Overview: How to Engage Underrepresented Groups

In This Section



Reaching out to traditionally underrepresented groups is an essential step in maintaining the strength of PTA’s grassroots advocacy. Following are simple steps that local PTAs can take to engage and empower every family:

  1. Do a self-assessment.
  2. Create effective messaging.
  3. Promote meaningful family engagement.
  4. Create community connections.
  5. Serve as an information resource for parents, families, educators and community groups.

Do a Self-Assessment

Start with a diversity profile of your PTA families, school and community. In your PTA area, what demographic data are available to help you learn more about school-age children, their families and their neighborhoods?[1] Such information might include income levels, race/ethnicity, family configurations, special needs, religious preferences and geographic distribution. How well does the current membership and leadership of your PTA reflect these demographics? What other significant differences characterize the children, families, neighborhoods and schools served by your PTA? The online version of this Toolkit includes a useful Diversity & Inclusion Worksheet to assist with your Diversity Profile. 

Then, define your target audiences. Which groups are not as well represented in your PTA structure and practices? Which groups are difficult to reach because of language, geography, cultural perspectives or religious differences, or have been resistant to a PTA membership invitation?

Then, inventory your communication resources, opportunities and challenges in reaching out to these underrepresented groups: 

  • Resources. Consider what outreach resources are available from individual volunteers, your schools, and community groups and organizations: talents, materials, money, time, goods and services. What are the school policies on distributing flyers, displaying posters and using parent listservs? Remember that the National PTA website includes marketing materials in both English and Spanish.
  • Opportunities. What prescheduled school or community events provide an opportunity for connecting with every family, including those from traditionally underrepresented groups?
  • Challenges. Which languages are used in the schools? Do you have translators (paid or volunteer) for each language present in your community? How do you contact local media (radio, television)? Do you have the money, facilities and talent to produce messages in both print and digital forms? Which forms of communication are most accessible and useful for your target audience(s)? 

Other questions to ask when assessing your PTA’s communication practices include the following:

  • Are materials informative, published regularly and accessible by all families?
  • Do the school and your PTA provide opportunities for families and staff to share information in a variety of ways (e.g., email, home visits, phone calls, printed materials)?
  • Is it easy and convenient for parents to contact teachers and provide feedback to the school around policies and issues of concern?

Create Effective Messaging

Effective messaging requires more than just providing clear, accurate and useful information or persuasive arguments for the value of PTA. To be most effective, messages must be adapted to the perspectives, needs and concerns of their target audiences. Groups that have not historically participated in PTA may not understand the benefits of participating or may not feel a connection to the issues for which PTA advocates. Becoming familiar with what matters most to the families and communities you seek to engage will help you adapt your messaging about PTA to these audiences.

Some tips for effective messaging:

  • Begin by asking. What do these families need to understand about the benefits of PTA? For those who are not familiar with PTA, it may be 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.
  • Make and maintain contact. A primary strategy should be to talk frequently with members of the families or groups you are trying to reach. Personal relationships are critical in making people feel welcome, understood and respected. Maintaining communication is critical; the basis for PTA involvement will be created not just from an initial welcome but through ongoing interaction. Mentoring underrepresented parents and families can help them understand informal expectations and informal rules. Be careful to be culturally sensitive. Avoid blunt questions about differences, and be vigilant about preconceptions and making inferences.

National PTA offers an e-learning course, “Cultural Competency,” to help PTAs build more effective relationships across cultural groups. It can be found in the National PTA E-learning Library.

  • Make messaging a two-way, ongoing process. Frame your message about PTA in ways that relate to the needs and concerns of your target audiences. Put your message in their terms, their language, and the forms they prefer. Ask for feedback and listen carefully. Be prepared to change in response to feedback, to show people that their perspective matters.
  • Remember that you are always communicating. What you do and how you do it speak as loudly as your carefully crafted messages. Where people sit; who talks with whom; how differences are recognized, respected and accommodated; which differences go unrecognized or are treated as unimportant; and even routine methods of conducting PTA meetings and events can make people feel more or less welcome. For example: single working parents may have different time constraints and child care needs than two-parent working families. How are these differences addressed when planning a PTA meeting or event?
  • Use the resources available from National PTA for help with presentations. Examples of resources include PowerPoint presentations, an e-learning course called “Creating and Delivering a Speech,” and a PTA One Voice blog series on Best Practices for Effective Presentations.

