News from the Illinois PTA Convention—School of Excellence Program

At first glance, Kreitner Elementary School in Collinsville looks like a school that would be struggling to get families involved. The Pre-K through fourth grade school has just under 400 students, and 91% are from low-income families, 100% receive free lunch, 75% are Hispanic, and 53% are English Language Learners.

And a few years ago, it was a school struggling to involve families. The PTA was made up of three to five parents most years, all of whom were alumni of the school 30 years earlier, and PTA meetings might have a dozen parents show up. Hispanic families rarely came into the school.

Today, Kreitner PTA has as many as 200 people attending their PTA meetings, membership is up nearly 600%, student achievement is improving, and 95% of parents would recommend the school to others, based on the 5 Essentials Survey. What caused this dramatic change at Kreitner? The short answer is the National PTA School of Excellence program, described by Kreitner PTA treasurer and Special Education teacher Greg Hobbs simply as, “The best thing a PTA can do.”

Starting the Process

At the 2017 Illinois PTA Convention, PTA leaders and staff from Kreitner shared how they had used the National PTA School of Excellence program to engage the families at their school and transform both their PTA and their school. The School of Excellence program begins with the PTA choosing a focus for their efforts. At Kreitner, that focus was family engagement because everyone involved felt that issue was critical to everything else they wanted to happen at the school.

The next step in the process is to survey families about the school. The program offers an online survey, but only about 70% of Kreitner families have internet access at home, so the PTA felt that the online survey wouldn’t work for them. They set up a paper survey with the questions in English on one side of the paper and in Spanish on the other side. To encourage families to return the surveys, they offered a drawing for a Walmart gift card from among those who responded. PTA leaders then spent a fair amount of time entering those responses online.

Surprising Results

The results of the survey were surprising to both PTA leaders and school administrators. The School of Excellence survey is designed to give schools and PTAs a mapping of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as providing a “Roadmap to Excellence” that the PTA can use to work towards their goal. PTA leaders and school administrators had long assumed that the reason Hispanic families did not come to PTA meetings or events was due to the language barrier. What the survey showed, however, was that these families did not feel welcome at the school or in the PTA.

Transforming a PTA and a School

Based on the results of the survey and using the Roadmap to Excellence, Kreitner PTA developed a plan to welcome every family into the school. They began by working with their school district to translate PTA materials into Spanish and convinced the district to pay for a translator at their PTA meetings.

They worked to get teachers on board with the PTA as well. Their “Building a Strong PTA” membership drive had each teacher who joined the PTA get a cutout of a hammer with their name on it posted on their door (and classroom aides who joined added a second hammer). When families joined the PTA, a nail was added to each teacher’s door that had a child from that family. They held a drawing for a $25 gift card for classroom supplies for the teacher whose class had the highest percentage of membership by the end of October. The result was every teacher joining the PTA, including all of the traveling teachers who were only at the school part time.

Member Benefits

With all of the teachers on board and a growing number of families joining, Kreitner PTA then decided to provide some local member benefits for joining the PTA. Every year the PTA would have a fall festival that served as their primary fundraiser. Families would purchase tickets for students to participate in games and activities for $0.25 each and could purchase a hot dog for $1.00 at the festival. For PTA members, Kreitner provided PTA members a couple of activity tickets and a free hot dog for each child in the family. Families could purchase a PTA membership at the door, so some families could actually save more than they spent on a PTA membership that night alone.

While the member benefits cost the PTA at the door, they still made money at the festival through additional ticket and hot dog sales. Membership jumped to 147, up from 25 the year before. The real benefit for Kreitner PTA, though, was getting many more families coming through the school door and becoming familiar with the PTA, teachers, and staff.

Involving the Kids

So how did Kreitner PTA get 200 people at a PTA meeting? By including the kids at many PTA meetings. They helped form a dance team that does traditional Mexican dances and had them perform at a meeting. Another PTA meeting featured a schoolwide talent show, while another featured artworks for sale created by every student.

Before the PARCC assessments last spring, they hosted a PARCC Pizza Night for students and families. Families could choose to hear the program in either English or Spanish, rather than the English with Spanish translation that the PTA uses for most events and meetings. Students attended with their families and could demonstrate what they had learned that year and how they were ready for the PARCC assessment. The PTA included a drawing for one of three gift cards as well to encourage families to attend.

