Stellar Schools Take a Village

By Ann McMaster  |  Photography by Karen Nercess / All Star Photography

If the three letters “PTA” evoke bake sales, apples for teachers or coffee klatches, then you definitely aren’t familiar with the changes and challenges these parent-run child advocacy organizations face today.

The powerhouse Parent Teacher Associations (PTA or PTSAs – secondary schools add an “S” to represent student participation) in the five Village of Pinecrest public schools are large, complex and highly successful nonprofit organizations. No longer the icing on the cake, they add substantial funding, services, staffing and programming to the local school system. The stark reality of Florida’s No. 49 ranking nationally in per-student funding requires substantial outside contributions to plug budget holes, despite the best juggling efforts of districts and principals.

The Village of Pinecrest steps up to the plate with an impressive $10,000 in annual donations to each school, recognizing that strong schools support everyone’s best interest, users or not. This adds up to a cool million dollars invested in public education since the village’s incorporation 20 years ago. But to put that into perspective, fundraising by the five PTAs combined is now inching toward $1 million every year to keep the schools’ above-average reputations a reality. Combined fundraising totaled roughly $755,000 for the 2014-15 school year. Now add in thousands of volunteer labor hours, and you have the secret sauce for our stellar schools.

Blessed with a highly educated and engaged population, Pinecrest has always had an all-star volunteer base upon which schools and their respective PTAs can draw. The leaders of these all-volunteer workforces are consummate professionals and CEOs managing entrepreneurial 501(c)(3) organizations with impressive bottom-line results. They raise all their own operating funds, yet spend less than 1 percent on overhead, an accomplishment very few nonprofits achieve.

While hospitality and teacher appreciation remain hallmarks of any PTA, today’s PTA presidents also negotiate sponsorships with area businesses; work with elected officials and representatives at the local, district and state levels; create marketing and new media communications; manage the myriad functions and programs underway with a volunteer staff of hundreds; and strategize new approaches and opportunities. They fund classroom supplies to capital improvement, enhance and influence curriculum, and advocate with a laser focus for children at their respective schools.

The current leaders have enjoyed successful professional careers as a family court supervisor (Elyssa Lewis, Pinecrest Elementary), an NGO media relations executive (Janet Hodur, Palmetto Elementary), teachers (Nicole Connolly, Howard Drive Elementary, and Anna Hochkammer, Palmetto Senior High) and a social worker (Linda Dwyer, Palmetto Middle School). Their combined resumes include leadership roles and extensive community involvement in and outside of education. Contributions run the gamut from foster parenting to indigent health care, religious institutions, climate change, Girl Scouts, kids’ sports teams and public libraries. And, of course, all balance their own school-age children, family and household responsibilities.

One of the unique strengths of the Pinecrest PTAs is that the presidents all meet regularly and work together to share information so they can cross-market and support the feeder pattern for the complete K-12 path available within the village. The continuity of articulation as students move up the chain fosters community, keeps student (and parent) friendships intact and facilitates after-school extracurricular involvement. On behalf of the village, all five PTA presidents were present to discuss their role in the community.

What is one of the biggest differences between a PTA and a traditional business?

Hodur: In some ways, it’s more demanding. When I worked full time, I had an actual job with defined responsibilities. But here, things can morph and change day to day. You have no set staff; they’re great, but they’re all volunteers, and the buck stops with you.

Lewis: It never stops. Things can come up at any time from 7 a.m. until you fall asleep with your cellphone in your hand.

Hochkammer: While we have a phenomenal pool of talent in our parents, we frequently don’t have the right volunteer for the job that needs to be done. So a lot of times we have to retrofit the job to the volunteers that we have.

What are some of your PTA’s recent capital investments or key enhancements?

Hochkammer: It’s a long list. In the past year or so, we’ve bought a dedicated testing suite with 50 computers, bought our student TV production department upgraded hardware and software, and replaced the sound system in the auditorium. We’ve just finished raising $25,000 to completely re-equip our weight-training facility.

Connolly: Books and e-books for the media center; accelerated Reader and Math Superstars programs; and classroom subscriptions such as BrainPOP, Time magazine for kids and Discovery Education. Currently, we are working on improving the AV components in the cafeteria, where we hold performances.

Hodur: A suite of iPads and a suite of laptops, complete with storage carts, as well as a science curriculum complete with a supply center. And we also bought gates and security cameras.

People often assume the state pays for a lot of things that, in reality, are no longer provided by state or local funding. Name some of your nontraditional PTA enhancements that might surprise people.

Hochkammer: At the high school, the PTSA puts over 5,000 of a total 8,000 volunteer hours into clerical help each year. This includes staffing the attendance and main office with volunteers to free up school staff for other areas. We also buy everything from calculators to musical instruments and sheet music to the cheerleaders’ flags.

Dwyer: Trophies, sports equipment and uniforms, school supplies… There is a copier at Palmetto Middle with my name on it! They had three machines, and two were always broken. So the PTSA leases one. We run the media center, the school store and, until recently, the office.

Lewis: Pinecrest PTA pays for landscaping and gardening and even has a dedicated parent team handling this.

Connolly: Nothing that PTAs do now is traditional – it’s all outside the box!

What is your biggest challenge?

Dwyer: The facilities – our buildings are really old. Funding – we need better equipment and technology. We try every day to squeeze water from a rock, and often we succeed!

Hodur: We always wish we could do more, but the reality of the numbers means you have to draw lines. Also, our construction under the GOB (General Obligation Bond) has just begun. We’ll get major and much-needed renovations, plus four new classrooms and an art and music suite to replace the portables. It’s a long process with a lot of moving parts.

Lewis: Charters, private schools and magnets. Traditionally, a lot of Pinecrest kids go on to private schools. But we’re seeing that trend decline as people realize their kids can get a great education from K-12 right here in the public schools.

What message would you like to convey to parents that might be reading this, particularly if they are looking at independent or magnet schools?

Dwyer: You don’t have to go anywhere else to get a great education. Don’t go for the lure of magnet schools just because they are the latest new shiny object. It’s great to have options, but neighborhood public schools are a fantastic first choice, not just a backup.

Lewis: How does an 11-year-old know what they want to be when they grow up? Traditional schools let you change your course and try new things. Kids need to use these years to find themselves.

Hodur: As a fifth-grade parent, I’ve just witnessed the frenzy of private and magnet school applications. But I’m hearing more people say their child isn’t ready to choose between drama and music, for example, and I think it’s wonderful to see them recognize that, with the great options right here, they don’t have to. 

PTA/PTSA President Job Description:
Seeking CEO with strong strategic vision for complex multi-stakeholder membership organization. Will manage cross-functional teams with competing priorities and no direct accountability to you. Foster internal and external relationships with staff, students, parents, local governments and businesses. Recruit dues-paying members and staff your organization, starting from scratch every year. Raise all operating funds (minimum of $100,000 per year) using only volunteer labor. Market your brand using traditional and new media. Advanced degree preferred. No defined hours, but expect calls and emails at any time. No salary. 

2014-15 School Year PTA Fundraising*
Pinecrest Elementary: $130,000
Palmetto Elementary: $198,000
Howard Drive Elementary: $150,000
Palmetto Middle: $101,000
Palmetto Senior: $176,000
Total: $755,000