In 2008, St. Anne Catholic School in Columbus, Ga., merged with a high school, becoming the preK-12 St. Anne Pacelli Catholic School. The HSA’s efforts to facilitate a smooth merger, bring high school parents into the fold, and come up with events for kids of all ages earned it recognition as PTO Today’s 2009 Outstanding Parent Group at a Private or Parochial School.

The HSA started by sending a survey to families at the 500-student school. The surveys came back full of creative ideas for activities, such as a scrapbooking event and bunco night. But they also revealed a perception of the association as just a fabulous bunch of party planners.

“We were not viewed as a vehicle for parents to raise concerns or make suggestions,” says Julie Davis, the 2008-09 HSA president. “We needed to let people know we are about more than food and decorations.”

The organization made sure everyone was invited to join. People responded in droves, even high school parents. “We were warned that high school parents wouldn’t even know about our events because kids don’t take the flyers home,” she says. “We learned [that] email is a great thing.”

A Trunk or Treat event before a high school football game was popular with students of all ages. Families parked their cars, opened up the back, and handed out candy to kids in costumes. Afterward, everyone attended the football game, even families with young children. “Kids had a safe place to trick-or-treat, and it encouraged everyone to come to the high school game,” Davis explains.

High school students volunteered at kid-centric events like Breakfast With Santa and the fall carnival. In turn, parents of elementary schoolers took advantage of volunteer opportunities traditionally reserved for high school parents, such as working the concession stand at sporting events.

The parent group made changes to the International Luncheon, a beloved tradition among the elementary and middle school grades. First the event was split into two days to accommodate students in grades preK-12. Then the parent group designated “all-American” as the theme. It was appropriate given the merged school’s colors of red, white, and blue, the presidential election, and the large number of military families at the school; St. Anne Pacelli is located near a military base, and several students have parents who have been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. Still, it was a risk for an event billed as international. But the luncheon was a hit.

Many new events came straight from the survey responses. For example, a book swap allowed kids to trade two books they had already read for one book they hadn’t.

Although the HSA successfully adapted to the changes at the merged school, the year wasn’t without its challenges. The group, which has an annual budget of $50,000, faced a stressful year for fundraising. The school was in the midst of a lease-to-own computer program, with $39,600 still due that the HSA had agreed to pay. With the economy in bad shape and so many changes with the school merger, Davis was loath to ask families for money at every turn.

Again, an idea from outside the HSA’s leadership gave the organization a jolt. Parents had long talked about a tuition raffle, but no one had gotten around to holding one before. The organization sold $8,000 in tickets for one prize—a $5,000 credit toward 2009-10 tuition at St. Anne Pacelli. “People loved it,” Davis says.

School president Danni Harris says the enthusiasm of the HSA made the merger into a single school successful. “They never missed a beat,” she says. “They created such excitement about the one-school concept, and our students and faculty benefited. You can’t put a price on that.”

Davis realized what made each potentially challenging situation work out for the best: “It was that we were open to trying new things and including everyone,” she explains. “That’s what gave us the edge.”