ESSA, Family Engagement, and Your PTA

Implementation of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) continues to make progress, with the US Department of Education approving Illinois’s ESSA plan. In Congress, the House of Representatives has included funding for the Statewide Family Engagement Centers (SFECs) in its appropriations bill. With the approval of the Illinois ESSA plan, attention now turns to Local Education Agencies (LEAs), or school districts in non-legalese, who must create their own ESSA implementation plans using the guidance of the state plan.

PTA’s Role in Planning

During the development of the state ESSA plan, Illinois PTA represented families in many of the committees and working groups that were developing various parts of the plan. Now that school districts are developing their plans, PTA councils and local PTA units have a role to play as well. ESSA requires that all stakeholders, including families, be included in the planning process, and PTAs are uniquely able to fill that role.

PTA councils and units should start the process by letting their school superintendent and school board know that they are interested in being involved in developing the district’s ESSA plan. Your school district should be supportive, as family and community engagement is one of the core elements of the Illinois Balanced Accountability Measure (IBAM) that will measure how schools are doing overall. IBAM replaces the test-score-only approach of measuring a school’s success under No Child Left Behind.

For those who serve on school district committees for PTA, it is important to remember that they are representing PTA and families, not their personal opinion. The National PTA Federal Public Policy Agenda, ESSA advocacy tools, and ESSA Local Roadmap can help support your efforts. From Illinois PTA, our legislative platform provides information on our positions, and Education Issues Director Kelli Denard can help with questions you might have. Finally, Partners for Each and Every Child and the Council of Chief State School Officers jointly developed a handbook to help school districts and school leaders cooperate to effectively implement ESSA at the local level.

PTA’s Role in Family Engagement

Illinois has its Family Engagement Framework to help local districts implement effective family engagement practices. The four principles of the framework parallel the six National Standards for Family-School Partnerships developed by National PTA. National PTA has additional resources in its Family Engagement Toolbox.

Even if your PTA is not interested in getting involved with your school district’s ESSA plan development, you can be involved in improving family engagement in your school. The National PTA School of Excellence program has a proven track record of improving family engagement. Illinois PTA has highlighted the success that Kreitner Elementary PTA had in becoming a School of Excellence in 2016.

If you’re interested in making your school a School of Excellence this year, the signup deadline is October 1, 2017. Don’t delay, sign up today.

 

Top 10 Tips for Middle School PTA Success

Middle school is different from elementary school for kids—they’re changing classrooms, managing a locker, and meeting new people from other elementary schools. It’s different for parents as well. New activities like band or sports may pull parents who have been involved in PTA at the elementary level away at the middle school level. Here are ten tips on running a successful middle school PTA.

