Our school has what the PTA president called a "skeletal organization" in a Facebook message. We have Open House on October 6, and she's hoping to rally some parents to participate. Her representation to me (we're new to this district) was that the parents are really great and caring but aren't sure about involvement in PTA. My estimate is that about 50% of our student population consists of ESL students. Some of the parents speak English, and others don't. I'm sure that's part of the reticence. The other half are upper middle-class, (mostly) white families. There's not a lot of in between.
I'm hoping to gather ideas for what we could do/have that would help bolster some participation and provide some great community-building events. I know that Lynn's mentioned a home country cultural event, which I'm definitely going to suggest. Other inexpensive ideas? Our school's policy is that everything that goes home in a mass mailing (or handout) goes in English & Spanish, so I'm assuming we will be able to find someone who can translate materials pretty easily.
Ask the teachers or the principal if there are a couple of Spanish speaking parents who are regular attendees at things or who volunteer regularly. Recruit them personally to help out at events. It'd be even better if you could recruit them to help LEAD, but you might be a year or so from that. What you want now is to diversify the faces of the people who are seen to be volunteers. The Spanish speaking parents in our school really liked to volunteer with someone they knew (let's face it, we all do), so if you can get a 'group' of people that would be good.
Many of the parents understood English just fine, but were very shy about speaking. So, we always looked to recruit these parents for activities where we specifically needed Spanish speakers. Selling school t-shirts? You'll sell a lot more if there are English and Spanish speaking parents behind the table.
Hire a translator to translate for your meetings. If you can afford the little headsets that would be best. Meetings take longer if you have to wait for translation, but my opinion is that translation is better than no translation.
Provide childcare. Many of the parents who are low income have to bring their children with them. Many of our parents were employed in industries where one parent was working in the evening or at night (restaurants, hotels, etc.).
Be OK with a bit of kid noise. The Spanish speaking parents in our group were not comfortable leaving their children in child care until they were about 3. Toddlers are cute, but noisy. Relax about it.
Don't charge dues. If you're an official PTA, you have to pay the national PTA org. Don't get this money from dues. Our group was actually a Parent-Teacher-Organization (PTO) because we didn't want to have to charge dues. There's a great website called PTOToday.
Find out what resources your district provides. Our district provides some very good training for parent leaders.
Make sure that you go around an introduce yourselves at every single meeting. If you don't, the new people won't come back. Have everyone who's attending introduce themselves. We usually just said our name and what grade our kids are in. It's OK if the Spanish speaking parents do it in Spanish.
Have an agenda and explain what you're doing when you're meeting. Give clear instructions for things that need to be done.
Recruit volunteers in person or via the phone. Most of our low income parents (many of whom were Spanish speaking) don't have regular internet access. Electronic communication works well with the middle/upper-middle class parents but if you're on a tight budget, computers and internet access come far after food and housing.
Publicize and communicate what you do. What is the PTA? What does it do? How can parents help?
Make your volunteer opportunities clearly defined and limited. If we say "we need 10 people to help with the plant sale" no one volunteers. If we say "we need 4 from 10-12 for organizing the plants. We need 3 people for each 2 hour shift from 12-6 hour where you help load the plants into their cars" we got volunteers. We got more when we said "we specifically need parents who can speak Spanish to help out the Spanish speaking parents."
I instituted an 'open' house for the first meeting -- we had tables and posters set up and parents could go around and see each of the activities that the PTO sponsored or needed (birthday lunch table, Passport club, art literacy, teacher appreciation, fundraising, volunteer background check). We had sign up sheets at each table where people could put down their name/number if they were interested in an activity. We gave parents a little form that they could have signed at each table. If they completed them all, we put their name in for a drawing for a prize. We provided cookies and drinks and it was good.
Set limited goals for your organization. What one or two things do you want to accomplish. It's great to have a vision, but building an organization takes time. Honestly, my goals were: To get all of the board members talking to each other, to diversify the group of people who came to meetings and who helped out, and to model that if you volunteer, you can step down after a year or 2.
Volunteering is not a life-long sentence. Too many organizations run with the help of 3-4 people who do everything. Then these people get burnt out. Then they begin to act like middle schoolers in a gossip fest and they turn more people off. My huge achievement was stopping that in its tracks. If someone had a problem, they could come to me. If they didn't tell me, I didn't know about (even if I heard about it 2nd hand). Either you've got the guts to address me directly or it's not important enough for me to worry about. It takes 2 to make drama.
Above all, be genuinely friendly when you greet parents. Look them in the eye. Say hello and welcome.
What are you looking to increase participation in? Do you want more people to come to events? More people to come to meetings? Or more people to help volunteer?
For events, our best attended events were a breakfast and a carnival. I think it is easier for people to come a half hour early and eat breakfast with their child rather than drive back to the school for an evening event. The school carnival was very well attended too.
Our PTO was also a skeletal organization. At our monthly meetings, we would have the 4 officers, the principal, usually 2 teachers and between 1 and 3 parents. But we would be able to find people to volunteer to help so it didn't really matter to us if people came or not. It is not always easy for parents to make it to meetings, due to work schedules, kid activities, family time, etc. And honestly, I think a lot of people just didn't care what we did at the meetings. But that doesn't mean that they don't want to help.
I was the volunteer coordinator for 3 years and I found that the best thing is to call people or approach them after school or whenever and ask them to help. Do you know someone who speaks Spanish? Get him or her to call some of the Spanish speaking parents and ask them to help at the next event. People like to be needed, so point out that you really need them to assist the other Spanish speaking family members at the event, like Lynne said. And have a couple shifts at the event so the volunteers can enjoy it too. Like for our carnival, we had the games open for 2 hours and 2 teams would each take an hour. (OK, I'm not sure any parent actually "enjoyed" the carnival but you know what I mean! *LOL*)
My kids are at a new school this year that has a lot of Spanish speakers. So far at the meetings I've been to they have a translator up with the English speaker to translate after every paragraph or so. They also have the kids do something at the meetings so that drags the parents out. Tuesday is Literacy Night and the 2nd grade is performing something so DH and I will be going.
"All you fascists are bound to lose" — Woody Guthrie
Lynn, thanks so much! Your advice gives me lots to consider in helping to get things going. Lindberg, the current couple of parents who are involved apparently do a carnival and maybe 1 or 2 small events, but they don't have the time to do anything more. I suppose what I'm hoping to accomplish is to bridge the gap between what really feels to me like 2 groups of families in the school community, and I think dealing with the language barrier is a big part of that process.
Beanma, we're in the Triangle as well. I'm glad there are other regional schools that are dealing with this issue well. We are in N Raleigh at one of the newer schools (I think they opened 4-5 years ago), so there's no history of events or participation here.
Good luck, Visionary Mom.
"All you fascists are bound to lose" — Woody Guthrie