A NEW DEFINITION OF INVOLVEMENT
September 25, 2012
The cafeteria at L.H. Tanglen Elementary in Minnetonka, Minn., can be a pretty noisy place around lunchtime—but that doesn’t seem to faze parents, a lot of them dads, from dropping in for an impromptu meal with their child. Although some people may not consider eating lunch a form of volunteering, PTO president Katie Pierson thinks the informal Lunch Buddies program is really cool. "It may not be classroom volunteer work, but it still sends the same message to a child, which is 'I care about you and I care about your education,'" she says.
Pierson says it’s important to recognize all kinds of contributions from parents, whatever form they happen to take. Such a broad-minded outlook should put this mother of two daughters in good stead as she tackles her first year heading up the parent teacher group. The demographics at Tanglen have changed dramatically in recent years, with an increase in immigrant and minority families. Some ingrained PTO outreach methods have shown a tendency to fall flat amid this new mix of more culturally diverse families. "We learned, for example, that gift wrap isn’t a big priority for some cultures at our school," Pierson says.
A previous year spent as PTO volunteer coordinator helped Pierson warm up to her new role. In that post, she worked hard to build relationships with families that didn’t yet feel a connection to the school’s parent community. She found her biggest success organizing Dads Do Dinner. With her partner Jon Kahle’s help, she was able to round up about 10 fathers to order and serve dinner to teachers during conferences. The guys had a terrific time, and the teachers definitely appreciated it. As evidence they’re feeling more comfortable around school, some of these same dads are now making appearances at Lunch Buddies. Spying an opportunity, Pierson next plans to ask a few to run the school’s lunchtime walking club.
"All I'm doing is expanding the definition of parent involvement," Pierson says, though in reality she’s doing much more than that. The school parent group's lack of transparency had become an issue in the ongoing effort to attract new volunteers. This prompted Pierson to use the results of an online survey to compile job descriptions for officers and committee chairs. She also wrote a volunteer handbook detailing current and recent PTO programs. "The book’s underlying message is [that] the PTO is for everyone, and on their own terms," she says.
Recent figures from volunteer sign-in sheets show that more than 450 parents, grandparents, and other important adults volunteered nearly 4,250 hours to support Tanglen’s 600-student population. These numbers excite Pierson and certainly indicate she’s on the right track! Parents are finding it easier to attend PTO meetings ever since she arranged for babysitters and homework tutors to be on hand for their children. The addition of value-added programming by a previous president, such as technology demonstrations and guest speakers, also does the trick of drawing people out on a cold Minnesota night.
It's clear that Pierson goes out of her way to make everyone at Tanglen feel included. Her motivation is an underlying belief that no matter how large or small a parent’s contribution, the effort is not lost to a child. "Whether you show up to let your kid 'treat' you to lunch or you show up to organize a major fundraiser, the thing is your child notices. You're telling them you’re invested," she says. Happily, Tanglen’s parents, students, and teachers will continue to benefit from Pierson’s investment in them!
Writer: June Allan Corrigan
Photo: Jim Bernard