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Improve Diversity to Make a Stronger PTA

By Caryl M. Stern

At the school my children attend, there are 410 students representing more than 40 countries. It is not unusual to hear a variety of languages being spoken as the children enter school each day. In fact, the school officially recognizes four languages—Chinese, Spanish, Korean, and, of course, English. The morning drop-off period looks like a meeting of the United Nations as parents proudly display their cultural attire. There is also a multitude of religions represented in the student body, and numerous family constructs—from single-parent families to same-sex-parent families to extended families living together in one home to multigenerational families. There are families in which both parents work outside the home, families with stay-at-home moms, families with stay-at-home dads, families with live-in child-care providers who play significant roles in the school community….I could go on and on.

As copresident of the parent group at my children’s elementary school—and as someone who has dedicated the majority of her career to teaching people to value diversity—I know that making this widely diverse group of families cohere into a single school family presents numerous unique challenges, not the least of which is ensuring diverse representation and involvement in the school’s parent group. That challenge—attracting and engaging parents of all backgrounds—is one that PTAs across the country are facing.

While people often are attracted to an organization because of its mission, volunteers tend to remain active because there are other people like themselves in the group. When people find themselves “the only one” of their kind at the first meeting they attend, they’re much less likely to stay involved. Here are some suggestions for creating an inclusive school and PTA where people feel welcome and want to stay involved.

Offer a welcoming environment

Examine your overall school environment, and note whether it tells a parent whose background, race, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, family structure, etc., is not that of the majority at the school that he or she is welcome, valued, and a significant part of the school community:

  • Is information about the school disseminated in multiple languages?
  • Are interpreters (professional interpreters or parent volunteers) available for those whose first language is a language other than English?
  • Do specific events require specific relationships that may not be present in every student’s home, or does the school take account of the various family arrangements when planning events?
  • Are the all-school cultural events reflective of only the culture of the majority, or are there opportunities to explore and place value on various cultures? Is there a mechanism for knowing how the school environment is perceived within various segments of the school community? Few people want to volunteer their time to something they feel does not value them.
  • Ask yourself what opportunities are provided to ensure that parents get to know one another and learn more about the various things that are important to each of them. If your PTA wants to diversify membership, it must offer opportunities for parents to expand their circles of acquaintances.

In my work, I often receive calls from people who say, for example, “I have just hired several people from another country. Can you tell me where I can go to learn how to provide them with a comfortable work environment?” I tell the callers they need not go anywhere other than to the people they just hired. Those people are their cultural experts. What the employer—and PTA leader—does need to do, however, is learn to ask questions in a way that makes the experts feel comfortable answering. To that end, here are a few suggestions:

  • Avoid questions that begin with the words “How do people from your country feel about…” Questions like this are offensive; they imply that all members of a particular group feel one way, which we know is not true.
  • Check out a question by first asking it of yourself. Think about the question and determine whether you would answer it if it were asked of you. Would you answer the question regardless of who asked it, or would the person asking it have to know you first?
  • What tone, body language, etc., would make you feel comfortable?
  • Conduct an anti-bias or diversity training program for your PTA and, keeping the previous tips in mind, practice asking questions about people’s cultures and beliefs.

Communicate the PTA’s goals

If parents are to get involved, they not only need to feel welcome in the school and PTA, but also need to feel that the work of PTA is worthwhile. Reflect on how the goals of your PTA are articulated. For those of us who have been educated in U.S. public schools, the purpose of PTA is clear; we do not need it defined. In many countries around the world, however, parents are not part of their children’s school communities. Parents from these countries do not understand the influence and benefits of PTA. For parents from some countries, an organization like PTA represents an unnecessary or inappropriate challenge to authority. It is important to spell out why PTA exists; what PTA has achieved; what PTA expects of members; and how parents’ membership  in PTA benefits themselves, their children, and the school community.

Create operational rules that encourage diversity

It is also important to look at the operational rules of your PTA. As a working mom, I could not be involved in (much less serve as president of) the parent group at my children’s school if meetings were held during the workday. When does your PTA meet? Examine not only times but also dates and places of meetings and events. When a meeting is held on a religious holiday, a clear message is sent about the unimportance of having members of the group observing that holiday participate in the meeting. When the room selected for a meeting is inaccessible to parents with disabilities, a clear message is sent. When food is served at a meeting and nothing is done to make it possible for a parent who observes religious food restrictions to partake with other members, a clear message is sent.

But operational rules go further than time, date, place, and food. Some other considerations:

  • How are decisions made?
  • Is the process clear to all members?
  • What is done to orient new members so they feel comfortable enough to participate?
  • How are unwritten rules shared? For example, you may not have a written rule against bringing children to PTA meetings, but it is customary that people do not. How is this information passed on?

There are many schools and PTAs that operate with only limited diversity. While these organizations may meet many of their objectives, they also miss out on many good experiences. A piece of music may be played beautifully by a single instrument, but it is the richness of a whole orchestra playing that brings the beauty of the song to its fullest potential. It is the same with PTA. If we are to truly prepare our children to live and succeed in this country, we must capitalize on our nation’s greatest strength—its diversity.

Caryl M. Stern, associate national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is co-author of Hate Hurts: How Children Learn and Unlearn Prejudice (Scholastic, 2000) and copresident of the parent group at P.S. 41 in Bayside, Queens, New York.