A+ Advice for Parents

Q: The PTO president wants me to apply to be a parent representative on our school site council. While I'm active at school, I'm not a curriculum or budget expert. What skills do I need to be effective?

A: If the PTO president is encouraging you to apply, he or she sees that you have the skills, disposition and commitment to be successful.

School site councils usually consist of an administrator, teachers, parents and classified employees, such as custodians and aides. Some members are elected; others appointed. Members advocate for all parents and represent the interests of the entire student body, not just their own children.

"You don't need to be a budget whiz or know your state's learning standards inside out to be effective," says Bill Jackson, founder of GreatSchools, an online academic resource for parents and teachers. "You need to be willing to listen and evaluate data before making a decision and to communicate the importance of the school's improvement efforts to other parents."

The job of the council is to focus on things that really matter in boosting student achievement, says Jackson.

"It's to work with the administration to develop, review and evaluate school improvement programs and budgets," he explains. "It isn't to decide if the cafeteria should be painted yellow and blue or whether PTO fundraisers should disallow high-calorie treats. School site councils are most successful when their work is about overall student performance. If not, members are wasting their time."

The most effective PTO councils focus on four areas: academic achievement, school safety, parent engagement and discipline. Jackson says council members should grapple with these issues:

Consider the goals and priorities of the school, and determine if there is data that shows how well the school is achieving those goals. Look at the progression toward goals and ask if there are groups of students not doing as well as others. If so, consider what programs and supports can be put in place to help the students as well as how those programs will be structured and funded.

Members of the PTO also look at current programs to determine if they are ineffective or unrelated to the overall goals. If so, they may look at eliminating them.

Next, consider these questions: Can you deal with group dynamics? Can you keep your eye on big goals without getting caught in the weeds? Do you have enough time for the homework required to understand and debate policies? Do you have thick enough skin to live through arguments? Can you work outside your comfort zone, communicating the school's policies to the community?

"For example," asks Jackson, "can you help parents who don't see the value of benchmark testing understand why it is important to know where a student is strong or weak to adjust instruction?"

Many times, good policies get scuttled when rumors are passed along among parents. "They fail not for lack of effectiveness, but because parents don't understand them," says Jackson. "Council members have an important role in helping other parents understand why the school has a certain homework or testing program."

Attend a meeting as an observer. Talk with current and former PTO members. If you think you'll enjoy the involvement, then sign on, says Jackson: "Schools need the leadership of parents like you."

For more information, go to greatschools.org.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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