Course is Clear
by Joel Rubin, L.A. Times, June 27, 2004
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When the doors
to the national Parent-Teacher Assn. convention swung open
Saturday in Anaheim, delegates had a smorgasbord of workshops
from which to choose. Mixed in with lectures on the latest
trends in teen sexual behavior and child obesity were
discussions on race and money that go to the heart of the
advocacy group's future.
PTA leaders say that if the group is to remain a force, it will
need to strengthen and diversify its membership in the face of
dramatic demographic shifts, changing social norms and increased
competition for members, money and time.
"With everything we do, we are trying to be more relevant," said
Warlene Gary, the organization's recently appointed CEO. "This
is an environment where the kids have changed, the issues in
schools have changed and we're dealing with some issues we've
never seen before."
The conference, which runs through Monday at the Anaheim
Convention Center, is expected to draw 2,500 delegates from
throughout the country.
Founded in 1897, the PTA is the nation's oldest and largest
volunteer education advocacy group. Along with fundraising by
local school chapters and political lobbying on education
issues, the PTA has been a leader in tackling major social
welfare issues such as polio inoculation in the 1950s and
preventing child tobacco use a decade later.
Membership peaked in the early 1960s at about 12 million, and
today claims about 6 million members, a million in California.
Gary acknowledged, however, that the national total is likely
inflated as local chapters often double-or triple-count parents
who have multiple children at different schools.
Most vexing to PTA leadership is a membership that remains about
90% white and mostly female. The organization's future, Gary and
other leaders said, rests on its ability to diversify.
"We have a huge amount of work to do if we want to remain a
viable organization," said Carla Niño, president of the
California PTA and the group's first Latino state chief. "We
need to redefine the face of the PTA and look like our
A pilot program to draw Latinos to its Southern California,
Texas and Florida chapters registered 18,000 new members and
trained several Latinos for posts on national committees.
Officials hope to expand the program and said next year's
convention will focus heavily on improving diversity.
However, delegates said efforts to diversify are hampered by
immigrant parents who often work more than one job and come from
cultures that lack a tradition of school volunteerism.
"It's a struggle to get [Latino] parents involved," said Perla
Mondragon, who recently joined the PTA at Trinity Elementary
school in Los Angeles. "I tell them that we have to get involved
in every aspect of our kids' lives."
In pushing for more immigrant and minority members, the PTA is
reaching out to communities that can give time but not money,
Gary and others said.
"You have to consider that a lot of these kids go home to
families where there is not enough money for basic needs," said
Ann Adams, who heads a PTA at an inner-city Chicago school. "Of
course they're not going to be able to help."
A sluggish economy has meant fundraising shortfalls for PTA
chapters nationwide. Like many delegates, Shawnee Poling, a PTA
treasurer from rural Oklahoma, said her chapter aims to raise
about $35,000 each year. This year's main drive fell $10,000
short -- and forced the chapter to work overtime to make up the
At the same time, Poling and other parents said, cash-strapped
school principals are leaning on PTAs to purchase school
equipment and supplies traditionally covered by district
The PTA is also competing with an increasing number of
independent parent organizations that forgo the national
hierarchy of the PTA to focus exclusively on local school
Gary said such groups are selfishly adopting a "my school, my
child mentality," but proponents of these PTA alternatives say
they welcome being free of the organization's extensive rules
and state and national membership dues.
PTA leaders say they are determined to confront challenges to
ensure that the group remains a vital link between parents and
"It will take some time to turn this ship," Niño said. "But the
fact is, we have to start."
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