5 Ways to Fire Up Your Middle School or High School PTA

1280px-Calhan_High_School_Senior_Classroom_by_David_ShankbonePTAs and PTSAs at the middle school and high school level often struggle. It’s not that families are no longer involved with the school, it’s that they are now spread out among athletic boosters, band, orchestra, drama, and other groups as well as the PTA. Here are some ideas to fire up families to engage with your middle or high school PTA.

  1. Focus on Communication
    Middle and high school students are notoriously uncommunicative about what goes on at school, and a newsletter would likely end up buried on the bottom of a backpack until the end of the school year. That means that families are hungry for information about what is happening at the school, and PTA is in the perfect position to be that information source.

    Create an e-mail list to send information out to families and students. Having a laptop at registration, open house, and other events where people can type in their e-mail addresses will save you having to decipher handwriting and avoid bounced e-mails. Work with your school administration to see if the daily announcements can be e-mailed out to families. It may be easier to set it up so a school secretary can send it out once the announcement sheet is ready.

  1. Make Your PTA Meetings Informative Rather than “Business-y”
    Adults already sit in lots of business meetings all day, and adding another one in the evening is not very appealing. Turn your PTA meetings into sources of information rather than conducting lots of business at them. General membership meetings are only needed to approve the annual audit, to adopt or amend the budget, to amend the bylaws, to elect a nominating committee, and to elect officers. Move all other business matters to your PTA board meetings or committee meetings. Highlight what it going on at the school both academically and with extra-curricular activities. Consider having a “vendor fair” of all the clubs and sports at the school. Have teachers spotlight new curriculum or interesting class projects. Provide presentations on student and family needs, such as staying on the college-ready path through middle and high school, how to apply to college, how to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), or families role in driver’s education.
  1. Cut Back or Eliminate Fundraising
    Just as middle and high school families are spread out among many student organizations, those organizations are often all raising funds for their activities, many of them at the start of the school year. Avoid the competition and fundraising fatigue by cutting back or eliminating PTA fundraising.

    PTAs should always plan their program year before determining how much money they need to raise to implement that program. Changing your PTA’s focus from buying things for the school to doing things for the school, students, and families can reduce the amount of money your PTA needs to raise. Consider making your membership dues sufficient to meet your budget. While some families may be concerned about the higher dues, many are happy to join when told that the PTA will not be coming to them with fundraising programs during the year. Look at non-dues sources of revenue such as PTA member benefits from Illinois PTA and National PTA, affiliate programs from national or local stores (e.g., a percent of each purchase is donated to the PTA), or restaurant dine-out nights. Remember that to protect their 501(c)3 status, PTAs cannot endorse commercial entities (e.g., “Eat at X restaurant because they’re giving PTA 10% of sales tonight.”) but can state that businesses are supporters of the PTA (e.g., “X restaurant is sponsoring a Lincoln PTA night tomorrow by donating 10% of all orders.”). In other words, you can’t tell people to support a business, but you can say the business is supporting the PTA.

  1. Make It Clear that Joining PTA is to Support the PTA
    Many parents, especially those fresh from active elementary school PTAs, have a fear of being asked to do things and cite that as a reason not to join the PTA. Make it clear to your families that joining the PTA is solely to support your PTA and the programs you provide. Let them know that signing up for the PTA e-mail list isn’t limited to PTA members (you’re providing information to all families, and once they see all the good things your PTA is doing, they are more likely to join). You can still do the occasional ask for help through your e-mail list, but be sure to break it down into small bits (e.g., donating paper products, plastic utensils, a dish, or drinks for a teacher appreciation breakfast).
  1. Don’t Forget the Students
    Think about becoming a PTSA if you are not one already. Middle and high school students are beginning to take more responsibility and also looking for activities that look good on college applications. Consider adding a student representative (or one from each grade) to your PTSA board. Use teacher and administrator recommendations for potential representatives, as they know which students are well-connected with their peers and what is going on in the student population. Have the student representative share what students are concerned about at your meetings. Let students sign up for the PTA e-mail list as well, since they may not be able to hear the morning announcements well in their first-period classroom.

Photo © 2008 by David Shankbone under Creative Commons license.

Create a Welcome Packet to Bring New Families into Your PTA

wordcloud-welcome-heart-1As the school year comes to a close, many PTA leaders look forward to an opportunity to put their feet up and relax until school starts in the fall. However, there is one thing that PTA leaders should be planning now to make their PTA more successful in the coming year—planning on how to welcome new members.

