PTA participation helps students, staff at Whatcom County schools

Sarah Murphy-Kangas knows it’s not always easy to show up at a PTA meeting for the first time. She was once that parent.

“Sometimes you have parents who have known each other for a while and some know all the teachers,” Murphy-Kangas said. “I felt a little lost. So I just started asking questions and volunteered.”

Her first assignment was simple: bake a batch of cookies for staff appreciation week.

Murphy-Kangas is now co-president of the Roosevelt Elementary PTA. The PTA raises thousands of dollars each year that support Roosevelt students in a variety of enrichment programs as well as support classroom teachers with technology and other supplies.

PTAs, organized through the Washington State PTA, work with teachers and administrators at each school to find out what students need, and what teachers need to enrich students’ school experience that year.

Many PTAs, like at Roosevelt, fund a variety of projects and activities tailored to each school, including most of the transportation for field trips, new technology for classrooms, books, and special performances by dancers or other artists.

Each of Bellingham’s 22 schools and a majority of the schools throughout Whatcom County have a PTA (Parent Teacher Association) or PTSA (the “S” stands for student).

Bellingham School District sees parent organizations as a partnership with students, families and the community, said Superintendent Greg Baker.

“We are so grateful for the amazing work our parent groups do on behalf of our schools staff and students,” Baker said.

In addition to PTAs, the school district also hosts the Parent Advisory Committee, which has representatives from each school’s parent organization. The committee is one way for the district to distribute information about new programs and curriculum as well as collect feedback.

A typical PTA membership in Washington is under $20, which gives PTA members voting rights at meetings. And while you don’t have to be a PTA member to volunteer at a school, it’s a great way to find out about what’s happening at the school, find new volunteer opportunities, and connect with other families and staff.

At the middle and high school level, PTSAs typically are umbrella organizations for sports, academic or other booster groups as well.

Kim Ninnemann, president of Bellingham High School PTSA said she fell into her leadership role when the position opened.

“It’s not very glamorous,” she said laughing.

Ninnemann said she understands why PTA involvement drops off in middle and high school, since kids are more independent and some stay-at-home parents, who were active during elementary school, return to work full-time.

Most parent organizations understand the limits of many families in terms of time and energy, she said. All of the parents on her board work full-time and they adjust schedules and volunteer time to everyone’s busy life.

“When I lead meetings, there’s not a lot of pressure to volunteer if someone really doesn’t want to,” Ninnemann said. Instead, many volunteer assignments are sent out by email so people aren’t put on the spot at the meeting.

She sees value for parents in contributing volunteer time at the school, citing a variety of research that shows that kids do better in school and are more likely to graduate on time when their parents are involved in their classroom or school activities.

At Roosevelt Elementary, the school’s biggest fundraiser is the annual walk-a-thon. The schools’ 450 students raised $23,000 this fall through donations from family and friends. Murphy-Kangas said the parent in charge of the walk-a-thon is currently mentoring next year’s organizer. That kind of planning not only encourages more volunteers, but helps sustain a strong PTA membership who might otherwise worry that once a strong volunteer is gone, longtime fundraisers and events will fail.

A portion of the money raised by Roosevelt PTA pays for an extensive after-school club roster that lets students pick and choose activities. While some activities are free, others have a small fee to pay for instructors. Lego club, tennis, Wild Whatcom, art classes and hip hop dance are just a few of the clubs offered. Students are also given full or partial scholarships if they can’t afford a fee to participate.

Funds also go toward travel and transportation for the school choir, class parties for holidays, an annual ice cream social for the school, and a garden education program for all students.

Roosevelt Elementary School Principal Tom Gresham said PTAs give principals and teachers the ability to give all students a full school experience that is both educational and fun.

“When parents work together, it makes the PTA and the school stronger,” he said.

To find information about the PTA or PTSA in your school, contact the school office. In Bellingham School District, look your school’s website under the “For Families” tab.