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Smells Like School Spirit: Behind the Scenes of a Parent Teacher Organization

Smells Like School Spirit: Behind the Scenes of a Parent Teacher Organization
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By Kathryn McGranahan
Illustration by Mark Williamson

Parents in the school don’t always get the best reputation, if judged by popular culture. It could be the Harper Valley hypocrites from Jeannie C. Riley’s “Harper Valley PTA” or The Simpsons’ episode where the teachers go on strike and Marge brings in community members to teach. It does not go well.

But when Free Press Houston (FPH) spoke with parents involved with Parent Teacher Organizations, the general message was one of support for teachers and the community of their schools.

Community In a School

“Public opinions about the proper role of a school parent group vary, but they often center on either fundraising or advocacy,” writes Tim Sullivan, president of the resource website PTO Today, in his online article “PTO Events Strengthen Schools”. But, he adds, “I’d say with confidence (and pride) that parent groups have the largest impact in a seemingly much more mundane arena—creating community around their school.”

Raul Ramos is an Assistant Professor of History at University of Houston and the president of the Wharton Dual Language Academy’s PTO (Parent Teacher Organization). Wharton is one of a few schools offering the International Baccalaureate Primary Years program, which favors higher educational standards and an international focus in their approach. This renowned program was made possible through fundraising generated by Wharton’s PTO.

“We helped anywhere we could,” Ramos told FPH. “We didn’t want to just add extra demands to the existing teachers. We helped pay for teachers who could come in and cover classes so our teachers had more time to work on their IB curricula.” They also covered different fees and extra teacher development that qualified Wharton for the IB program. “It took a lot of time and resources, and we succeeded because of parents organizing and fundraising.”

Hannah Jans is president of Wilson Montessori’s PTO. Her goal, like Ramos, is uniting a diverse school’s sense of community. She accomplishes this through events which allow her to interact with other parents, faculty and even government officials.

She believes in the sense of community that pervades Wilson, saying it brings support to teachers and staff alike. “The principal knows if she needs something, we will help,” Jans says. “And we have a diverse mix of kids. Our school is in Montrose, but it’s about 50 percent Hispanic.” Like Wharton, her school is not a public zoned school within a pre-existing, local community. Its PTO is dependent upon the parents who can commit an hour here, an hour there-around their schedule, not the school’s.

Jans says the key is working around the parents who can help. She structures events that are beneficial to parents and faculty alike, but breaks down jobs to those who can contribute where they can. “We have a PTO member who just transcribes thank you notes. This is a very helpful part, and it can fit her schedule.” She adds, “Transparency is essential. I want parents to know what they are doing specifically, and knowing when they can and cannot contribute.” An hour here or there, she says, is all some parents can do-but they want to help. She works to include them in any level they can.

So does Ramos. “No school can function without parents. Everyone has a different situation and schedule but it helps the school so much, and it sends a message to the kid. When the child sees how important their education is to their parents, they are more likely to treat school as something important.”

His findings are supported by various studies citing the value of parental involvement in education. University of California, Irvine, Brigham Young University and North Carolina State University studied over 10,000 students and their faculty and parents to gauge the role of family over school involvement. They found family influence to be the primary influence of a child’s success in school, despite the differing environments.

No Fun in Funding

As a result of their deeply involved role within the school system’s hierarchy, both parents understand the vital need for funding running through HISD. When Jans’ son needed a lengthy rest from school due to an inscrutable illness, Jans realized first hand the complex funding system running Wilson Montessori. Like most district schools, funding was dependent on student attendance. Once she realized the cost, she would bring her ill son into school to be counted at 9:00-then took him home at 9:15. In total, she says, Wilson loses about $47,000 a year from student absences. “That’s a full teacher’s salary,” she explains. (According to the Texas Education Agency, a teacher had to have 14 years of experience to break the $40,000 minimum salary mark in 2014.)

Standardized Testing

But one of the biggest hurdles isn’t just financial support. It’s where the finances go.

According to a 2012 Brookings Institute study, Texas spends over 85 million dollars annually on state assessment contracts. This is frustrating to involved parents like Jans and Ramos, who are routinely working with school faculty to, as Jans calls it, “bridge the gap between HISD and our school[s].”

“It’s disheartening when we as a PTO raise funds for a music program, only to find the new budget cut out the required teacher once the school year starts,” says Jans.

“I don’t want the anxiety that pervades through the school to pervade my son,” says Ramos. “The school shuts down during testing season.” However, both Ramos and Jans have noticed a push for better assessment tools besides tests.

One last note from Sullivan: “In this day when teachers and principals are asked to focus more than ever on test scores and rubrics and adequate yearly progress, our schools would be cold, cold places without something adding life.”

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