The End Result

Kreitner PTA completed its follow-up survey last spring and was named a National PTA School of Excellence. But beyond the recognition, Kreitner PTA leaders noted a significant milestone for the PTA. Even as more Hispanic families attended PTA meetings with the translator translating everything, PTA business was generally conducted with the English-speaking parents making motions and contributing most of the discussion on those motions before everyone voted. However, at a recent PTA meeting, a motion was made in Spanish, discussed in Spanish, and the vote conducted in Spanish, all with English translation.

That is not to say that Kreitner PTA still doesn’t face challenges. Post-election immigration fears have reduced the number of Hispanic families attending PTA and school events, and PTA leaders and school staff are working to deal with those concerns. However, everyone involved with the School of Excellence program feel that it has provided them with the tools, insight, and ability to address these challenges as well as any future ones.

Sign Up Your PTA for the School of Excellence Program

Sign-up for the National PTA School of Excellence program begins in early April and runs through October 15. Keep an eye on the National PTA webpage on the program as well as National PTA and Illinois PTA social media for the launch of the 2017-2018 program. While you are waiting, you can share the results of the 2015-2016 School of Excellence program with your principal and superintendent. Those results include a 30% increase in families’ perceptions of how their child’s school is doing on all six of the PTA National Standards for Family-School Partnerships.

Micro-Volunteering and Your PTA

Is your PTA struggling to find volunteers? Are people afraid to join your PTA because you are always asking for volunteers to handle big jobs? If so, your PTA might want to look into micro-volunteering.

What is Micro-Volunteering?

One of the biggest challenges in finding volunteers is people who say they have no time. Micro-volunteering is an approach to overcome that perceived lack of time. There is no agreed to definition of micro-volunteering, but the Institute for Volunteering Research identified eight defining features of most micro-volunteering:

  1. Duration: It involves small increments of time.
  2. Access: It is easy to get started and do.
  3. Immediacy: It is quick to start and complete, and requires minimal planning
  4. Convenience: You decide when and where.
  5. Level of Formality: No formal agreement between the organization and the volunteer is needed.
  6. Frequency: It can be a one-off or repeated.
  7. Activity: It involves discrete actions.
  8. Location: It can be online or offline.

Keep in mind that your PTA may not want to call micro-volunteering opportunities by that name. The term is more common among non-profit leaders and researcher than the general public, so people may not understand what you are looking for in a micro-volunteer. Consider other terms, such as micro-tasks, quick jobs, or whatever you think will resonate with your potential volunteers.

How Can Your PTA Use Micro-Volunteering?

Micro-volunteering won’t work for every job in the PTA, but there may be opportunities for your PTA to take advantage of it. Take a look at everything your PTA does and consider whether there are bits and pieces that could be done by one person, perhaps on their own schedule. Some possibilities might include:

  • Trimming and bundling box tops
  • Bringing a food item or paper goods to a teacher appreciation event
  • Contacting businesses for donations for an event
  • Cutting up materials for the Family Reading Experience
  • Editing the PTA newsletter
  • Maintaining the PTA Facebook page or Twitter account
  • Designing a flyer for an event
  • Providing the collection point for donations of materials for an event
  • Proofreading PTA materials
  • Staffing a welcome table at an event for 30 or 60 minutes

While the tasks assigned to micro-volunteers are often small, they are also usually critical to the success of your PTA. That means that you still need to provide some management for your micro-volunteers, including checking in to see if they have any questions or problems and thanking them publicly and privately for their help.

Potential Benefits of Micro-Volunteering

Very few PTA volunteers started out with a big task. Most started by doing something simple like helping to set up an event or bringing a treat to school. By engaging people in micro-volunteering activities, your PTA has the potential to turn at least some of them into volunteers willing to take on bigger jobs, whether it is organizing an event or serving as a PTA officer.

