Parents’ school organizations in elementary, middle, and high schools across the region have always been important to our city’s educational ecosystem. While their traditional approach to supporting schools, students and families has been frustrated by the ongoing pandemic, new opportunities have been identified.
When talking to a cross-section of PTAs in a school district about the role they play, one thing in common is “communication”: communicating, first within the school, supporting students and staff, and addressing issues as they arise.
But many parents’ school organizations also serve to meet needs within student families and parenting communities by connecting school families to one another, their community, and needed resources within the district. These groups focus on overcoming the barriers to academic success and social development that exist outside the walls of school buildings.
As a result, the different ways in which each school’s parent institution supports its students and families are as diverse as the communities that make up our city.
Parental organizations are one of the simplest ways that parents can stay connected and active in their students’ education. However, the pandemic has significantly affected parental involvement. For example, while parenting organizations want to enhance communication in the school community, it becomes more difficult when most are not even allowed in school buildings or the ability to host gatherings.
Tori Hawkins-Plummer is co-chair of the Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) at Jefferson Middle School Academy (801 Seventh St. SW). She says the pandemic has disrupted parental involvement in multiple ways.
The PTO holds monthly online meetings and runs regular events. Each month they host an employee appreciation, and give employees cake and coffee or cider. They tour events like the Winter School Show and support the school dances financially and with volunteers. They are working on organizing 8th grade graduation events. But it is still a challenge.
“We didn’t come back to the building for an actual meeting – just to respect those who might not want to be involved physically. But we still had a hard time getting people involved virtually.”
Eastern High School Principal Heather Schuyle has been working at PTO at her children’s school since she started her youngest there six years ago. She is pragmatic about the situation. “Parents’ participation at the secondary school level looks a lot different than at the primary level,” she said, noting that fewer parents make daily visits to middle and high schools to stop off and with more independent students, and they rarely have reasons to visit even before the pandemic spread. .
In the case of Eastern (1700 East Capitol St. NE), going online actually increased participation while keeping staff stress low in the building. About two-thirds of Eastern students do not live in the neighborhood, Squeal said, which makes meetings at the school more of a challenge for working families. This may be why the shift to virtual meetings and events has led to more participation this year.
PTAs or PTOs often focus on raising money. But this is not necessarily the case for many parent organizations in the region. While they focus on meeting needs at school, they often do so in ways that avoid bakery sales and silent auctions (activities that may place additional financial stress on families) by seeking grants or working with neighbors or the wider community.
Fundraising between families is not a priority for the school, said the president of Houston Elementary School (1100 50th Street Pl NE PTO President Burnice Cain. The principal prefers funding resources from the school budget, and wants funding for a purpose, not just an interest.)
“You don’t want communities that are already financially marginalized to feel obligated to participate in a way that might put some pressure on [on them]Kabil said, noting that many school families have experienced economic challenges due to COVID.
Instead, the Houston PTO focuses on building connections with the community that benefit the school.
In 2020, a modernization was completed in Houston including a new 82,457-square-foot building and new soccer fields. As the DC Scores program begins in the fall of 2021, what students need are soccer balls.
The Neighborhood Advisory Committee (ANC) 7C connected neighbors Gianni Hammond and Marietta Gomps with a PTO in Houston. Hammond & Gambs, owners of personal training company Fight 2B Fit DC (www.fight2bfitdc.com), donated 50 balls to Houston Elementary School.
The Deanwood Civic Association has linked the PTO with another neighbor, Shaundretta Wood and its nonprofit owner Math Speaks. When Wood appeared at the back-to-school party on August 27, she was carrying 50 backpacks loaded with school supplies.
“These are the kinds of community partnerships we try to take advantage of,” Cain said.
Eastern High School also gets support from neighbors and community organizations. PTO President Heather Schoell says that this year, the PTO is finding new ways to determine what the school needs and how it can be most helpful.
One area that the PTO has recognized as an opportunity for support is the needs of the school’s new full-time Restorative Justice Coordinator, Randall Strickland. One of Strickland’s approaches is a restorative justice practice called the Peace Walk. Because of the social distance, one was needed on each floor of the school building.
PTO has begun work on making these physical spaces more inviting. They purchased materials from the community to enhance the space, including indoor plants and Ghanaian Kente cloth. The PTO also applies for grant support from organizations such as the Capitol Hill Community Foundation (CHCF).
“It’s something we can do that will have a huge impact, I think, but it’s something employees can’t do on their own,” Squeal said.
Support a wider community
Student lives extend beyond the 9 to 3 hours and PTOs are increasingly finding ways to connect students and their families with needed resources and support in the wider community.
Some schools work with community organizations to become a place he comes to fill needs. The idea for Miner Mutual Aid came from the equity team at PTO. Back in the spring of 2020, the team was looking at ways to help mitigate the effects of the pandemic on the school community.
PTO has partnered with Serve Your City DC (SYC DC) to explore a mutual aid approach. On Saturday mornings, volunteers set tables with donated food, groceries, masks, PPE and diapers, once a month. There are extras for special occasions: back to school supplies, books, holiday gifts. All items are donated and are freely available to anyone, supported by a group of volunteers from the school and community.
Houston Elementary School PTO has always been focused on building connections not only between the community and schools, but also between families and available resources. Before the pandemic, former PTO chief Francis Whelan organized annual resource and preparedness fairs. City agencies such as the Office of Aging and DC Fire EMS will sit in the school. “Grandparents or older parents can learn about some resources,” Whelan said.
These parent leaders see the role of parental school institutions as strengthening the relationship between the school and the community. They work to support parents, students and faculty, but also to be advocates in the community and to bridge the gap between the school and the community. “There should be no gaps,” said Hawkins Plummer of Jefferson.
“Everyone needs to be involved and know what’s going on in the community, inside and outside the school.”