If you picture the PTA as just a small crew of moms who meet now and then to plan bake sales, you may be in for a big surprise. The Parent Teacher Association, or PTA, is a huge and very influential nationwide organization with state and local affiliates throughout the country. The national PTA is headquartered in Chicago and promotes parent involvement in school communities. It is also a powerful lobbying organization in state legislatures and in Washington, D.C., advocating on behalf of students and schools.
PTA vs. PTO
Schools that do not have PTA affiliations usually have “home and school clubs” or “booster clubs.” These clubs serve many of the same functions as PTAs, but operate as independent organizations without state or national linkages. Collectively, these groups are sometimes referred to as parent-teacher organizations, or PTOs.
These groups choose to be independent for any number of reasons. The most common is money; PTOs would rather keep the money raised from dues rather than send a substantial portion to the state and national PTA. Other groups don’t want to be bound by the rules and regulations set up by the 105-year-old National PTA, or they don’t support its legislative agenda. One thing is clear — the number of PTOs is growing. PTOs even have their own recently formed national association, the National PTO Network(NPN). NPN offers similar benefits to the PTA, such as group insurance packages, a free magazine, trade shows and a Web site.
The role of the local PTA
As the most commonly known PTO, the local PTA sets a standard for these groups as a whole. The main role of the local PTA is to build strong working relationships among parents, teachers and schools, in support of students. This can include recruiting and coordinating volunteers, providing special recognition in awards ceremonies or through other activities, organizing parent education events, planning teacher appreciation activities and much more.
The PTA is sometimes perceived as a fundraising group, but according to the organization, this is not its primary responsibility. Nonetheless, in states where schools face tough budget restrictions, the parents in the local PTA may raise funds for everything from playground equipment to salaries for elementary music teachers. At schools where the PTA raises a significant portion of the school’s discretionary money, the PTA has a lot of power to influence which programs are funded. Ideally the PTA will work with the principal and the school site council to decide jointly which programs will most benefit the school.
Local school PTA meetings can serve as venues for discussions about a variety of educational issues. Teachers may talk to the parent community about a new reading program or student discipline issues. Experts from the community may talk about building better relationships with adolescents, or share important information about school reform initiatives. Parents may raise concerns about such things as homework or proposed changes in the school curriculum. The PTA can also provide a powerful mediating function, providing a neutral forum for resolving conflicts that sometimes occur in schools around controversial issues.
At the high school level, the PTA can become the Parent Teacher Student Association, or PTSA, as adults encourage students to offer their perspectives and get involved in the decision-making process.
In many schools, especially high schools, a host of organizations besides the PTA or PTO exist to support specific student activities. Booster clubs, for instance, support everything from sports teams and the school orchestra to foreign language clubs and student theatrical performances. Other committees are organized during the school year to plan and fund special events such as prom and graduation night.
How to get involved
Regardless of what your exact interests are, you can be certain that your participation will be welcomed in your school’s parent-teacher organization. And PTAs are not just for moms. Many dads play an active role as volunteers and take on leadership roles in the organization. Most schools have sign-up sheets located in the school lobby and send home information about organizational activities with the phone numbers of parent contacts. Even if you don’t have much time, attending your school’s PTA or PTO meetings is an excellent way to stay on top of what’s happening at the school and to connect with other parents and school leaders. If you’re not sure what groups are available at your child’s school, call the school secretary, who will tell you about your options and provide you with the necessary contact information.