The key to moving your micro-volunteers along that path to bigger opportunities is to build a relationship with them. Consider providing an incentive (e.g., an entry into a drawing for a prime parking spot at a PTA or school event) for volunteering. Hold a strictly social event for all of your volunteers to thank them for their help (Note: National Volunteer Week is April 23-29, 2017). Use that social event to find out what led your micro-volunteers to step up, what they are looking for in their volunteering opportunities, and what your PTA could do better.

Also keep in mind that micro-volunteers may only pop up for one small task and then disappear. It is still important to make sure that even these one-shot volunteers know that their contribution is appreciated and respect their decision to volunteer again.

Resources on Micro-Volunteering

The Institute for Volunteering Research has created a guide for exploring and developing micro-volunteering in an organization, as well as a full report (with case studies) and a summary report on their research into micro-volunteering.

PTA’s Three for Me program has been helping PTA’s develop a micro-volunteer program for several years by getting parents to commit to volunteering for three hours over the course of the school year.

How Your PTA and Families Can Support National Reading Month

3321615408_7bb5356265_bMarch is National Reading Month, and kicks off with Read Across America Day on March 2, Dr. Seuss’s birthday. Your PTA and families can support reading both at school and in the home. Reading is a critically important skill for students to develop, and children who read 30 minutes each day progress faster and do better academically than their peers who read 15 minutes or less daily.

Host a PTA Family Reading Experience

National PTA has partnered with Amazon Kindle to bring the Family Reading Experience for kindergarten through grade 5. The program provides everything your PTA needs to host the event. At your event, there are six stations with literacy games for participants to play. Games are divided between kindergarten through grade 2 and grades 3 through 5. There are four different themes to use, so your PTA can host different events during the year or rotate themes each year. Most of the resources, including promotional materials, are available in Spanish as well as English to help support English Language Learners and their families. Plan your event today!

Supporting Reading at Home

The Getting Smart blog recently posted an article on four ways that adults can support child literacy. It included suggestions both for teachers at school and families at home. For families at home, the suggestions were:

  1. Make Time: Have a “Family Reading Time” when everyone in the family grabs their book and sits down to read at the same time.
  2. Provide Choice: Even the youngest child can pick which book to read, even if it’s just because they like books with red covers. Make sure the choice being made in your house is not to read or not to read, but what to read.
  3. Read to Kids: Reading to kids tends to taper off the more adept they become at reading, but children can understand much more than they are capable of reading on their own. Hearing words read to them before they come across them on their own can also help with learning pronunciation.
  4. Talk About Books: Has any child ever provided an informative answer to, “How was school today?” You will likely have a bit more success with, “What are you reading now?” and the answer can provide a jumping off point for further discussion: “Do you like it?” “Why?” “Who is your favorite character?”

Photo © 2006 courtesy of nedradio under Creative Commons license.

IRS Releases Updated Form 990-EZ

form-990-ez-topAs 501(c)3 organizations, PTAs are required to file some type of Form 990 with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) every year. That form is due on the 15th day of the fifth month after the end of their fiscal year. For PTAs whose fiscal year ends June 30th, the filing deadline is November 15th.

PTAs that have gross receipts (i.e., total income) that are normally less than $50,000 file the online electronic postcard Form 990-N. Those PTAs with gross receipts between $50,000 and $200,000 use the Form 990-EZ. The IRS has issued an updated version of Form 990-EZ to help non-profit organizations file the form correctly. PTAs will use the new form for fiscal years that end after September 30, 2016 (i.e., with a due date of February 15, 2017 or later).

After analyzing where organizations were making mistakes on the Form 990-EZ, the IRS added 29 new “help” icons in specific fields to describe the key information needed and to provide links to additional helpful resources on the IRS website. The new form’s help icons are small blue boxes marked with a question mark (see picture). The icons and links work on any device with Adobe Acrobat Reader and internet access.

The IRS is encouraging non-profit organizations that file the Form 990-EZ to fill it out electronically rather than on paper. In 2016, the error rate for electronically-filed Form 990-EZ returns was 1 percent, while the paper-filed error rate was 33 percent. Once completed, the online Form 990-EZ can be printed out and mailed to the IRS.

The IRS does caution that the new help icons do not replace the Form 990-EZ instructions, but only serve as an aid in filling out the form. PTAs should follow the Form 990-EZ instructions when completing their return.