turn resulted in the creation of an outdoor classroom near a stream, then to a stream restoration project in conjunction with a county development agency. And though it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why, the school’s science scores rose 10 points.

Another parent, concerned about his school’s reading scores, worked with other moms and dads to paint a “learning tree” on a cafeteria wall. Every time a student read a book, that child put his or her name on a piece of paper that was attached to the tree. In autumn the paper was a leaf, in winter a snowflake, in spring a flower. The tree drew so much interest, Raimondo says, that parents struggling with reading started adding their names, as well, and that led the school to partner with a community education group to provide family literacy instruction.

“It’s always surprising to me that it’s always surprising to school personnel the power that parents have,” Griffin says. “I’m always taken aback when school personnel realize they are not tapping into a resource that could help transform their school. They’re leaving parents on the bench. When they do tap into parents and utilize them in and out of school, that makes their job so much easier. We hear from principals and teachers about the difference parents are making. It’s just that because of how busy everyone at the school is in the course of the day, no one took the time to get parents involved in specific ways. But doing so is beneficial for everyone.”