  1. Grab them fast. Parents are at an elementary school for six years; add a second or third kid, and those years can stretch to more than a decade. That’s a lot of time to build a relationship between PTA and a parent, and for that parent to grow into a leadership role. Middle school zips by in three years, and parents may have a year or two off from middle school between kids. That means your PTA has to get parents involved quickly and early in leadership positions. Visit your feeder elementary schools to educate elementary PTA leaders on what the middle school PTA does and how it is different from what they’ve already experienced.
  2. Include them all. Sometimes one elementary PTA will be stronger than the other PTAs feeding into a middle school. Don’t lean on parents from just the dominant PTA for leadership—you’ll alienate those from the other PTAs.
  3. Focus on parent events. Middle school students are beginning to break away from their parents, so student-oriented events like those in elementary school may draw fewer attendees. But that pulling away also means that parents are likely looking to learn more about what is happening at school, since their child is not telling them as much as they used to and the “backpack express” filled with flyers and newsletters is more of a backpack black hole. Shift your meetings to educating parents about what is happening and what is coming up. Be more about communication and less about PTA business.
  4. Embrace the diaspora. As parents become dispersed among various booster groups and other activities in middle school, make sure that they know that the PTA is the one group that addresses the whole school. Have an extracurricular activities fair for incoming students in the spring with the message that middle school provides great opportunities for students to try new things, but that PTA is the way for parents to keep in touch with what’s going on in the school.
  5. Embrace social media. A newsletter or flyer sent home with a middle school student typically ends up on the floor at school, in a trash can, or buried at the bottom of the backpack until the end of the year. You have to reach out to families directly, and Facebook, Twitter, and other social media can help with that.
  6. Cut back on fundraising. Your middle school PTA probably isn’t doing as many events as an elementary PTA and can get by with a smaller budget. Consider having just one big fundraiser, or incorporating your fundraising into your annual dues. How many parents at your school would embrace a PTA membership level of $25 or $50 that means the PTA won’t bother them about money for the rest of the year? Less fundraising means fewer overlaps with booster clubs who are also raising money as well.
  7. Find ways to integrate the PTA into the life of the middle school. Look for opportunities for the PTA to support events that bring families into the school. See if the PTA president can speak to all the parents at open house, consider providing snacks for the band, orchestra, and choir concerts (with a provided by PTA sign), and provide tour guides for new student orientation.
  8. Look for ways to work with other PTAs. Find opportunities to collaborate with your feeder school PTAs as well as the high school PTAs that your students will be going to. Working together helps incoming parents feel welcome and strengthens all of the PTAs.
  9. Cut back on meetings. Parents have often spent much of the day in meetings, so attending another PTA business meeting in the evening isn’t terribly appealing. Your PTA really only needs three general membership business meetings each year. One at the start of the school year to approve your audit and budget, one in the winter to elect your nominating committee, and one at the end of the year to elect your new officers. Add in adopting your updated bylaws at one of those meetings, and the only other thing your membership will need to meet about is amending your budget, which can be done with a quick five-minute meeting before an event or program. Let your board handing the day-to-day running of the PTA, and have your PTA “meetings” focus on parent education.
  10. Build your relationship with the principal and teachers. Just like the PTA, principals and teachers struggle to get information to families about what is happening at school. By building a good relationship with them, your PTA can develop programs and events that help the school keep parents informed and educated.

News from National Convention: Attracting Today’s Parents

PTAs used to be able to simply set up a table with a “Join PTA” sign and have parents line up. But those days are long gone, and today’s PTA needs to provide parents with reasons for joining that resonate with them. At the 2017 National PTA Convention, two events focused on how PTAs can do just that.

Science of PTA Membership Growth—Know Your Audience

National PTA Deputy Executive Director Karin Kirchoff and Florida PTA Vice President for Regions and Councils Carolyn Nelson-Goedert shared demographic information, national surveys of parents, the results of PTA surveys and focus groups, and how that information can be used to grow your PTA’s membership.

The demographic information and surveys drew from the Pew Research Center’s Parenting in America study that looked at parenting as a whole and the Leadership Conference Education Fund’s Second Annual New Education Majority Poll that looked the opinions of Black and Latino parents regarding education and their children’s future. The presenters also suggested using Great Schools’ information on individual schools to learn more about your school’s families. Here in Illinois, the Illinois Report Card for schools can also provide additional information.

Looking at the Data

It probably comes as no surprise that the demographic information and polls show that today’s families look quite different from those of the past, with more mothers working, more varied family structures, and more families struggling financially. Likewise, polling shows that all parents of every ethnicity, gender, and socioeconomic class are concerned about their child’s education and want to be more involved, and that parent involvement declines as children get older.

With this data as background, National PTA started digging in to why parents who want to be more involved in their child’s education don’t do so and why they don’t join PTA. When looking a PTA’s current membership, there is a broad diversity as a whole, but potential room for growth in areas where families need PTA’s mission the most—rural towns and urban communities.

National PTA’s Focus Groups and Surveys

National PTA conducted six focus groups and a national survey to explore parents’ attitudes towards education, schools, and PTA in depth. The focus groups looked at K-5 parents, while the survey targeted K-8 parents. Both activities included both PTA members, former members, and non-members. One of the six focus groups consisted of only African-American parents and another of Spanish-dominant parents. Half of the focus groups were of lower-income parents and half on middle-upper income parents with mixed racial and ethnic populations in all except as noted earlier. The results from the focus groups were used to create the national survey.

