Parent school organizations at elementary, middle and high schools across the District have always been important in our city’s education 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 the District school’s PTAs about the role they play, a common refrain is “connection”: connecting, first within the school, supporting students and staff, addressing issues as they are raised.
But many parent school organizations are also working to address needs within their students’ families and parental communities by connecting school families to one another, to their community and to needed resources within the District. These groups are focused on overcoming the roadblocks that impede academic success and social development that exist outside the walls of school buildings.
As a result, the different ways that each school’s parent organization supports its students and families is as diverse as the communities that comprise our city.
Parent organizations are one of the simplest ways for parents to stay connected and active in their student’s education. However, the pandemic has significantly affected parental involvement. For example, while parent organizations want to foster connection in the school community, that becomes much harder when most are not even permitted in school buildings or able to host gatherings.
Tori Hawkins-Plummer is Co-President of the parent teacher organization (PTO) at Jefferson Middle School Academy (801 Seventh St. SW). She says the pandemic has disrupted parental engagement in multiple ways.
The PTO holds monthly meetings online and runs regular events. Every month they host a staff appreciation, giving staff donuts and coffee or cider. They do tabling at events like the school’s winter showcase and support school dances financially and with volunteers. They’re working to organize the eighth grade graduation events. But it’s still a challenge.
“We have not been back in the building to have a physical meeting —just to be respectful of those who might not want to engage physically. But we’re still finding it a challenge getting people engaged virtually,” she said.
Eastern High School PTO President Heather Schoell has been serving on the PTO at her children’s school since her youngest started there six years ago. She is pragmatic about the situation. “Parent participation at the high school level looks a lot different than elementary,” she said, noting that fewer parents make daily visits to middle and high schools for drop off and with more autonomous students, rarely had reasons to visit even before the pandemic.
In the case of Eastern (1700 East Capitol St. NE), moving online has actually increased engagement while keeping stress low for staff at the building. About two-thirds of Eastern students do not live in the neighborhood, Schoell said, making meetings at the school more of a challenge for working families. That may be why the switch to virtual meetings and events has resulted in more participation this year.
PTAs or PTOs often focus on raising money. But that’s not necessarily the case for many District parent organizations. While they focus on addressing needs in the school, they often do so in ways that avoid bake sales and silent auctions (activities that might additional financial stress to families) by seeking grants or working with neighbors or the broader community.
Fundraising among families is not a priority for the school, Houston Elementary School (1100 50th Pl NE PTO President Burnice Cain said. The principal prefers to fund resources from the school budget, and wants to have fundraising with a purpose, not just for its own sake.
“You don’t want communities that are already marginalized financially to feel like they’re obligated to participate in a way that might put some strain [on them],” Cain said, noting that many school families have suffered economic challenges due to COVID.
Instead, Houston’s PTO focuses on building connections with the community that benefit the school.
In 2020, modernization was completed on Houston including a new 82,457 square foot building, and new soccer fields. With the DC Scores program set to launch in fall 2021, what students needed was soccer balls.
Advisory Neighborhood Commission (ANC) 7C connected neighbors Gianni Hammond and Marita Gumbs with Houston’s PTO. Hammond and Gumbs, owners of personal training company Fight 2B Fit DC (www.fight2bfitdc.com), donated 50 balls to Houston Elementary.
The Deanwood Civic Association connected the PTO with another neighbor, Shaundretta Wood and her not-for-profit, Math Speaks. When Wood appeared at the school’s Aug. 27 back-to-school cookout, she carried 50 backpacks loaded with school supplies.
“These are the types of community partnerships we’re trying to leverage,” 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 identify what the school needs and how it can be the most help.
One area the PTO recognized as an opportunity for support is around 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 a “peace walk.” Because of social distance, one was needed on each floor of the school building.
The PTO began working to make these physical spaces more inviting. They sourced materials from the community to enhance the space, including indoor plants and a Ghanaian Kente cloth. The PTO has also applied for supporting grants from institutions like the Capitol Hill Community Foundation (CHCF).
“It’s something we can do that will be impactful, I think, but it’s something that staff can’t do on their own,” Schoell said.
Supporting Wider Community
The lives of students extend beyond the hours of 9 to 3 and PTOs have increasingly found ways to connect students and their families with necessary resources and support in the wider community.
Some schools work with community organizations to become a place to come to get needs filled. The idea for Miner Mutual Aid came out of the PTO’s Equity Team. Back in spring 2020, the team was looking for ways to help alleviate the effects of the pandemic on the school community.
The PTO partnered with Serve Your City DC (SYC DC) to explore the mutual aid approach. On Saturday mornings once a month, volunteers set up tables with donated food, groceries, masks, PPE and diapers. There are additions for special occasions: back-to-school supplies, books, holiday gifts. All of the items are donated and available free of charge to anyone, supported by a corps of volunteers from the school and community.
The Houston Elementary School PTO has long focused on building connections not only between the community and the schools, but also between families and available resources. Prior to the pandemic, former PTO President Frances Whelan organized annual resource and preparedness fairs. City agencies such as the Office of Aging and DC Fire EMS would table at the school. “Grandparents or older parents could learn about some of the resources,” Whelan said.
These parent leaders see the role of parent school organizations as fostering the relationship between the school and the community. They work to support the parents, the students and the faculty, but also to be advocates in the community and to fill the gap between the school and the community. “There should be no gaps,” said Jefferson’s Hawkins-Plummer.
“Everyone should be included and know what is happening in the community, inside the school and out.”