The transition from middle school to high school can be a difficult time for students—filled with unfamiliar faces, new cliques, and a different set of rules.
Parents of new high school students may face similar challenges when walking into an unfamiliar Parent-Teacher Association—especially when trying to raise tough questions about budgets, curriculum, and testing.
But those sensitive topics are exactly why parents should become active members of the PTA at their child's new school, says Chelsea Gladden, PTA member in California and cofounder of the parenting website BreezyMama.com.
"At PTA meetings, often times budget allocation decisions are made. This can mean that the art program is cut in favor of keeping the science program, or vice versa," Gladden says. "If parents have a preference in decisions that affect their child's education, such as curriculum, they should be at these meetings."
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The following advice from parents, PTA board members, and the president of the National PTA can help parents know how and when to ask difficult questions of their new PTA group.
1. Don't judge; listen: Instead of showing up to the first meeting armed with solutions to all of the challenges at your child's school, talk to the other PTA members about how the group handled specific issues in the past, says Gladden.
"I think it can be easy to judge what is happening or decisions that have been made before attending a PTA meeting," she says.
Listening to how the group reached a decision can give a parent insight into obstacles and factors he or she may not have considered.
"Many times, policies put into place are a result of [PTA members] having their backs against the wall, so to speak, when it comes to budget cuts or other limiting factors," she says.
2. Take initiative; ask questions: The PTA should be an open, transparent forum where parents can ask anything, but few parents actually raise any questions, says Gary Parkes, a PTA president and board member in Georgia.
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Bringing issues to the table—even uncomfortable topics, such as money—can prompt the PTA to examine its policies, ultimately helping the group to function more effectively, Parkes says.
"A few years ago, when the economy started slipping, several parents were hesitant to ask the PTA to reassess the staff appreciation events that many considered too frequent," he says. "It was awkward for many, but fortunately a few people did come forward with their suggestions and we modified our staff appreciation events accordingly."
There is an appropriate time and place for questions, though, Parkes says. General PTA meetings are often for tending to items such as minutes approvals and financial updates; the real work happens in committee meetings. Parkes advises new members to take concerns directly to a board member or attend committee meetings.
"It is less intimidating for the new member," he says. "And it allows for a healthier dialogue that is not rushed like a formal meeting might be."
3. Put your time in; volunteer: Just as incoming freshmen often have to earn the respect of upperclassmen, new PTA members need to show the group they are committed.
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Volunteering for a fundraiser, activity, or committee is the best way to show you want to be more than a wallflower, says Betsy Landers, president of the National PTA, a volunteer-based child advocacy group.
"That's what we do," Landers says. "And we love our volunteers."
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