New members are the life blood of every PTA. We have built in turnover as PTA leaders have their youngest child move on to the next level of their education and your PTA loses that experienced leader. Procedure books can help your PTA retain that knowledge and experience, but without a volunteer to use that procedure book, your PTA isn’t moving forward.

Your PTA’s prime new member recruiting time is right at the beginning of the school year, whether it is during school registration days, open house, or your first PTA meeting. Families new to your school will be looking for information on what’s going on at the school and how they can be involved. By creating a welcome packet, your PTA can make a great first impression on these new families and increase your membership. People are more willing to join a group that has its act together and knows what it’s doing and where it’s going. The time to create that welcome packet is now.

Creating Your PTA Welcome Packet

When creating your PTA’s welcome packet, you want to provide information on your PTA and on your school. The contents should provide the information you would have liked to have known back when you first arrived at your school. You may want to organize the information into sections about your PTA and about your school. Things you may want to include are:

  • Welcome Letter: A welcome letter from your PTA president should be short, friendly, and provide a quick overview of what’s in the welcome packet. Be sure to provide your contact information and welcome questions and suggestions.
  • Important Dates: Provide a list of your PTA meeting dates and times, any PTA programs and events that are already scheduled, Take Your Family to School Week, as well as dates such as your PTA’s Reflections You can also include important school dates, such as Parent-Teacher Conferences, school holidays, and exam dates. The more comprehensive your calendar is, the more likely it is to be stuck to the front of a refrigerator.
  • How to Join the PTA: Include your membership form, information about dues, and a list of PTA member benefits. Share how PTA membership helps your PTA and your school even if a member doesn’t volunteer. Remind people that you do not have to have a child in your school to join your PTA—consider asking grandparents, community members, and businesses to join your PTA. You will provide information on volunteering later, but when you are asking someone to join is not that time. No one wants to walk into a party and be asked right away if they can help wash dishes in the kitchen afterwards.
  • PTA Officers and Chairmen: Provide the contact information of your PTA officers and chairmen. This list can also include brief descriptions of what each chairman does.
  • Volunteer Opportunities: When listing ways that people can volunteer, be sure to provide information on how much time is required and whether the work needs to be done at school or can be done at home. If you have or will have committees working on programs or events, invite those interested to join the committee with no commitment beyond attending the committee meetings. This lets new volunteers find out what is involved in an event without worrying about being asked to do a lot of work. Chances are, when they see that they might only need to go get some paper goods, talk to a couple of businesses about donations, or sit at a registration table for an hour-long shift, they will step up without being asked directly.
  • Information on Navigating the School: This might include a school map, how to put money in your child’s account for lunch, and all those other little things you had to figure out when you were new to the school.

Planning Tips

  • Presentation Matters: How you present your welcome packet is just as important as what you include in it. At the beginning of the school year, families are flooded with information—forms to fill out, letters from teachers, information on activities and groups, and more. Make sure that your welcome packet is easy to read, well organized, and easy to skim and search for information. Consider using different colors to identify different areas of information.
  • Put Yourself in a New Family’s Shoes: Think back to when you were first walking in your school’s door. What questions did you have? What information couldn’t you find? Who could answer those questions? Be sure to talk to some of your members that first joined last year to help figure out what information you need to provide.
  • Be Inclusive: If possible, provide information in other languages if there is a significant number of families that speak that language at home. By starting now on your materials, you will have time to arrange translations of at least some items.
  • Go Digital (But Not Just Digital): The younger an adult is, the more likely they are to prefer accessing information digitally. Make sure your welcome packet is available online, whether through your PTA’s website, Facebook page, or e-mail list. Consider making a QR code (those boxes of dots you scan with your phone) to take people to your welcome packet online and having it displayed at your PTA information table, on a PTA bulletin board, or on a sign at your school’s main office. You’ll still want to have a paper version of your welcome packet as well for those families that have limited internet access or prefer a hard copy to stick on the refrigerator.
  • Your Welcome Packet is a Marketing Tool: Your welcome packet should present your PTA as a well-organized and well-run association that is doing great things in your school. Be sure to share what your PTA does, why you do it, and what you have accomplished. Be sure to include outcomes—what changed because of your PTA’s work—and not just activities.
  • Add Your Own Member Benefits: Consider reaching out to businesses in your area to provide additional member benefits specific to your PTA. Costs of creating and producing your welcome packet can be offset by selling advertising space to businesses. Remember that these ads cannot imply PTA endorsement because of your PTA’s 501(c)3 status. These businesses are PTA sponsors or PTA supporters, not the other way around.

