As someone who has watched PTOs for so long now, I have a pretty good feel for the habits that lead to PTO success and the habits that almost inevitably lead to trouble. Those became clear early in our history here at PTO Today.
Recently, though, I've gained a new perspective that could only come with time. It turns out that there's often a life cycle for successful PTOs, that success and enthusiasm wax and wane. There's no guarantee that a great group this year will be a great group three years from now. Specific habits can help make your group more effective right now; a whole different set of habits is needed to sustain that success for the long term.
Short-term success can often be gained by riding on the shoulders of two or three or four really excellent volunteer leaders. Long-term success comes when a passion for the power of parent involvement saturates a whole school. Big difference.
You'll see a ton of stories in the magazine and on the site about groups doing great work, especially the Parent Group of the Year winners. All of them are making a difference for kids and deserve all the kudos they receive. I only wish we could celebrate them even more.
But my caveat is that success can be fleeting in PTOdom. If your PTO is on a successful run right now—activities and involvement are up, you seem to be having a positive impact on your school community—that can usually be tracked to a core set of volunteers doing excellent work. It's fun to be a part of that kind of team.
The trouble with those good PTO volunteers, though, is that their darn kids keep growing up. Often, even before the kids grow up (and their parents move on), the enthusiasm of a small core of leaders can only be sustained so long. If you are part of a successful group right now, one important question to ask is whether that success relies too heavily on those special volunteers to make it happen. If so, what's going to happen when those volunteers move to the next school?
That's why one of your key jobs is to bring parent involvement right into the core of your school, to plant the roots for continued success, especially if things are going well right now. Does your principal really understand how this great involvement makes a powerful difference for school success? Do faculty members put up with parents because they have to, or do they get and embrace the difference parents make at the best schools and how great involvement can make their work better in the long run? Are your PTO efforts on the outskirts of "school time" (you can do stuff as long as it doesn't interfere with the "important" work that teachers do)? Or is your work integrated right into the whole school equation?
If you want real involvement success to be sustained, then just running some great events this year and adding new volunteers this year aren't enough. While you're doing those things, you also have to keep connecting your group to the core functions of the school. Those teachers and your principal will likely be around for longer than any one set of PTO leaders. They can help you carry success from one set of leaders to another.
While a great algebra teacher is a terrific thing, your math curriculum doesn't go away just because you have a solid algebra teacher. That's because the systems and curriculum are in place to support math instruction independent of the individual teacher. The whole school knows that math instruction is important and needs to be maintained each year.
The best schools take that same approach to parent involvement. It's not a nice-to-have; it's an essential element of a strong school. If you can infuse your school—the entire school community—with that spirit, then your legacy will live on long after your last carnival, family night, or fundraiser.