At Holly Oak Elementary in San Jose, Calif., the PTA prides itself on creating ways for families to connect with the school. The idea, according to the group's 2009 Parent Group of the Year entry, is to give parents the opportunity to communicate with the staff, PTA leaders, and other families. Their success doing just that helped make them PTO Today's National Parent Group of the Year.

The group established three goals for the 2008-09 school year: to improve communication, to provide students with artistic opportunities, and to bring families together. "Our main goal was building school community," says PTA president Sherry Gilmore. "San Jose is extremely diverse....A school event is a great way to get everybody together. Parents will come for the kids, and the more everyone gets together, the more they realize that others are having the same challenges even though they come from different cultures. Almost all of our events have had that main purpose in mind."

Principal Chris Corpus credits the Holly Oak PTA with helping establish a "climate of belonging and trust" that connects the 740 K-6 students and their parents to the school in ways that support but also transcend academics. The school has become a gathering place for families and a hub of after-school activity, and Corpus says that has helped make his job easier. "You can really tell the difference when there are champions like the [Holly Oak] PTA that do extra things for the kids and that encourage parents to come and be with their kids," he says. When parents have been at school and interacted with the teachers and the principal more than normal, they feel comfortable talking about issues even when the news isn't positive. In addition, Corpus says, "When parents come together for fun and other community events, then they'll come for normal events like open house. They know that at Holly Oak, family is first."

A key event designed to foster communication was a first day of school "principal's breakfast" attended by more than 100 parents. The PTA also made a special effort by plastering the school with colorful posters advertising upcoming events. And they sent regular emails and newsletters to parents. But most amazing are the many activities hosted after school and during the evenings—all at no cost to students and their families.

Promoting the Arts

Five years ago, music and art were cut from the school's budget. And with more than half of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch—Holly Oak is a Title I school—money is also tight for individuals. "The extra stuff doesn't come easy to a lot of our families and communities," says Pattie Guerra, PTA parliamentarian and former president. "When Sherry and I started in the PTA years ago, we did a lot of fundraising and gave money back to the school. But as the years went on, we realized our community needed more and the children needed more." So parent leaders focused on giving students a number of free creative opportunities.

Just before Halloween, the PTA sponsored a "pumpkins and poems" contest. Families could decorate pumpkins or children could write poems. The idea was to make it easy for everyone to participate even if the family couldn't afford to buy a pumpkin themselves. Community members judged the contest, and winners received bookstore gift cards at the Harvest Parade, where all entries were displayed.

Many other popular activities took place after school. For an eight-week fall choir session, the PTA hired a music instructor who worked with 80 children for 90 minutes a week. The session was repeated in the spring. Arts and crafts activities were offered in autumn for the lower grades and in spring for the upper grades. The younger students made ornaments to decorate trees for the city's annual Christmas in the Park festivities, while the older students crafted mosaic tile trivets (to use under hot dishes) as Mother's Day gifts. About 30 children attended each six-week session, meeting for an hour each week. Parents volunteered to teach and help out.

The PTA also hired a YMCA instructor to teach hip-hop dance to 40 kids. And one of Holly Oak's teachers taught ballroom dancing to 6th graders. So while America was riveted by Dancing With the Stars, about 15 young Holly Oak couples learned to tango, swing, and cha-cha.

"Lots of our children don't have extracurricular activities after school," Guerra says. "They can't afford it. Offering these classes gives kids a reason to really enjoy coming to school."

Students had a chance to demonstrate their music and dance accomplishments during a culminating event called One Sweet Night. The name stemmed in part from that fact that it coincided with the distribution of fundraising candy. The choir performed, as did the hip-hop and ballroom dancers. A high school choir and drum club were invited, too. The PTA provided desserts, and an espresso cart sold coffee and smoothies, with part of its profits donated back to the school. About 400 parents attended, making it a packed house.

A talent showcase held in early April provided another opportunity for children to perform noncompetitively. Students auditioned for three-minute blocks of time, and all who were prepared got a spot. Kids also acted as stagehands and emceed the event. "All the PTA does is support them with some money, help keep them organized, and help with decorations," Guerra explains. "We give them the skills needed to put together a well-thought-out show." The talent night is, most of all, a chance for self-expression. "We really push these showoff opportunities," she says. "We help the children break out of their shells. I'm confident they wouldn't have these opportunities elsewhere. What we do as a PTA has motivated these children to go on to bigger things."

More Fun Events

The purpose of many events was to bring parents to the school with their children. One of the biggest successes was Lunch Bunch. In the fall, 150 parents came to eat lunch with their kids, and they could purchase a catered tamale meal for $2. The PTA also provided conversation starters to help parents get to know their children's friends: "What's your favorite cartoon? Do you play an instrument? Do you know a joke?" The activity was so enjoyable that many parents wanted to do it again.

The second Lunch Bunch event took place at the end of May. It coincided with the spring book fair, a non-fundraiser in which students could buy two books for the price of one. Despite the name, lunch was not provided, but a big draw for the 200 attendees was the opportunity to meet players from the local hockey team, the San Jose Sharks. Students competed for the chance to play in a street hockey game against the pros by writing a story or poem or drawing a picture with sharks as a theme. The sports team also provided free ice cream. All the PTA had to do was make a request to the Sharks; they appeared for free.

In November, with the help of the San Jose Astronomical Association, the PTA hosted a "stargazing party." More than 40 attendees spent two hours looking through special telescopes. The organization did not charge the PTA, but the parent group opted to give them a $100 gift certificate, which came out of the group's $30,000 budget, for astronomy supplies in appreciation.

A more raucous event was "No TV! It's Family Game Night." A representative from a game company set up several newer board games that families could play and then, if desired, purchase. Meanwhile, the PTA set up traditional games like Sorry and checkers in the cafeteria. They also purchased extra dice from a discount store and wrote simple directions for each game. About 100 people attended.

About 300 people attended a set of dual events: Girls Night Out and Out with the Guys. Girls and their moms or female guardians enjoyed nail-painting, crafts, and a multicultural fashion show. Boys and their fathers or male guardians read books, played sports, and enjoyed root beer floats.

Other PTA-sponsored activities included an after-school homework club, an ice-cream social to kick off the new school year, an open house barbecue, and an afternoon of planting daffodil bulbs donated by the city. And Holly Oak participated in a districtwide celebrity basketball game in which players from the Oakland Raiders and San Francisco 49ers football teams competed against teachers.

To support all these great activities, the Holly Oak PTA did only minimal fundraising, but they made those efforts count. The PTA ran a gift-wrap fundraiser and a candy sale, and profits from the district's celebrity basketball game were split evenly among all schools. The Holly Oak group also took advantage of the fact that some local companies donate money to nonprofits their employees actively support; Gilmore's husband's company, for example, gave the school $500.

With just a few fundraisers, the group's focus throughout the year was on involvement. The result is that parents' deepened connection to the school has helped their children view it in positive ways. "A lot of what makes these things possible is parent participation," Gilmore says. "It's hard to get people to volunteer for an officer position sometimes, but not that hard to get them to come out and help for the evening. Some of us feel overwhelmed because we're carrying too heavy of a load. The parent group just needs to reach out to the community, to ask for help on a particular day for a couple of hours. Almost always, if parents are not working, that's a yes. And the parents coming to school for evening events or after-school programs and coming into the classrooms and helping teachers—that really makes a difference."