News from the Illinois PTA Convention—Membership Recruitment, Retention, and Engagement

conv logo 2Illinois PTA understands there are challenges to PTAs in recruiting and retaining members. We believe we can best address these challenges by communicating with you, the local unit members, in finding out what works for your PTA and what doesn’t. Through online conference events and convention networking workshops, we have discovered some of the challenges you face and have brainstormed together some suggested ideas for meeting those challenges. Most recently at our 114th Annual Convention, we offered a “Recruitment, Retention, Engagement–Membership Networking Workshop.” Challenges and solution ideas expressed in a past web conference were presented and added to by the participants in the workshop.

Why Join PTA?

Why do people join PTA? What does PTA offer them? PTA offers families the opportunity to get involved in their child’s education, to volunteer to make the educational experience for the kids in their community the best it can be. Studies show that family involvement is one of the most valuable assets to a child’s success in school. Along with family involvement, PTA encourages local units to reach out and partner with their communities (businesses, city councils, service clubs, chambers of commerce, etc.) to be involved in supporting their efforts on behalf of children, families, and schools. Many people take advantage of PTA leadership development opportunities and assistance with resources for advocacy on behalf of children at the local, state, and federal levels.

Why Don’t People Join PTA?

At the workshop, participants were asked to share their experiences on why people don’t join PTA? Here are the challenges that were discussed:

  • Fear of being asked to volunteer for anything or everything
  • Parents volunteer at school but don’t feel the need to join PTA
  • Too many PTA meetings to attend
  • Cultural differences
  • Busy with other volunteer activities (e.g., sports, Scouts, dance, place of worship, etc.)
  • English as second language–can’t understand and participate in meetings or activities
  • Parents working full time can’t volunteer during the school day
  • Lack of awareness of PTA or what we do
  • Unable to pay dues
  • Uncomfortable with interaction with administration of school

The workshop participants then brainstormed ideas to deal with each challenge.

Fear of Being Asked to Volunteer or Parents Volunteer but Don’t Join PTA

  • Be sure to inform parents that while we welcome those who are able to volunteer, membership in PTA helps support your unit financially and more members provides PTA a larger voice in local, state, and national advocacy with governments and other policy makers.
  • Offer a program where you ask for a commitment of only a few hours each year from each member (e.g., PTA’s Three for Me Program). That way members are assured they won’t have to work at every event.
  • Offer a contest and reward parents for volunteering the most hours. Keep track of each volunteer’s hours either monthly or yearly. Hold a volunteer appreciation event and either just acknowledge the hours volunteered by each member or give out little awards. Many businesses are happy to donate items that can be used for this purpose.
  • What about and incentive like “reserved parking!” One school started a program where each year they place the name of every member who joins into a drawing. At a PTA meeting before a special school event, a name is drawn and the lucky winner gets preferred parking reserved at the school for that event. It was very successful in recruiting new and keeping returning members. What about doing this with a few reserved seats at the event? This would promote partnership with the school leadership. What about requiring that the winner be present at the PTA meeting to be awarded the incentive? Would that perhaps increase attendance at meetings?

Too Many PTA Meetings to Attend

  • PTAs do not have to have a meeting every month throughout the year. Your local PTA bylaws dictate how many meetings you have to hold each year. Amend your bylaws to reduce the number of meetings your general membership has to hold each year. General membership meetings are only needed to approve the audit report, to adopt or amend the budget, to elect a nominating committee, or to elect new officers.
  • Pick months for your meetings when you can involve the children in a short program or performance. Everyone enjoys coming out to see the kids perform. Ask for help from your choral or band departments on ideas for programs. Use one meeting to highlight students’ artwork. If your school participates in the PTA Reflections Program, hold a meeting to recognize the students’ achievements.
  • Pick months where you can supply a light meal or snacks. Many participants in the workshop voiced that members really enjoy coming to meetings where there is some sort of treat!

Cultural Differences

  • Find ways to reach out to parents of different cultures and help them feel welcome. Educate them that parents are able to participate in school activities.
  • Host workshops to help educate these parents and families about participating in PTA and school activities. Consider holding these workshops at different times of the week and day to allow more people to fit them into their schedule.
  • Hold an event highlighting the different cultures in your school. One PTA suggested that having an event where children from each of the cultures represented in their school did a presentation demonstrating aspects of their culture. Some used dance and song, others used language activities, and others used a sampling of their culture’s food. It is a huge success and is done every year now. What a great idea!

