Playtime: The benefits of joining your school PTA

I recently went to my first school board meeting. As someone who has carefully avoided manning the games at our school’s Harvest (read: Halloween) festival since 2011, that is certainly not something I could have forecasted, but there I was taking my three minutes during a public comment portion.

The road from occasional, reluctant classroom volunteer to lady taking her allotted time at the podium is certainly not one I expected to take, but circumstances changed along the way. Both my sons were diagnosed with learning disabilities, I’ve been through the IEP and 504 process numerous times for each, and as a result, I needed to work less, so I had some time. Having seen the positive effect some of these groups have had at local schools and even at the district level, along with enjoying my own time supporting a local parents group, I want to tell you all about our district’s PTAs and similar parent groups. Whether it’s as something to join, a resource or an avenue to advocate for your student, after looking into it, I found out that you don’t have to join the PTA to benefit from it.

I can’t seem to talk about the PTA without talking about the stereotype. They make movies about the “busybody” PTA mom — they’re exclusionary or misuse the “power” their status holds or have no interests outside of their kids. I asked someone in my family in the generation before mine about the PTA in the ’80s and they used the word “yuppie,” so an unfavorable view isn’t new.

I have applied the stereotype too. When I first met one of my closest friends, I suppressed a groan when she told me she was the president of a parents group — by the way a post you have to take for two years… in a row! However, knowing her gave me a bird’s eye view of what groups like these can do and that, while these stereotypical people exist, making these volunteers (or really anyone) a monolith was not appropriate.

I was nervous about covering the topic, as the last thing I want is to add any pressure to those with students in school — there are already a million and one Pinterest boards and parenting articles shared on Facebook for that. Not all of us love to volunteer at school and not all of those who love it are able to. There are also issues of privilege and inequity in fundraising and the number of volunteers and, of course, a subject Melinda Gates talks about, the “unpaid labor” women do as caregivers. My goal here is to share information about some benefits of joining the PTA and share the info on how to either join or ask for help from your school’s PTA.

Let’s get started with a quick rundown of the acronyms, mainly because I needed to learn them. A PTA is a Parent Teacher Association — this means they are a member of the National PTA, which has existed for over 120 years. This also means they collect dues, which are roughly $7 to $10 depending on your group and in part, are distributed to the district, state and national PTAs. A PTO is a Parent Teacher Organization and while they may do similar things, they don’t have a national group and therefore don’t have dues — sports or music booster clubs fall into this group . A PTSA or PTSO, with the “s” for student, adds students to the mix. In the Edmonds School District, there are other groups that have parent involvement including EAACH, Equity Alliance for Achievement. There is also SEAC, Special Education Advisory Council, which I found and started supporting after the private Educational Advocate we use to navigate the special education process said that a group like SEAC (formerly the Special Education PTSA) was the place to make real change if needed.

Given my personal PTA inexperience, I reached out to Monica Wheaton, the 2019-2020 Co-President for the Edmonds School District and Edmonds Parent Leader group. Wheaton is a friend of mine whom I recently ran into at the aforementioned school board meeting. We talked about her time contributing to the district’s Blueprint 2025 — which will have its final vote at the Aug. 13 School Board meeting; the Edmonds Parent Leaders group she is in; and the whole “unpaid labor” thing.

In 2017, Wheaton — along with district parents Shelby Reynolds, Valerie Rosman and Heidi Owen — brought back the previously defunct Edmonds School District PTA Council. They also have the Edmonds Parent Leaders group, “Serving the Parent Support Organizations of the Edmonds School District,” which is there to coordinate between all the groups — PTAs/PTOs/Booster Clubs — and share resources. She bristles at the versions of PTA parents in movies, etc. In her experience, these groups “ serve a purpose to build community, strengthen family relationships with the schools, and provide great support and resources for the schools” while also being a voice for parents in the district and keeping people informed of what is going on. Wheaton said of the Edmonds Parent Leaders group, which you can find on Facebook, “Another goal of ours is definitely to try to spread the wealth” — talking about the inequity in the schools in regard to not only money, but also volunteer hours.

As a step in that direction, this year the Edmonds Parent Leaders took over the management of Edmonds Comedy Night, an event that parents started to get a new playground at their school. In previous years, parent groups would sign up to be included in the drop down list of options of who would benefit when buying your Edmonds Comedy Night tickets. The Edmonds Parent Leaders made sure that each group in the district was represented in the list this year — though those buying tickets can still choose which organization to support. I should add, they also currently looking for Comedy Night volunteers, each of whom get $250 to allocate to the group of their choice. The group also has quadrant-based efforts to get students and their caregivers networking with the families they’ll meet in older grades and the schools networking to share and utilize resources.

Edmonds School District Parent Leaders meet in 2017.

If you choose to join your school’s PTA, the cost varies per group and is roughly $7 to $10 with scholarships available. Wheaton confirmed that you don’t HAVE to go to each meeting or even volunteer if you become a member. Becoming a member of your school’s PTA allows you to advocate for the students and provide enrichment. Wheaton also says that besides giving parents an opportunity to develop relationships with the staff at their school — as well as with other parents — the PTA offers work experience (marketing, outreach). I found out from my own PTA’s Facebook page another bonus to your membership: The Washington State PTA offers discounts to members on things like car rentals and Wild Waves admission. When I went to the state website and tried to follow the link, WAStatePTA.org, I got the message “a new online join site will be available for the 2019-2020 school year in August 2019 after the new database is in place.” If you do choose to join, that will be where you eventually register.

If you don’t want to join your school’s parent group and you are in need of resources, connecting with the PTA may be an option for you. If you follow their Facebook pages, they often post school updates and upcoming events. If your student’s class needs supplies for an art project or wants to go to a certain field trip, you can reach out to your school’s PTA. As another example, if you need assistance renting an instrument or joining an extracurricular activity at school, the band director or advisor can contact the PTA, which may be able to allocate funds to the program. If you have a school-related concern or issue, they can help point you in the right direction or connect you with the appropriate district contact.

On a national level, Wheaton showed me that the National PTA has some great information on their site about the group’s origin and advocacy. They also offer a “Special Education Toolkit,” which includes a webinar called “The Ins and Outs of Special Education: Help for Families of Children with Special Needs” and a section on how to begin the special education process. You can find both subjects, and more at PTA.org.

If you need help finding your PTA online, getting a better idea of this is a fit for you, or if you have concerns regarding inclusion in your PTA, you can contact Monica Wheaton at President@EdmondsPTACouncil.org.

— By Jennifer Marx

Jen Marx, an Edmonds mom of two boys, is always looking for a fun place to take the kids that makes them tired enough to go to bed on time.

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