Key Findings

From this work, National PTA discovered that parents define membership in many ways, not all of which include paying dues to actually join the PTA. Approximately 18% of those saying they were PTA members only gave their time to the PTA.

The results also showed that members and non-members are very distinct groups. Members are more likely to be more satisfied with their school, have kids who face fewer challenges at school, are generally older (e.g., Gen X), have a higher education level, and generally have a higher household income, often with two parents both working. Non-members tend to be on the other end of the spectrum from members, being less satisfied with their school, having kids facing more challenges, being younger (e.g., Millennials), having less education, and having lower incomes, often with a single income. Not surprisingly, PTA members were quite positive about PTA, with 60% being promoters. Non-members, however, were almost as likely (51%) to be PTA detractors.

PTA Perceptions

When parents are asked about PTA, their perceptions tended to fall into three buckets:

  • What PTA Does: Raises money for school, puts on fun events, family-friendly, easy to get involved
  • What PTA Affects: Building relationships with teachers and administrators, speaking up on critical issues, linking the school and home, bringing the community together
  • What PTA Could Inspire: Hope for the future, empowering families to make a positive change, helping children realize their potential

Using these three buckets that were generated from the focus groups, National PTA conducted a survey to dig into these perceptions. The results showed that PTA is almost exclusively seen as raising money for the school and being family-friendly, with members also citing fun events as a key component of PTA. However, what PTA affects was much less known even among members, and what PTA could inspire was almost completely off the radar.

Breaking the Time Barrier

Parents throughout this process discussed the struggles to find time. Busy jobs, lack of transportation, and work shifts that aren’t the traditional 9 to 5 all prevent participation at meetings and after-school events. However, many parents said that if they are passionate about a cause, they make sure to make the time in their busy schedule.

Acceptance is an Issue

While 73% of those who identified themselves as PTA leaders described their PTA as “welcoming” and 71% said PTA was “for people like me,” non-members had a much different view. Only 36% described the PTA as “welcoming” and only 22% said it was “for people like me.” In the focus groups, some parents tied this to not feeling welcome at the school as well.

The Fundraising Catch-22

One of PTA’s key strengths that was identified in this work was the ability to raise money for school needs. But that fundraising success is also a weakness for PTA because the fundraising message dominates all others and it is often not tied to PTA’s ability to address education issues. In some schools, there are questions about why the money is being raised and how it is being spent. Low-income families also found the fundraising message leaving them feeling like they are not able to participate.

Attracting New Members

The good news from this work by National PTA is that for those who have felt excluded from PTA, put off by the focus on fundraising, or otherwise unwelcome, PTA’s mission resonates strongly with them as a reason to join the PTA. By focusing their message on PTA’s mission:

To make every child’s potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children.

and following through on fulfilling that mission, PTAs can reach those who haven’t joined PTA in the past. Today’s parents need to feel passionate about a cause to devote their time to it, and it is hard to develop a passion for fundraising. By focusing on helping parents help their child be successful, building bridges between the school and families, and being welcoming and inclusive, PTAs can attract those new parents who can be the next generation of PTA leaders.

Facebook Live Symposium

The above information was reinforced in a symposium at the 2017 National PTA Convention that was shared on Facebook Live (event starts at about 13:45 or -1:40:10 into the video). Called Today’s Parents, Tomorrow’s Leaders: Growing a New Generation of PTA Champions, the symposium featured a presentation by Amanda Slavin, CEO and founder of CatalystCreativ, and a panel discussion with Ms. Slavin, PTA leaders from California, Kansas, and Oregon, and Heather Pressley, Senior Vice President for Girls on the Run International.

Both Ms. Slavin’s presentation and the panel discussion that followed emphasized the importance of engaging the passion of today’s parents for the PTA mission as the key to getting them to join PTA and participate. Ms. Slavin noted that even non-millennial parents are often “millennial minded,” seeking a network, socially connected, passionate about quality education, and emphasizing advocacy for all children.