Busy with Other Volunteer Activities or Parents Working Full Time Can’t Volunteer During School Day

A great way to include parents and families who cannot volunteer during the school day is to provide opportunities for them to assist with things for which they do not have to be present:

  • Make a treat for a party or special event and let their child bring it in that day
  • Simply ask those parents who cannot be present to send in the paper goods. Again, allow the child to bring the items the day of the party. (Allowing the kiddos to bring the items in allows them a sense that their parents are contributing and supporting them as much as those parents who are able to be physically present.)
  • Send home craft work needed for PTA events and allow parents to cut, fold, staple, color, sort, etc., during any free time they have outside of work or other activities. Be sure to do this well in advance of the event to allow parents time to finish without feeling stressed.

English as a Second Language

  • Consider holding two separate meetings: one for English speaking members and a separate meeting for individuals who may need more time understanding the meeting discussion.
  • Have the agenda translated into their language.
  • If possible, have someone who speaks the language of those in attendance to assist.

Lack of Awareness of PTA or What We Do

  • Toot your own horn! Be sure to have information available about all the good things you do for kids. Don’t just think in terms of fundraising; talk about all the events you hold for families and children as well as the hours your members volunteer to assist at school.
  • Create a PowerPoint presentation or video showing what your PTA does throughout the year. Show the presentation or video at kindergarten or back-to-school orientation.
  • Be sure to host and advertise parent education on topics of interest to your community.
  • Inform members about the advocacy successes of Illinois and National PTA.
  • Take advantage of Illinois PTA and National PTA training. Many interesting webinars are available online. Training courses are for all members, not just PTA officers.
  • If your school has a mail-in registration, ask if your PTA can include information about what your PTA does and membership in your PTA with the mailing.
  • Check out the PTA Back-to-School Kit at www.ptakit.org. The section on Membership contains a wealth of resources for promoting PTA.

Unable to Pay Dues

  • This is a difficult challenge for PTAs. One suggestion is to find community partners who might be able to contribute funds to sponsor families to become members of PTA who may need assistance with dues.
  • Title I funds can be used to pay PTA dues for those families receiving free or reduced lunches.

Uncomfortable with Interaction with Administrators of School

  • Get parents to interact at school by inviting parents to participate in parent-led enrichment activities during the school day. Parents volunteer one hour per week to come in and teach an enrichment course about an area of their interest/expertise. These could also be implemented as an after-school club.
  • Host “breakfasts,” “coffees,” or “sack lunches” for informal times that parents can meet with administrators and express concerns or ask questions.
  • Invite an administrator to attend your PTA meetings to talk informally about things going on at your school. This may help alleviate any discomfort as members get to know the administrators.

General Ideas for Engaging Families–Including Some Programs Ready to Go!

  • “Donuts for Dads” and “Muffins for Moms”: Host quick morning events for parents as they drop off children for school.
  • “Curbside Bagel Hello”: One participant indicated that the process for dropping children off at school was such that parents could not park and come into the building for a quick morning event. The suggestion was a “curbside bagel hello.” Literally stand out by where parents drop off children and hand them a bagel and a “Hello” from PTA. This is true thinking outside the box!
  • A family movie night is a very popular event to engage families. This involves some expense by the PTA to purchase the license to show a movie, but then you can engage the community by finding partners to donate pizza, ice cream, popcorn, drinks, etc.
  • Find successful programs ready to use on the Illinois PTA website under Programs then Programs to Go.
  • National PTA has programs with everything you need to promote and administer a family event for a PTA Back to Sports Night Program or a Family Reading Experience.

If you have ideas on any of the items listed or if you have challenges and solutions you would like to share, please send them to the Illinois PTA Membership Marketing Director, Rhonda Jenkins, at rjenkins@illinoispta.org. We will share these ideas in future One Voice Illinois posts, on Facebook, and on the Illinois PTA Membership Page.

Effective PTA Communications

Multi-Ethnic group of children outdoors, arms raisedWe live in a media-rich environment with smartphones and the internet providing information in an almost constant stream. PTAs used to be able to send home a newsletter with a brightly-colored front page and know that families would see it, but the “Backpack Express” is much less effective these days. So how can your PTA’s communication be heard in this constant clamor for attention? How can your PTA communicate effectively with your school community?

Building a PTA Community

When you think about your PTA community, who do you see? Is it just your members? Is it all the families in the school? Does your PTA community include teachers and administrators? What about those in the neighborhood around your school? What about grandparents who live in another state? An important part of effective PTA communications is building your PTA community. That means reaching out and engaging everyone in that community.

Fortunately, there are a number of resources available to PTAs to help engage your community. While newsletters may still be a part of your PTA communication plan, e-mail lists, websites, and social media provide additional tools to connect your PTA with those who care about the students at your school regardless of where they live.

