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In an effort to help us understand what goes into making a great PTO, we've taken a look at past winners of the annual Parent Group of the Year competition hosted by PTO Today. Groups win based on the overall competition and also receive accolades for different, more specific categories like Outstanding Parent Group at a Small School.
One important thing to note is that each winner we highlight is great, but not perfect. Each Parent Group goes through similar challenges and uphill battles each school year, but these winners approached some of those challenges in unique ways. We hope you can learn something from these groups and the few themes we found consistent amongst the winners. But, more than that, we hope this post inspires you to look back at your own story from this school year and feel proud of what you have accomplished and motivated for what still remains to be done in your school and for your students!
Adaptability: A Great PTO Embraces Change
Nobody really enjoys changes. It's messy, it's inconvenient, and it is often avoided. However, we found it interesting that one of the top reasons why Rosemont Ridge Middle School PTO was chosen as the 2014 Parent Group of the Year was due to its ability to adapt to changing circumstances. Your change may come in the form of too few volunteers or a sudden dip in funds or issues with administration. But, as the old saying goes, it's not what happens to you but how you respond that really matters.
1. Assess the Situation
Rosemont embraced change by first taking a step back and assessing their situation: an unsuccessful annual event. While the back-to-school barbeque was a tradition for their students, they realized that it simply took too much time and effort for it to be worthwhile. This realization may seem small, but it's actually a huge step! Another example is St. Patrick Catholic School where the Parent Group (winner of Outstanding Parent Group at a Private or Parochial School) changed their name to the Parent Association in order to have a more welcoming feel and get more parents involved.
We often believe that because something is a tradition that it is supposed to happen year after year. However, taking the time to actually assess the situation objectively proved to make a huge difference for this great PTO.
2. Take Action
Lyons Elementary PTO received the Judges' Choice award for their incredible adaptability in the face of a natural disaster. Even with severe flooding in their community that left close to 2,000 residents without power, water, sewer or gas and about 200 homes destroyed, this PTO decided to take action and persevere.
Rather than hosting their usual jog-a-thon in an effort to raise funds, they hosted it with an effort to raise morale. They never asked for money, but the community rallied behind their action and actually boosted the jog-a-thon earnings to a record-breaking level. You might not be faced with a natural disaster, but there is always a way to embrace the change you've been handed and take action that will make an impact.
3. Depend on / Learn from Those Around You
The great thing about change is we rarely have to go it alone, especially in a Parent Group.
Part of the reason why Lyons Elementary PTO ended up bring in so much money was because they decided to adapt to the situation and use a crowdsourcing site, which allowed the entire community to learn about their event and donate online. What they found was an outside community that was more than willing to rally behind their action and take part, which then inspired the school and local community to step up their own donations, resulting in almost $30,000 for on jog-a-thon.
When we are presented with change we actually have an opportunity to look beyond our immediate situation and see how others have responded to similar circumstances and depend on those around us to ge through the challenge together.
Making Connections That Last
Parent Groups have the difficult task of connecting with students, parents, administrators, teachers and new members/volunteers. In order to avoid simply being the team that puts on a lot of events throughout the year, but not the one that has a real connection with these different groups, we have found that it is best to meet people where they are rather than expecting them to come to you. For example, Rosemont Ridge Middle School PTO began connecting with students by hosting grade-level events, which also worked to help the 6th, 7th & 8th graders be prepared to transition to high school.
1. Being the Bridge
PTOs have the opportunity to be the bridge between different groups, helping to bring together teachers & parents, students & administrators, etc. Rosemont was able to bridge different students as well, by bringing in high school students to speak to 7th graders and tell them what to expect when they move to high school. This is a prime example of meeting students where they are and understanding what they need according to grade level and age.
2. Ambassador Program
One key to making connections that last is creating personal relationships between members of your Parent Group and individuals from the different groups mentioned above, especially parents. That's why Rosemont has put in place an ambassador program, which works as an outreach program to new parents/families to the school to get them involved, feeling welcome and more willing in the future to volunteer.