As a result, to engage these parents to become members and PTA leaders, PTAs need to focus recruitment, activities, and goals to serve parents’ needs, not on what the PTA has always done in the past. Communication and opportunities to participate need to focus on the user, so that a PTA math event becomes a time to share and learn with your child, not to just tell you about the new math curriculum. This also means that PTAs need to facilitate and curate experiences for parents rather than dictating them, providing an inclusive, accepting, and non-judgmental space for parents and families to share their experiences and knowledge.

 

Plan Now for PTA Success in the Fall

With the school year coming to a close and summer activities to look forward to, many PTA leaders may be looking to put their feet up for the next few months. But summer provides an excellent time for PTA leaders to make their lives easier once school starts back up. By doing some planning for your upcoming PTA year over the summer, you can set the stage for your PTA’s success in the fall.

Have an Officer’s Retreat

The summer months provide PTA leaders with some time to meet and plan without the extra activities and schedule conflicts of the school year. It’s a chance to have a PTA officers’ retreat relaxed in someone’s back yard with a cool drink. Invite the previous year’s officers as well as the incoming officers to discuss how the past year went and what advice those leaving office have for those just starting. Then let the previous year’s officers go, and have a discussion with your current officers about what you’d like to accomplish during the coming year. Consider what events you’d like to host, what past events you’d like to stop doing, and create your calendar for the year.

Consider taking part in National PTA’s School of Excellence Program. The sign-up period runs from now until October 1, 2017. Implementing the program at your school provides insight into how your PTA can best involve the families at your school in their children’s education. In Illinois, one PTA who successfully completed the program saw their attendance at PTA meetings jump from a handful of parents to nearly 200 at one meeting. The School of Excellence program provides your PTA with ready-to-use tools to help your PTA be successful, and the results from across the country show that those PTAs that participate see increases in membership and greater support from families for the PTA and their school.

Put Your Financial House in Order

Once your calendar is planned, make sure your PTA’s financial situation is in good shape. Conduct your audit once your fiscal year ends. Plan out next year’s budget based on what you want to accomplish. Remember that Illinois PTA events such as Advocacy Day in Springfield (November 14, 2017) and convention (May 4-5, 2018 at Northern Illinois University—Naperville) can be included in your PTA budget. Get the signatures for your PTA’s banking accounts changed to reflect the new officers, and don’t forget to change any passwords for online banking or social media accounts.

Once your audit shows a clean set of books, file your 990 form with the IRS. For PTAs with less than $50,000 in gross receipts, this is a simple electronic postcard that only takes a few minutes to complete online. Plan on sending in a copy of your approved audit and IRS Form 990 with your first membership dues payment on October 1, 2017.

Membership Matters

Members are the life blood of a PTA, and if your PTA is not actively recruiting new members, you can find your PTA in a constant struggle for volunteers, officers, and resources. Plan your membership campaign over the summer so you’re ready to take off with the start of the new school year. Use the ready-to-go membership materials on the Illinois PTA website, or develop a plan tailored to your PTA. Be sure to think beyond the school walls, as school board members, school district administrators, community members, realtors and other businesses, and even grandparents in another state have an interest in supporting your child’s school.

Get Trained

Take advantage of the free training the PTA offers—it is one of the critical things that sets PTA apart from other parent organizations and helps you avoid problems that can hurt your PTA. Your district or region director can tell you when local training will be happening in your area, and Illinois PTA will also be offering online training this fall. Don’t forget to take a look at National PTA’s online training courses as well. These free training courses are provided to help you and your PTA know what to do to be successful. When Illinois PTA steps in to help a local PTA with an issue, whether it is financial problems, IRS troubles, or conflict among board members, in almost every case the PTA’s leaders did not get trained.

Summertime, and the Living is Easy

Take advantage of the slower pace during the summer months to get your PTA ready to go for the fall. By doing so, you’ll save yourself and your fellow PTA officers the trouble of doing it all while school activities, PTA activities, and all the other activities your family is involved in are going on as well.

Photo © 2014 by Cassinam under Creative Commons license.