PTA for a new generation
GREENWICH — Free child care, hourlong evening meetings, translators and a brand-new bilingual co-president: Hamilton Avenue School does not have the average Greenwich parent-teacher association.
These features have been added to encourage parents — many of whom lack time, money or confidence speaking English — to be involved in their child’s education and school building — and to close a PTA achievement gap between western Greenwich parents and those on the east side of town, many of whom have more time and money to spend in their child’s building and on programs.
The additions seem to be working, Interim Principal John Grasso said.
Meetings of late have averaged more than 50 parents, an attendance rate some PTAs only reach during crises, Grasso said. The meeting last week, which included an election and an informational session about understanding report cards and meeting with teachers, drew in about 45 participants.
“It’s a really healthy attendance,” said Patti Jomo, who Grasso brought in to help build up the Hamilton Avenue PTA. “It’s hard to find a time and date that works for everybody, but they do a good job of communicating it, the parents respond to it.”
Boosting involvement should ease the organization’s growing pains as it phases in new leaders and prepares for a new principal, a transition that a stable PTA will smooth, Grasso said.
“When I hand over the keys, I want to say, ‘The PTA is in good shape: we have a standing executive board committee, we’ve managed to get people out to meetings, and here are the tricks of the trade,’” he said.
Grasso’s wish-list includes strengthening the leadership, creating an environment in which parents feel comfortable volunteering and encouraging small-scale help in the building from as many parents as possible.
To check these boxes, Grasso recruited Jomo, an old friend who led the Riverside School PTA while he was the principal there, who has nearly two decades of experience in local PTAs.
The ideal group has a strong administration, understands how the district and the school operate and works with both entities to inform parents, Jomo said.
“The more parents know, the more likely they are to be involved in the school and in the child’s education,” Jomo said. “It all feeds back to that end product of higher levels of academic and lifelong success.”
Jomo joined her first PTA 18 years ago when her oldest daughter started kindergarten. Since then, she has chaired committees, occupied board positions and led PTAs at Riverside and Greenwich High School as well as the Greenwich Parent Teacher Association Council, the umbrella organization formed by the 15 PTAs of Greenwich Public Schools.
“I’ve had my thumb in just about every pie there might be, PTA-wise,” Jomo said. “I was happy to help here.”
Jomo provides needed insights and stability, said Sarah Haag-Fisk, the vice president of education for the Hamilton Avenue PTA.
“We’ve had principal and PTA president turnover, so having institutional knowledge is helpful,” Haag-Fisk said. “Patti can weigh in and compare what we do to other schools.”
Hamilton Avenue PTA members last week elected Reina Medrano to serve a two-year term as co-president. She will work with current Co-President Allison Radzin until Radzin’s replacement is chosen to work with Medrano in the fall of 2019. The Hamilton Avenue group uses a succession plan common among PTAs in town. Presidents are elected to two-year terms, but elections are staggered so there always is a new and veteran leader working together.
Medrano has sent two children through the school, and her third child currently is in the third grade there. When her oldest started kindergarten, the mother knew nothing about American public schools, and the PTA taught her how to read a report card and ask teachers questions.
“I started helping with everything,” Medrano said. “Somebody has to be here and help the kids.”
Parents can volunteer to run Picture Day, help at the book fair, show kids what parts of their meal can be recycled and composted, deliver forgotten items to children or work fundraisers.
One father refurbished and installed the Hamilton Avenue School sign out front after it sat for years in an office, Grasso said.
“Everybody can do a little something, and if everyone does a little something, the big things get taken care of,” he said.
Time and language
The PTAs serving schools in eastern Greenwich are made of parents who have more time to devote to meetings and volunteering and more money to contribute to fundraisers, Grasso said. They also feel more comfortable with English and the American public school system.
The neighborhood surrounding Hamilton Avenue is 70 percent minority, according to recent district enrollment data. Students from racial minorities account for 73.8 percent of the school’s population, 38 percentage points higher than the district average.
Further, nearly 70 percent of students are learning English, receive special education services or qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch; Hamilton Avenue is one of three schools in town with the highest ratios of students who fit one or more of those categories.
Grasso remembers morning PTA meetings at Riverside, ideal for families with one stay-at-home parent. The working parents of Hamilton Avenue, however, can only attend night meetings. As a result, they tend to cram every discussion and voting item into a monthly, one-hour meeting — if they can come at all.
Later meetings require child care, which is a financial obstacle for many parents.
“It’s easier to pay for a babysitter on the other side of town,” Grasso said. “If we can include the kids or provide for the kids, the parents do come out.”
The PTA now eliminates the need to find child care by providing the service or bringing in the staff from the Bruce Museum to conduct workshops for kids during the meetings.
Language has been another obstacle. Parents not confident in English often hold back because they feel like they do not belong or are not “good in school,” Grasso said.
“They want to be involved, but they’re not,” he said.
Meetings now often have translators, and the parent informational e-newsletter called “Headlines” is in both English and Spanish, said Medrano, who is bilingual.
“If I know parents only speak Spanish, I’ll switch and tell them ‘I can help you,’” she said.