The PTO: Forging Connections at School
There is no better way for a parent to get acculturated to a school than to be in school while school is in session, doing something useful. It is a win-win.
An effective PTO (Parent Teachers Organization) captures these motivations. It offers school parents a wide range of opportunities for connecting both on behalf of their children and on behalf of themselves. There are at least four significant areas in which a PTO connects parents at school:
Connecting school parents to the school culture and its mission
There is no better way for a parent to get acculturated to a school than to be in school while school is in session, doing something useful. It is a win-win. For example, volunteering for a Jewish holiday program through the PTO, or planning the same, is a perfect vehicle for new and veteran parents alike to both help out and to experience that Jewish event along with their children.
The same holds true with celebrations, performances, and/or presentations from the General Studies side of the ledger. The extent to which a PTO gets the parents involved creates the parents’ buy-in to what the school is about. If part of the school mission is a commitment to practice justice, kindness and respect, as it is at our school, the PTO can advance that commitment by turning an early dismissal day into a family service day. If a PTO channels parents’ desires to promote healthier food choices and fitness, it can create the programming and disseminate the information to go along with it, to further those aims so that they permeate and characterize the school culture. If a day school is all about learning, a PTO can offer school parents informal lessons in any of a number of areas, Jewish or general, a structured adult education program, or a parent-child beit midrash.
Connecting school parents family to family
We talk a lot about community in our community day schools. The PTO is central in creating the links that allow families to get to know one another. This is what the Back to School Ice Cream Social and the End of the Year Picnic are all about. The PTO convenes the parents in the school, whether for coffees, lectures, salons, etc.—to some regard the topic is secondary. At our school, the PTO organizes a parent walk every Monday morning right after drop off, through the ball field to that popular coffee purveyor you may have in your vicinity as well.
The PTO can provide families with ways to share Jewish experiences, connecting families to families and to the school mission and culture as well. For example, the PTO can match school families for Shabbat dinners or for Pesach sedarim. And every PTO should act as a vaad chesed in the school, a committee that mobilizes to provide support for families in difficult situations due to illness or loss.
Connecting parents to faculty, administration, staff
The PTO creates a crucial link between parents and teachers. The PTO is the best vehicle to organize room parents in a school and orient the room parents to the responsibilities that they assume in taking on that role. Our PTO has put together a room parents handbook and holds a late August training session. Teacher appreciation, the back to school breakfast, coffee in the teachers’ workroom, etc., all are ways to build connections. The PTO can create settings for teachers and school principals, department heads, and heads of school to meet, talk, and exchange ideas.
Connecting parents to the unfunded needs of students
A PTO can make things happen for students in a school that otherwise would go unfunded or unfulfilled. These are the extras that go bravely beyond the reach of the school’s budget. Special performances can be booked, field trips arranged, musical instruments purchased, a laptop cart outfitted, latkes distributed. In the true spirit of Hillel’s dictum, “If I am not for myself, who will be?,” an effective PTO can act on behalf of a school’s parents, take measure of a gap in what the school can otherwise do, and judiciously make a connection for the benefit of the students.
An on-the-ball PTO will take even its most mundane functions and use them to create the kinds of connections discussed above. Fundraising, for example, may be a means to pursue these ends, but still more can be achieved when the means also achieve the ends. Better to raise money with a book sale (which promotes reading) or a mishloach manot project (which builds connections from family to family while fulfilling a holiday mitzvah), than with, say, selling gift wrap or a coupon booklet. The more explicitly purposeful the functioning of the PTO in connecting parents at school, the more effectively the PTO serves and the more is accomplished for all. ♦
Dr. Zvi Schoenburg is head of school at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Virginia. He can be reached at ZSchoenburg@gesher-jds.org.