11 October 2009

Dinosaurs in Our Midst

I've been thinking a lot about a recent WaPo article on a district's choice to disband its Parent-Teacher Association (PTA).

From a high mark of 12 million in the 1960s, national PTA membership has dropped to a little more than 5 million. Although school enrollments have ballooned, the PTA lost a million members in the past decade alone. Through the years, Washington's inner suburbs have been high-profile exceptions to the general decline. More than 90 percent of the schools in Fairfax, Arlington and Montgomery counties have PTAs, for instance, compared with about 25 percent nationally.

But even here, there are worrisome signs for the future of the PTA.

"I think it's time we join the nation," Catherine Potter, Woodson High PTSA's past president, told the assembled parents and a few jersey-clad students last week. She argued that the national group is too bureaucratic and less relevant in the Internet age, when parents have access to education-related news from Richmond or Washington and can get involved politically in other ways.

While I'm not so sure that "the rest of the nation is jumping off a bridge, so we should, too" argument is the best reasons for disbandment, I do think one of the key pieces here is the "Internet age."

In an era of email, Facebook fan pages and Twitter accounts for schools, blog-savvy parents with an axe to grind, and any other number of options, is a brick and mortar organization (like the PTA) still relevant? I believe so. Schools are still places where people meet and learn---virtual support isn't going to be enough when it comes to doing the best we can for all kids (not just the ones whose parents have a special interest wheel to squeak). That being said, organizations like the PTA are only as relevant as they choose to be.

PTA leaders say they are struggling to communicate their message to a new generation of parents.

"The question is, 'What have you done for me lately?' " said Michele Menapace, president of the Fairfax County Council of PTAs. "And we need to do a better job telling them" that the PTA is involved in issues they care about...

Nehrbass, of the Virginia PTA, said it's getting harder to convince parents that it matters to be involved in issues affecting more than their children or their school.

Working alone, for instance, parents can raise money for a computer their school cannot afford because of budget cuts, she said. Working together, they can fill a boardroom to fight for more education funding.

To reverse the decline in membership, the national PTA is trying to redraw the face of children's advocacy. It's reaching out to fathers and training minority leaders to organize growing numbers of immigrant parents. It is also appealing to younger parents through social networking sites.

The elementary school I was a part of two years ago had a terrible time trying to sustain its PTA. Whether it was the dues (a "luxury" for a family living in poverty), the meetings (when parents were working two jobs and/or relying on public transportation and/or had no one to watch the children), or just an aversion to being in a school, I don't know. I do know that those students, more than any, needed a group advocating for them. There needed to be something different with the structure and purpose.

If the PTA is going to evade a dinosaur-like ending to its existence, it is going to have to adapt to the changing form of the American family, as well as the shifting landscape of how people organize and communicate.

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