Even if you don't have an ambassador program, there is always the opportunity to send out the personal invitation that may lead to connections with longevity. The PTO at Rosemont identifies newcomers to the school and individuals to contact leading up to an event. The PTO president, Holly Miller, gives some great advice when she says not to be afraid to pick up a phone or meet someone in person to introduce them to the PTO, invite them to participate, or even ask for their help in preparing for an event.
3. Providing for Needs...Before They're Needed
We've already mentioned that Parent Groups should be adaptable, but we also know that it's often our job to provide for needs before they're needed. And, this all comes down to being connected with students, teachers & parents. Otherwise, we will be assuming, for example, that parents love to get snail mail invites when, in reality, a simple e-vite is much preferred.
A great example comes from Reed Elementary PTO. This Parent Group provided free childcare for parents so they could attend meetings and actually be able to pay attention without their little ones running around. They even found bi-lingual sitters because they knew that a lot of their families spoke Spanish.
Events: Student-Driven, Parent-Considered
After looking at the stories from the past winners of the Parent Group of the Year Competition, we found that their events were not one-size-fits-all. A Fun Run at a huge school in the suburbs looks much different from a Fun Run at a smaller school in the city, and a great PTO recognizes that their events must be tailored to their students, parents and teachers.
1. Be Encouraged By Your Parameters
It's easy to get discouraged by a small budget, few volunteers and other parameters that seem to limit your ability to throw huge events. However, this reasoning isn't always true, and a great PTO knows that working with what you have, rather than wishing for what you want, is the perfect mindset for throwing events that are successful in your school. Inyokern Elementary PTO, winners of the Outstanding Parent Group at a Small School, worked around their small budget and school size by putting their focus on field trips, as opposed to fundraising. This allowed them to offer students unique experiences that may not have been possible without the PTO's help.
The Inyokern PTO also took into consideration the parameters for students and parents by realizing that their events would have to be during the school days so that kids could attend, due to lack of transportation on the weekends without the school buses. Being able to foresee this need is just another reason why this PTO is a great example for other groups on how to be a vital resource in your school.
2. Establish Traditions
Most Parent Groups have annual events that they can depend on (as well as the students & parents) year after year. This is one way we've been able to form such great connections with the schools we team up with, because we know we'll be working with them each year to help them plan amazing Fun Runs!
But, don't feel limited by annual traditions. Traditions can be as often as you'd like, whether that means a monthly appreciation luncheon for teachers like Inyokern PTO hosts or bi-monthly ice cream socials for the kids to look forward to throughout the school year. Establishing traditions can also help create events with longevity. Events with longevity means that the event lasts throughout the year or season with different steps along the way.
Take, for instance, Grand Valley Elementary PTO, which put on a year-long read-a-thon for their students. Students received incentives to keep them motivated and the PTO changed up how they gave out rewards throughout the year, sometimes tracking most minutes read and other times tracking improvement in reading ability. Overall, the year-long event was a huge success and a great example in putting on an event with longevity.
3. Get the Community Involved
Remember, a great PTO is the bridge between different groups, and that includes the community. The best way to get the community involved is to host events that can bring in community members and allow them to support the school through their participation, such as the Grandparents Day Celebration at St. Patrick Catholic School or the Family Science Night at East Oakview Elementary.
Another great example comes from Trailridge Elementary PTA, winners of Outstanding Major Project for their teacher lounge renovation. Trailridge wasn't afraid to ask for help from their community to help revamp the space for their teachers, and they were able to get a flood of donations in the form of furniture and other resources. But donating isn't the only way that the community can be involved in your events, as proven by Pioneer Heritage Middle School PTO when they put on a week-long event to honor veterans in their community. Local veterans were invited to come give presentations, which the students then reciprocated with hand-written letters of thanks and appreciation. Moreover, the entire event was heavily supported by community sponsorships to help the PTO in funding the memorable event.