Burning Tree Elementary in Bethesda, Md., has a powerhouse PTA with volunteers to handle any request, but many schools in the area are not so lucky. Fourteen miles away at Broad Acres Elementary in Silver Spring, PTA president Jose Otero is working to boost parental involvement at a school where many parents do not speak English.

The two schools banded together in a PTA partnership three years ago. Last school year the parent groups planned science days and career days together and then carried the events out at each school.

While most parent groups constantly struggle to engage parents in school activities, meetings, and fundraisers, a few like Burning Tree’s have taken volunteerism beyond their own walls and into other community schools.

In Memphis, Tenn., parents at Dogwood Elementary organized a major tutoring initiative for students at Raineshaven Elementary. For four months, parents commuted from Dogwood to Raineshaven to help children improve their reading skills.

In both cases, parents from affluent neighborhoods volunteered their efforts in less-prosperous parts of town, but the schools in Maryland and Tennessee took very different approaches to establishing cross-school partnerships. In Bethesda, the schools formed a PTA-to-PTA partnership, with the well-established Burning Tree PTA mentoring the greener Broad Acres PTA. Memphis’ Raineshaven Elementary did not have an active parent group, so Dogwood PTA members forged their alliance with school administrators and teachers.

Cross-Town Collaboration

Before forming a partnership with Broad Acres, Burning Tree had a sister school relationship with a school in neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland. That relationship was limited to donating books and school supplies, but Burning Tree principal Helen Chaset envisioned a more reciprocal partnership with a school in the same district.

A Montgomery County school board member recommended Broad Acres, situated in a high-poverty area in Silver Spring. Students at Broad Acres have performed well on standardized tests, but teachers gave parents low marks for their participation in school.

By contrast, many parents at Burning Tree have been active in the PTA and have other volunteer experience. Karen Judson cochairs the partnership program with Vicky Strella, and the two receive support from PTA members, the PTA board, administrators, and school board members.

“We try to really make the focus on sharing people resources,” says Judson, a former Burning Tree PTA president. “There’s a willingness to share time and experience and a recognition that everybody benefits from that.”

At Broad Acres, Otero has to explain to parents why there is a parent group. The school’s PTA meetings can be quite lengthy, as proceedings are translated into Spanish and Vietnamese. (Involvement has ticked up during Otero’s term as president, in part because he can communicate directly with Spanish-speaking parents.) Work schedules and transportation issues keep many parents from participating.

Officers from Broad Acres have sat in on Burning Tree PTA executive board meetings to see how the well-oiled organization operates. Burning Tree held its science day a week before Broad Acres' so that those parents could see how the event was run. A week later, 80 parents helped with the all-day Broad Acres event, about half from each school. “Parental involvement is increasing,” Otero says. “At the science day there were a lot of volunteers who didn’t speak much English, but they were there helping a lot.”

Both schools have worked to make the partnership reciprocal. While the Burning Tree PTA provides organizational expertise, Broad Acres’ teachers and administrators share its successful reading program. After the school reorganized its curriculum and put a greater emphasis on literacy, it gained recognition from the school board for its improved test scores.

“They know that they are getting something back from us, and that makes me feel good,” Otero says.

Volunteer Efforts

The partnership between Burning Tree and Broad Acres is unusual in that both schools share their skills. More often than not, cross-school partnerships begin with parents volunteering to help where they are most needed.

In the Memphis suburb of Germantown, Dogwood Elementary has more than enough parent volunteers. “We’re very fortunate in that our kids don’t lack for much,” says Dogwood PTA President Julie Ganey. “All you have to do is sneeze at Dogwood and there are 20 people there to help.”

Marie Longo and Sharon Morgan came up with the idea to tutor children in Memphis city schools. To test the feasibility of their idea, they sent a survey home to Dogwood parents. About 150 parents responded that they were interested, and 75 eventually signed on for monthly or semimonthly tutoring sessions.

The Memphis City School Board recommended several schools for potential partnerships. As word of the idea spread, even more schools began calling.

Personal connections with Raineshaven 2nd grade teacher Julie Babian made the decision easier. Babian’s son had attended Dogwood in the same class with Morgan’s son, and Longo and Babian go to the same church. One Sunday, Longo asked Babian whether Raineshaver could use volunteer tutors. The answer was an emphatic yes. “At Raineshaven, we don’t have parent participation at school or at home,” Babian says. “It’s totally opposite from Dogwood.”

To understand why, you have to look at the school’s demographics. “If it’s a two-parent home, both parents are working,” Longo says. “In some cases a grandparent or a single parent is raising a child.”

The women planned to approach the parent group at Raineshaven but found that the school did not have an active organization. They met with the principal and coordinated their efforts with the curriculum director. In a meeting with administrators, teachers, and grade chairs, they were given a roster of students from kindergarten to 3rd grade who needed to improve their reading skills.

From January to April, two to eight parents made the 30-minute drive from Dogwood to Raineshaven each school day to work with students. “Within two weeks, the teachers said the students’ self-esteem was already changing and they were raising hands in class,” Morgan says.

When the program gained attention in the Memphis daily newspaper, parents at Raineshaven revived the dormant parent group. Most parents work during the day, Babian says, but those who can volunteer during school started coming more often.

In addition to tutoring, Dogwood parents have driven carloads of school supplies to Raineshaven. At the end of the school year, a Dogwood teacher organized a book drive that distributed 1,500 books to 700 students at the partner school.

Longo and Morgan plan to start up the tutoring program again in October. They hope other schools in the area will initiate partnerships.

Interest is growing in developing similar partnerships in the Bethesda area, says Shirley Brandman, a cluster representative to the Montgomery County Council of PTAs and former Burning Tree PTA president. Many schools have taken a small first step of contributing grocery store receipts that schools can redeem for computer equipment.

“Most people who serve on PTAs have already made a commitment that their role in school goes beyond concern for their child,” Brandman says. “This is a great way to reach a larger community of children.”

How To Begin

Involve everyone. To get a partnership off the ground, you’ll need support from the school board, administrators, teachers, and parents. Keep everyone informed, and focus on building relationships.

Make a long-term commitment. PTO members and officers must commit to working on the partnership for many years. Several people should know the ropes so the partnership can continue after leaders leave office. “Make sure there’s a strong desire to do it and a will to follow through on it,” advises Shirley Brandman, a representative to the Montgomery County (Md.) Council of PTAs. “It takes time to establish trust and understanding to build the foundation that will lead to a strong sister school relationship.”

Define goals for each school. Look at the needs of each school before drafting an action plan. Try to find ways both schools can benefit from a partnership. “There has to be some mutuality, but schools with very different needs can benefit from each other,” says Helen Chaset, principal of Burning Tree Elementary in Bethesda, Md.

Respect differences. Be sensitive to cultural and socioeconomic differences and budget constraints. Instead of criticizing parents for their lack of involvement in school, understand the barriers to involvement and look for ways to overcome them. “It’s important to recognize that even if you come from a school with an organized PTA structure, what you have done may not work for another school,” Brandman says.

Go to learn, not just to help. When approaching another school, offer aid in a spirit of cooperation, not condescension. “Just because a school is in a neighborhood that is impacted by poverty or recent immigration, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them,” Chaset says.