Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Getting Involved

Last night I went to my first PTSO meeting. PTSO stands for "Parent, Teacher, & Student Organization." Back when I was a kid, it was called "The PTA" and parents and teachers at a school supposedly worked together to improve conditions there. I think I have been to exactly one other PTSO/PTA meeting in my life, at my own grammar school. I was probably only 6 or 7, and I was with my parents, or at least with my mom. I remember it was in the school's gym/auditorium/lunchroom. Metal folding chairs had been set up, and it seemed like the room was completely full. Quite a contrast to last night's meeting of "The PTSO."

We arrived early, and were greeted by a sign directing us to the Fine-Arts teacher's classroom, rather that the library, where I guess the meetings are usually held, because a larger group needed that space. We (my husband, Ben and I) sat down at a table. There were three other women, one who had her two daughters with her, at another table. Shortly thereafter the principal came into the room, and then I realized that this was it - this was the entire constituency for this meeting of the PTSO: two officers, the school's principal, three parents, two students, and one toddler. There were no representatives from the student body, and the only representative from the school's staff was the principal, who has to be there regardless. We moved to the table with the other women.

This was the last meeting of the year, but in all honesty, I only recall hearing about one other meeting which I couldn't attend because of work. I asked when the meetings are usually held and was told that every other month a general meeting is held, with board meetings held the alternating months. We were handed the minutes of the previous meeting along with the annual budget showing posted earnings and losses. I learned that the two main money-makers for the PTSO are the annual Fall and Spring Fund Drives. "What are the fund drives?" I asked, and the events coordinator held up the same glossy brochure I had placed in a stack of recyleables not too long ago.

Does your child's school do this, these fund drives? Usually there are some magazines, wrapping paper, mugs, etc., etc. that the kids solicit to friends and family (it is stressed that kids MAY NOT go door to door with this stuff) and depending on how much they sell, they can win a prize. In the fall, I bought some wrapping paper and a stationery item, my mother-in-law renewed a couple of magazines, and Ben won a grotesque sticky-bug thing and a cool little flashlight ring. This spring's brochure went into the recycle bin after laying on the coffee table for about a week.

The thing is, I had absolutely no idea that this was a PTSO fundraiser. And I'm still not sure where all the money earned is spent. Some of it, I was told, is spent on promotional materials intended to build school spirit: i.e., car window clings, sweatshirts, t-shirts or water bottles with the school's name and mascot printed on them, you get the idea. Some of the money goes back into money-making activities: popcorn for popcorn sales, ice cream for ice cream sales, etc. And there are PTSO sponsored events like movie night, bingo night, and swim night, which apparently suffered dismal attendance this year. This week's movie night has been cancelled due to lack of interest on the part of the volunteer responsible for organizing it.

While the three other women present seemed genuinely enthusiastic about their involvement, only one of them regularly attended these meetings in the capacity of "Parent." All of them were shocked, though pleasantly so, to see my husband and me there, and were even happier when we offered to help out with the end of the year picnic/bbq - my husband offered to scout around for a "dunk tank" to be stocked with teachers for the students pleasure. I signed up as a PTSO volunteer last fall, before school even began. I was called only once, at the last minute, to help out with the Scholastic Book Fair & Sale because the mom originally signed up to work that shift was unable to. I had a great time working the sale, and I even told the coordinator, and mentioned that I'd be happy to work it again. I was not called for this spring's book fair.

Almost all of the PTSO events and meetings are publicised in school bulletins sent home with the students. I am willing to bet that the vast majority of parents never even see, let alone read these bulletins. I know I don't always read them. If the attendance at last night's meeting is any indication, it looks like most of the parents are unaware that their involvement is deperately needed or possibly just don't care, though I find such a degree of apathy hard to believe. So here are my questions to you:

How does a school inspire its Parents, Teachers and Students to get involved? What does your child's school do? Should student officers be required to attendt PTSO meetings?

I would really love some feedback, because clearly something needs to change here. There weren't even enough people there to elect a full body of officers. We were asked if we wanted to run for office, but both my husband and I declined, adding that we would be active Parent participants, but felt we could not guarantee our attendance 100%.

In truth, it seems to me like the school and PTSO have not made much of an effort to drum up parental involvement. Whether it's through deficit of interest or insight, I couldn't say, but the absence of PTSO information has bothered me all year, and I've recently been considering looking into alternative schools for Ben - there's a Montessori School about 30 minutes away and I'd like to check into it as I feel Ben might thrive in that sort of environment. Plus I hate standardized testing, and WASL is mandatory at all Washington State public schools.

On a lighter note, Ben gave me my Mother's Day present yesterday which he made at school...

It's a pencil and pen holder made from a tin can covered in popsicle sticks and "Fruity Pebbles!" Apparently it also served as a snack, as evidenced by the bare patches of glue.
I will treasure it always. Especially at breakfast time.


NotSoSage said...

You're hilarious. That is a lovely gift (and it keeps on giving).