Promote Meaningful Family Engagement

Research shows that there are good reasons to develop family engagement. Across income and background differences, students whose families are engaged are more successful. Parental engagement also has been shown to be an essential ingredient in improving schools in urban, low-income areas.

There are three critical aspects of family engagement:

  • Shared school-family responsibilities and meaningful opportunities for family involvement
  • “Cradle to career” family involvement
  • Expanded arenas for engagement beyond the classroom

Follow the PTA National Standards for Family-School Partnerships

  1. Create a welcoming PTA climate and contribute to a respectful, inclusive school community.
  2. Communicate effectively with regular, two-way, meaningful communication about student learning.
  3. Support student success by sharing information between parents and teachers and creating meaningful opportunities for family involvement in student development and learning.
  4. Speak up for every child by helping families understand how the school system works and empowering families to be self-advocates.
  5. Share power by giving all families a voice in decision-making and developing connections between families and local and state officials.
  6. Connect families to community resources and develop the school as a community hub.

Create a strategic plan for engaging diverse families. National PTA offers a number of resources to support you in reaching out to a variety of families. One way to focus your self-assessment, outreach and engagement activities is to enroll in the National PTA School of Excellence program, which is designed to promote family-school partnerships for enriching children’s educational experiences and well-being.

The PTA One Voice blog is a regular source for tips shared by PTA leaders around the nation. See especially, “How to Engage All Families” (February 2015). National PTA also offers programs specifically for engaging families, such as the Family Reading Experience and Annual Take Your Family to School Week. You also can find great ideas for activities and programming by reviewing information about past winners of National PTA awards such as the Jan Harp Domene Diversity and Inclusion Award and the Phoebe Apperson Hearst Awards.

Strategies for engaging specific groups are shared through the Every Child in Focus series and in the following section of this Toolkit.

Create Community Connections

Which groups and organizations are active in the neighborhoods served by your PTA? Not only can partnering with such organizations create greater shared resources and alliances to serve families and schools, but these groups can help connect you with traditionally underrepresented families through their own activities, leaders and members.

Some tips to consider:

  • Reach out to social clubs, service agencies, public libraries and parks, civic organizations, foundations, police and fire stations, hospitals, religious organizations and community service groups.
  • In deciding which groups to engage, ask yourself: What can these groups potentially bring to a collaborative relationship with PTA that would be useful, valuable or a resource in advocating for children? Consider the ways that potential partners’ missions overlap with PTA goals, as well as any challenges in reaching out to these groups.
  • Collaborate with community-based organizations that serve target populations. For example, developing partnerships with organizations that serve Hispanic families can create important alliances.
  • Additional resources for creating community connections can be found in the online version of this Toolkit under Best Practices. They include: “Building and Working with Communities” and Collaborative Leadership.”

Serve as an Information Resource for Parents, Families, Educators and Community Groups

Families and community groups are more likely to partner with PTA when they see the benefits that PTA provides. Some ways you can demonstrate your value to the school and community include the following:

  • Provide information about current issues. Make use of PTA position statements and resolutions.
  • Distribute information about community resources that serve cultural, recreational, academic, health, social and other needs of families and educators.
  • Provide information to the community, including those without school-age children, about school programs, events and needs.
  • Empower parents with access to conference workshops and e-learning modules on parenting skills.
  • Publicize information about National PTA’s corporate sponsors and discounts.
  • Spread the word about PTA leadership and training opportunities, including Emerging Minority Leader Conferences, state and national conventions, and the online E-Learning Library.

[1] Some sources for local demographic data include the KIDS COUNT data center (http://datacenter.kidscount.org/), National Center for Education Statistics (http://nces.ed.gov/programs/maped/), and Pew Research Center (http://www.pewhispanic.org/).