When the 2008-09 school year got under way, PTO leaders at the Wilkinson Early Childhood Center in St. Louis weren't thinking about the  fall fundraiser, carnival, or teacher appreciation luncheon. They were too busy imploring the school board to make repairs to the building where their school had been relocated. They wanted dangerous loose wires in the computer lab removed. They wanted a safe playground instead of a patch of asphalt. They wanted an environment where their children could learn instead of a facility with holes in the roof and lead paint on the walls.

"There was a humongous task before us," says Vicki Hopkins, who was PTO president at that time. "This was a building that had not been inhabited for three years and was not conducive to early-childhood students." The PTO's efforts to repair school facilities and maintain family programs made it PTO Today's pick as the 2009 Parent Group of the Year for Outstanding Effort To Overcome Adversity.

A magnet school in the St. Louis public school system, Wilkinson serves about 250 children in prekindergarten through 2nd grade. Hopkins chose Wilkinson rather than a private school for the great-nephew she is raising, attracted to its diversity, outstanding parent involvement, and curriculum known as Project Construct, which emphasizes hands-on, exploratory learning. "The PTO is very, very strong," she says. "I don't think there is a day you can go to Wilkinson and not see parents volunteering."

But the move, a cost-cutting measure that parents as well as the principal opposed, made it hard to maintain quality. Parents feared Wilkinson would no longer be a haven for young children if the building wasn't brought up to their standards.

PTO members prepared a detailed script and slide presentation before taking their concerns to the school board. A new parent who works as a photographer took photos of the school for the board to see. Only 10 parents were allowed to speak at the public forum, but others came to show their support. "The school board was kind of impressed," Hopkins says. "It let them know we were serious about our kids."

The PTO spelled out what needed to be done at the facility. Top priorities were a working computer lab and a safe place for their kids to play. Parents wanted the playground they had fundraised for—and installed—at the old school to be relocated. Named in memory of a deceased student, the playground had sentimental value. Also, parents knew the equipment was safe.

But as the first day of school drew near, the children still had no playground at the new site. Once school started, injury reports skyrocketed as kids ran around on the pavement, Hopkins recalls. "We just had to keep fighting, keep fighting, keep fighting," she says. "We asked the board members, 'Is this a place where you would have your child play?'" Relentless lobbying finally got both the computer lab and the playground installed.

In the meantime, parents pitched in with painting and landscaping. While contributing their sweat equity, they continued to request repairs at school board meetings. "We were exhausted," Hopkins says. "Fighting takes a lot out of you. But we still had to make it a great year for the kids."

Principal Rosalyn Mason encouraged parents to speak before the school board because her own pleas were going unheard. The now-retired Mason says they astounded her with their powerful presentation. "The parents were instrumental in getting the lab up and running and in getting the playground moved over," she says. "They were very focused and well-organized."

One night, PTO fathers ran a "pizza and pop" event at the school while PTO moms sounded off at a school board meeting. The work on the facility was so overwhelming, PTO officers decided to cancel the fall fundraiser and postpone the multicultural day until spring. "We chose to get the school suitable for our kids," says Hopkins, noting that the fall fundraiser traditionally netted up to $8,000.

The delay of fundraising events made Hopkins nervous. The PTO historically was responsible for raising money for field trips. She feared the kids might not get to go anywhere.

Her fears proved unfounded. Although the group got a late start raising money, parents held a successful trivia night and a spring festival, bringing in enough money for trips to the zoo and to a museum. "Above all the adversity we faced, we ended up having more fundraisers and community events than ever," Hopkins says.

The PTO also groomed the following year's leadership team, made sure the school's curriculum remained strong, and kept classrooms stocked with crayons, hand sanitizer, and anything else teachers requested.

In the organization's biggest coup of the year, they successfully lobbied the school board to extend Wilkinson's program through 5th grade. "We came to the board with all our research and facts," says Hopkins, whose great-nephew is in 2nd grade.

Parents bonded during the difficult school year. In the ultimate display of trust, they now feel comfortable scolding one another's children, she says.

The PTO's goals for 2009-10 are to raise money for technology and to continue holding the school board accountable. Almost all of the work the parents demanded has been completed, including lead paint removal, but they do not intend to take a break from advocating for their school. "We'll keep riding them until they get it all done," Hopkins says.