I can't help you with the PTSO thing, as I'm nowhere near this stage as of yet. But I hope that it goes well and you manage to find a place in it.

Swistle said...

I'm not sure how our parent organization could convince me to get involved. Right now it looks like a waste to me: they have fundraisers in order to fund further fundraisers. It seems like a lot of rah-rah without any focus or effect, and I don't seem them doing any good in the school or having any influence. So in the case of OUR organization, I don't see how they could get me involved without changing completely who they are and what they do. I suppose that if they DO have focus, effect, or influence, they could publicize THAT instead of nagging me to buy overpriced products ten times a year.

Hey, bitter much?

Sara said...

Wow, I have no input on this as my kids don't go to school yet, but WOW- you would think more parents would have an interest, you know? These are the things that make me considerprivate school when the time comes.

And on a side note, it ticks me right off that my daycare holds these fund raisers. Why do you need to raise funds when I pay you mucho $$ weekly? Grrrrrrr.

theflyingmum said...

Notsosage, Sara and Swistle: thanks, guys. If anything, maybe this post will inspire you to ask about your schools organization when the time comes... or maybe not. One thing I forgot to mention is that some of the funds raised went to the purchase of a state map stencil for the playground. It's HUGE 35 x 36 feet (not including Alaska which can either be to scale, or scaled down to fit!) I'll post pictures of it in August, when we paint it.

c4cara said...

What a mothers day present! I just love these things they make for us.

We are at a good school, parent-involvement wise. They have a fairly big 'Home and School committee' and the women and men on it just walk up to us at pick-up and drop-off time and ask for help. By NZ standards it's a big school (650 kids) but we all get to chatting and familiarity with the other parents seems to be a big part of the secret. I know where there are lots of working parents who never lay eyes on each other, there isn't much sense of involvement with the school - they don't get to see the benefits so easily.

It works really well. The money they raise goes to buying extra equipment for the school, revamping playgrounds and running special events for the kids like end-of-year dances and carol singing for the whole family etc. Everything they do has a component of 'calling in' other parents.
Is this any help?
Hope so. Good on you for getting in there - it's a whole other scary world the 'parents help' thing.

Misty said...

*Blush* I haven't even asked about a PTA-type organization at my son's school. My parents weren't really involved in my education much and it really never occured to me to be more involved beyond helping out when I could in my child's classroom. But I will remember for next year. Thanks for the inspiration! And a good way to meet new people as well.

Sara: I HATE when the daycare wants you to raise money. Like my $200+ a week is not enough. I have to take up a part-time job pushing overpriced magazines. Sheesh!

Thanks for a great post, Mum!

mamalang said...

Our elementary PTO buys planners for the upper grades, sponsors Spirit Fridays, buys extra school supplies...they really do a lot. They have done the traditional fundraisers, but what worked out really well this year was just completed. They held a walk-a-thon during recess. The kids brought home pledge sheets, and they had incentive gifts for levels like $15, $20, etc. They raised $5000...which all goes to the PTO. I was impressed. I'm hoping they stop selling the overpriced crap and just go to this. The other thing they do is the BoxTops for Education...They hold Ice cream parties or pizza parties each month for the class with the most turned in, and those are things we already have and just send in.

The middle school one also acts as sports boosters, and they pay for the trophies and such for the athletes.

Both of these orgs are pretty small (10-20 parents and teachers) but there are a lot of parents that help out throughout.

We aren't very active, as the meetings are held on the same night as other activities, but we do volunteer throughout the year.

Good luck. I think PTA's have faded a lot since we were kids...mostly because our kids today have such busier lives.

theflyingmum said...

Mamalang: thanks for some great ideas. If we do stay at this school, we plan on staying involved, and I am geting some great fedback that I can't wait to share with the officers and principal.

raehan said...

My girls go to a small private school rigiht now. Volunteer hours are required (a lot) and there are two fundraisers in the spring.

I think a school has to build communitiy first, before being able to fundraise successfully. It sounds like your school needs to work on that. Not sure how to do that.

Does he keep eating the present?

theflyingmum said...

raehan: I recently noticed that he had put some pens and pencils in it, and I did ask him if he'd eaten more of the "decorations." He told me that no, he had not, and then proceeded to say that you shouldn't eat them because they were dirty, which I'd be willing to bet is what he was told at school...

Jennifer (ponderosa) said...

Hi, I'm taking a moment to read through your posts...

My son starts kindergarten in the fall at the school with the largest PTA in Oregon. No, we are not in Portland! This is Bend! I know they're the largest because the PTA president spoke at the orientation meeting for prospective students a few weeks ago.

I'm not entirely clear what-all they do, but if you ping me later this year I'll let you know -- because I am QUITE sure I will have to get involved. The PTA president's husband works with my brother-in-law, and she herself went to HS with my husband. It's like we're related : )

theflyingmum said...

jennifer: I have gotten some great feedback on this post - and I would really love to hear what your son's school does, how they motivate parental involvement especially. (though I understand the near nepotistic nature of your own involvement...) I will definitely ping ya later! Thanks!