Your PTA’s Communication Plan

There are a variety of reasons that PTAs need to communicate:

  • To inform members about upcoming events
  • To solicit volunteers
  • To advocate
  • To share their PTA’s successful events and programs
  • To thank those who have helped out

All of these reasons have one common thread—to tell your PTA’s story. If you approach your PTA communications with this goal in mind, you are providing vibrant descriptions of how your audience can engage with your PTA and how your PTA is making a difference in your school and in your community. Your PTA communications become one of the most effective tools in bringing new members into your PTA.

To effectively tell your PTA’s story, you need a communications plan. A communications plan should include:

  • All of the communication channels your PTA will be using (print, website, e-mail, social media, VolunteerSpot, etc.)
  • Your PTA’s communication goals
  • Your target audience(s)
  • The frequency of communication on each channel
  • The deadlines for submissions for each communication
  • A list of who will be submitting content
  • A budget for your communication tools (printing costs, domain registration, etc.)
  • An evaluation plan to improve your communications over time

Georgia PTA has a useful video presentation on building your communications plan that can walk you through the process of creating a communication plan and the basics of implementing some communication channels. North Carolina PTA also has a video on creating and executing a PTA communications plan.

As you develop your plan, remember that a diverse school community needs a diverse array of communications to reach out to everyone. Consider how to connect with families of English language learners or those without internet access (or only through their phone). Think about how you can make those families unable to attend PTA programs and events at the school still feel connected to the PTA.

Your communications plan should also incorporate the rules and policies that your school or district may require. Be aware of photo restrictions, sharing children’s names, and other policies that might affect your PTA communications.

Social Media

Many PTAs have given up on printed newsletters and PTA websites in favor of e-mail lists and social media. A Facebook organization page allows a PTA to share things that would have gone in a newsletter or on a website. Twitter allows a PTA to share timely, relevant information with its followers, link to Facebook or website posts, use hashtags for events, and share important reminders or quick photos at events. These and other social media tools provide a powerful way to get your PTA story out and to connect with a broad audience.

But as Spiderman taught us, with great power comes great responsibility. Be sure to have a social media policy in place specifying who has access to and responsibility for your PTA’s social media presence. Make sure that more than one person has the login information to your social media accounts. Ensure that those who will be posting to Facebook, tweeting, or using other social media are aware of any restrictions on sharing photos that your school district has. National PTA has a sample social media policy that you can use as a template for your PTA.

Blowing Your PTA’s Horn

Your PTA’s communication should not be restricted to just your school community. Be sure to share your PTA story to your community as a whole. Send out press releases announcing your upcoming PTA events. Many school districts have a public relations or communications person whose job is to submit press releases to the local media, and they may be willing to submit releases on your PTA’s behalf or can provide a list of media contacts. While you may not end up with a news story on your event, you may have a newspaper photographer stop by to take some pictures or have a TV station record some footage that will run under their closing credits.

By communicating with your broader community, you have the opportunity to make the public aware of the great things your PTA is doing to improve the lives of children. Remember, if your PTA isn’t telling its story and sharing its good news, no one else will either. And with increased awareness of the positive effect your PTA is having comes the opportunity to partner with businesses and other organizations in your community, whether through grants, co-promotion and cooperation on events, and the ability to spread your message to a wider audience through speaking opportunities, guest blog posts, and articles in non-PTA newsletters.

Communication Tools for Your PTA

A primary communication tool should be the Communications Quick Reference Guide, a part of the online PTA Back-to-School Kit. Here you will find information on PTA branding, newsletters, websites, social media, marketing and media relations, photography and videography, and much more. Be sure to also look for the Illinois PTA piece on the Role of a Membership Marketing Chairman, which includes a sample press release and social media guidelines.

For PTA e-mail communications, a simple free e-mail list from Google, Yahoo, or other provider might be all your PTA needs. However, Benchmark provides free e-mail marketing for PTAs, allowing you to send e-mails to 100,000 contacts up to seven times a month for free. In addition, your PTA would have access to all of the advanced functions, including segmented e-mail lists, real-time reports on who opened your e-mail or clicked on a link in it, surveys and polls, sign-up forms, and more. Illinois PTA currently uses Benchmark for its Weekend Update e-mail.

For signing up volunteers, Illinois PTA has partnered with VolunteerSpot to provide local PTAs, councils, districts, and regions with a free premium package upgrade (up to $300 in value). The premium package provides unlimited custom group pages and up to 15 assistant organizers (so one person doesn’t have to run sign-ups for every event), up to five custom registration fields (e.g., t-shirt size), and more. You also get the standard reminder and thank you e-mails to those who sign up as well. To take advantage of this member benefit, follow the directions on our member benefits page.