by Natalie Green Giles

How do I get more parents to attend PTA/PA meetings is one of the most asked questions among PTA/PA leaders and an issue that cuts across all types of PA/PTAs, in all types of schools. The amazing thing is that the struggle to get families to show up at meetings is not necessarily correlated with how involved the parents are at a school (by various measures of “involvement”). We hear of schools with very aggressive PA/PTA budgets, requiring parents to participate in many fundraising events and activities, complaining of fewer than 20 people attending monthly PA/PTA meetings, while schools with less specific demands of parents packing their auditoriums for their meetings.

Understand why parents do not come out to meetings

So let’s start with what is conspiring against getting those crowds in at our monthly PTA/PA meetings. Parents are busy. Parents are tired and stressed. Parents have varied work schedules and varied child care needs. Parents have children in multiple schools. And especially in districts with middle school choice and with high school choice, parents can live pretty far from their child’s school. It’s not that they don’t care and don’t want to be engaged in their child’s school; it’s just that with all the other demands competing for their time, as well as all the other events that bring them into school (i.e., curriculum night, parent-teacher conferences, performances and other celebrations), it becomes less of a priority to rearrange schedules, brave cold or wet weather, forgo helping their child with homework, or absorb the cost of a roundtrip bus or subway fare to attend the general PA/PTA meeting.

What can you do to make attendance at meetings more appealing and manageable for parents?

We know there is real value in bringing parents together and giving them the chance to better understand what’s happening in the school outside of the more formal, structured parent engagement days (like parent-teacher conferences). We also know that as PA/PTA leaders, we have a responsibility to make sure we are hearing from our parents—our constituency—to know that we are representing their interests and serving their needs as best as we can. So what can you do to make it more accessible and appealing to attend a meeting?

Pick the “right” meeting times: morning, afternoon, evening, or even weekends

A single-mom at P.S. 89 in the Bronx recently lamented that all her son’s PTA meetings are held at 9am, a time she needs to be at work. One PTA leader told me that, culturally, families at her school tend not to go to evening meetings, therefore they hold all their meetings in the morning. As a longtime parent leader at P.S. 38 in Brooklyn once said, you need to “meet the people where they are.” He would hold his monthly PTA meeting on the designated day at three different times during that day—early morning when parents dropped off, afternoon when parents picked up, and in the early evening. At P.S. 24 in Sunset Park, the culture has been created where the school is the place to be on a Friday night—yes, a Friday night–sharing food, learning more about their children’s education, and maybe showing a movie to the kids as an added bonus. The auditorium is packed with families each month. Still other PA/PTAs schedule one month’s meeting in the morning but the following month’s meeting in the evening. You obviously can’t accommodate everyone’s schedules, but at least you can work with different options throughout the year.

Coordinate your meeting times with the general school calendar

To be efficient with parents’ time, coordinate meeting dates with the general school calendar. If there is a student performance that week, a meeting about middle school, high school, or college admissions, an author celebration in several grades or some kind of end- of- unit share, a meeting about a field trip, or anything else that would bring families into the building, figure out if there is a way to piggyback the general PA/PTA meeting with the other events/meetings.

Make the meeting worthwhile to parents

It may seem obvious, but parents have to feel like attending the meetings is a good use of their time. Have a clear focus about what you want to achieve. Create an agenda and let parents know when you publicize the meeting what will be discussed. Parents need a good reason to be late for work or come out at night when they could be home.

Our best attended PA/PTA meetings are the ones that combine the general PA/PTA business with something else happening in the school or some other important issue that parents care about. When the new Common Core standards and assessments were rolled out, we bundled that training into our PA/PTA meetings. When there is any kind of major policy change that affects families and students, such as budget cuts, testing, proposed co-locations, curriculum changes, safety issues, and so forth, put in on the agenda and parents will show up. When students perform or display work or participate in any way, parents show up. And if there is nothing particularly pressing going on that month in the school, try bringing in an outside speaker on a topic of interest to parents (e.g., cyberbullying/social media/use of technology, general wellness and child development issues, extracurricular activities/internship opportunities, etc.).

Other simple ways to make sure your families feel their time is valued and the meeting is worthwhile include:

  • Offer food-coffee/breakfast for morning meetings and snacks for meetings later in the day are always hugely appreciated
  • Make parents feel welcome and appreciated. Greet parents as they enter the meeting room and sign in. Thank them for being there at the beginning of the meeting and again at the end of the meeting. Remind them that the PA/PTA is there to help them—not just to raise money or ask them to give their time for the school.
  • Make sure you have the necessary translation services to meet the language needs of all your families (DOE provides this through their Translation and Interpretation Unit).
  • In elementary school—provide childcare, preferably with an activity that is fun for the kids!

Publicize the meeting and give parents adequate notice

Every school should set the PA/PTA monthly meeting dates for the entire year in September, consistently planning for the day of the week and the time of the month (e.g., the second Wednesday of the month) for meeting times throughout the school year, unless a holiday interferes with that schedule. That way, families can mark their calendars for the year. Once you’ve got your schedule for the year, the challenge for PA/PTA leaders is to remind families through as many channels as possible, and with plenty of time to plan. Chancellor’s Regulations CR A 660 require a 10-day notification, but we know that busy families need to be reminded again—and again—up until the day before the meeting. Every school has its own culture of communication, and especially in very large schools or in middle school and high school, where parents do not drop off/pick up their children, the communication challenge gets even trickier, but in general these are the most effective forms of publicizing upcoming meetings and agendas:

  • flyer backpacked home
  • robocall to home or text message (if your school has the software)
  • email if you have an e-newsletter
  • posting on the school website
  • announcement over the school PA/PTA system reminding students to remind their parent/guardian
  • school Facebook page
  • face to face reminders through the parent coordinator or principal at pick up or drop off

Low numbers in attendance at monthly meetings don’t necessarily mean your families don’t care, so it becomes the job of the PTA /PA leaders to do what they can to draw in their constituents (you can, by the way, feel comfortable reaching out to your Parent Coordinator for assistance in boosting meeting attendance, as directed by CR A-660). The effort is worth it, especially when you consider cases where 10-15 people in a school community– or sometimes even fewer– are making the decisions on behalf of a total population that can include thousands of families (quorum is usually 8 voting members for anything that must be approved by the membership, from budgets and spending decision, to electing officers, to approving policies that require PA/PTA votes, such as approval of a student non-attendance day.) You obviously can’t get everyone to every meeting, so set realistic expectations, make an attendance goal that feels right for your community, then try some of these strategies to get you there– or be creative and try something new. And let us know how it goes!

Natalie Green Giles is currently the PTA president at Bard High School Early College (Manhattan). She served as the President of the D15 Presidents’ Council and Co-president of the MS 51 PA, and formerly as chairperson of the P.S. 29 SLT. She also served as the chair of the Nominating Committee for the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council and sits on the Bard High School Early College SLT.