The history of the Mt. Lebanon PTA is hand-typed on crinkly onionskin paper, dating back to 1935 when Superintendent Dr. Harry V. Herlinger charged teachers with getting a support organization going. By October 22 of that year, PTAs were running in five district schools: Lincoln, Washington, Howe, Markham and the senior high. Work on forming a PTA Council to communicate state and federal issues to parents and to coordinate activities among schools began just one month later.
Initial goals were lofty: “To promote the welfare of children and youth in home, school, church and community; to raise the standards of home life; to secure adequate laws for the care and protection of children and youth; to bring into closer relationship the home and the school, that parents and teachers may cooperate intelligently in the training of the child; to develop between educators and the general public such united efforts as will secure for every child the highest advantages in physical, mental, social and spiritual education.”
Today, Mt. Lebanon PTAs—one at each of 10 schools—along with the PTA Council, continue to promote most of those goals, but the PTA also has adapted to changing times, adding many programs that serve ultra-busy kids and families while helping to reinforce what’s taught in class. Parents, teachers and administrators all have something to gain from the partnership.
“A key element of the success of our district is due to the long history of PTA involvement in our schools,” says Superintendent Tim Steinhauer.
PTA encourages parents to become engaged by providing valuable opportunities for them to take an active role in their children’s education.
“As a result, the strong bond between home and school creates an atmosphere of trust, accessibility and confidence in our schools. The benefits are many: Parents feel a genuine connection to their school, they are well informed and they become our best advocates.”
PTA activities of the ’30s and ’40s included war efforts, civil defense measures, scholarships, plays and juvenile protection. As time wore on, diphtheria immunization and tuberculosis X-rays took center stage, as did helping with Red Cross projects, selling war bonds and registering ration books. In 1949, the PTA took up the issue of “objectionable literature control” and “radio, movies and TV selection.”
As the PTA grew, playground safety was a hot topic. PTA members also conducted vision screenings at local preschools to try to catch problems before kids were in school.
By the 1990s, PTA members did not like the fact that busy school nurses were sometimes hard to access. Maybe the nurse was helping a child in the gym. Perhaps she was at another school building. Or in the restroom. Back then; most people didn’t have cell phones. So PTA members worked with then-Superintendent Glen Smartschan to come up with an answer: Nurses began wearing pagers, a cost-effective way to ensure they were reachable.
The PTA still attacks problems in the same collaborative way. At Jefferson Elementary, the PTA worked with principal Sarah Shaw to bring back lunch clubs so kids can learn and have fun during winter when they can’t use the playground. The PTA and principal also revived the science fair and the gardening club. “We have some really awesome principals working hand in hand with the presidents to get every program we need in the school,” says Christine Neavin, PTA president at Jefferson Elementary.
Some units hold fund-raisers such as selling Sarris candy, cutting box tops for education and sponsoring Election Day bake sales. But that’s a means to an end. The Mt. Lebanon PTA has always been about advocacy for children rather than fundraising for fund-raising’s sake, says Cissy Bowman, who first volunteered for the PTA in 1992. During her tenure, she served as PTA Council president and in 2003 became the district’s paid director of communications. The PTA also can be a stepping stone to the school board; school board president Mary Birks is a past president of PTA Council.
Today, maintaining a strong PTA is a challenge. In its early days, moms were at home with their children, and PTA was a way to interact with adults and gain leadership experience. That’s still true, but today, many parents work outside the home and their jobs leave less time for volunteer work. And their kids are busier, too, with more scheduled activities that often require a parent to drive them there, again cutting into time that might otherwise go to PTA activities. Districtwide PTA membership is down from 4,252 in 2004 to 3,092 this year. Most PTA members are parents of children in the school and, even in times when dads share many household duties, most PTA members still are women.
Yet, Neavin says, being involved with the school is not necessarily about paying dues and attending meetings. She sees a high level of involvement, regardless of whether parents are PTA members. “That’s OK because everybody is really busy,” she says. When it comes down to it, and I put out in an email blast that I need volunteers … I get tons of emails back. I am never at a loss.”
Each school sets its own dues (it averages about $12) but in all cases, $5 from each member goes to the Pennsylvania PTA for state and national dues. Another $1.50 goes to the Mt. Lebanon PTA Council. Of that $1.50, 50 cents goes to council and the remaining dollar goes to the PTA’s Georgia Pogue scholarship, which awards seven $500 scholarships to graduating seniors who can use the money for college or other expenses after graduation, says PTA Council President Jodi Kubit. Named for a guidance counselor who died, the fund began with a $25,000 donation from Pogue’s family.
Each unit is audited yearly and safeguards keep finances secure and spending proper.
Communications are open. Kubit meets monthly with Steinhauer. She also meets with the assistant superintendents, the director of technology and the head of the teachers union, Pete Bouvy. The union has an annual meeting with PTA reps to discuss ideas and educational issues.
“We have a great relationship with the PTA,” says Bouvy. “The main reason that this positive relationship is so important to us is because we are all in this for the same reason—for the students. I often hear from our building representatives and PTA reps alike that their favorite meeting of the year is the joint meeting between the two groups.”
Each school’s principal serves as a VP on his or her PTA executive board. Conversely, PTA officers are often asked to serve on district committees, including the strategic plan, or sit in on interviews for new administrators. The board and administration consulted the PTA during the development of the two middle schools, and considered the PTA’s opinions in drawing the districting lines for those schools. When important issues emerge, Bowman says she counts on the PTA to spread correct information to the community. “Parental involvement is so key when you’re starting a new initiative,” says Bowman.
“I feel they really do value our opinion, they use us to talk to the public because they trust us.” jody kubit, PTA Council
Nothing demonstrates PTA contributions more than the activities on the school district calendar. Each school’s list of activities is long, and its list of chairpersons is longer. Parents who wish to chaperone elementary field trips often must win the privilege in a lottery because so many parents want to help.
New family greeting events, field days, spelling bees, skating parties, movie nights, ice cream socials, talent shows, Junior Great Books, Arts in Education (Reflections), family picnics, Odyssey of the Mind and environmental protection all apepar on the calendar. Each school thanks teachers and staff with appreciation weeks. PTA-sponsored fifth grade farewells, such as picnics and pool parties, are traditions students and families eagerly anticipate. Each school has a PTA-sponsored signature event: Howe’s Sunny Funny Fair, Markham Magic, Lincoln’s Mardi Gras, Jefferson’s Bingo Night, Foster’s Read-a-Thon, Hoover’s Run Through the Woods 5K and Washington’s Winter Carnival. Elementary PTAs organize the well-loved Coffee and Kleenex, a social gathering for parents on the first day of kindergarten.
Neavin says family social events are important. “I feel like it bonds our school together,” she says. “It makes a solid relationship within the school.”
Some money raised at events goes to the wider community. The PTA contributes to food banks, collects books for underserved schools in other districts and raises money for a fund for Mt. Lebanon kids who want to play in the orchestra or band but can’t afford to rent or buy a musical instrument. This year, that fund gave six children instruments for the duration of their music education.
PTA-sponsored programs, such as cultural assemblies, complement the curriculum but also presents a challenge. “The rigors of the curriculum sometimes limit our ability to plan daytime events at the school,” Kubit says.
For her part, Kubit, a mother of three who started with PTA in 2006, spends at least two hours a day on PTA work. But she does it happily. “The reason I volunteer for these things is for the kids… just seeing the smiles on the kids’ faces when you’re in there doing stuff for them,” she says. Kubit believes the partnership has a bright future with new ideas to come.
“We live in a great town with a great school that provides a lot,” Kubit says. “I’m surprised we can find even more to add onto it.”