The Changing Role of the Parent-Teacher
Organization in an Immersion School

The ACIE Newsletter, March 2000, Vol. 3, No. 2

By Paul Nelson, former president and vice-president of Adams Spanish Immersion PTO, St. Paul, Minnesota



After 14 years of service - faithful, unstinting, and generous service - our Spanish Immersion PTO is now less important than it ever has been. And on the whole that's a good thing.

The money we raise is still important to teachers, the events we organize are popular, and we can fill the school board's meeting room when we need to engage in politics, but none of this is central to the day-to-day survival and success of our program.

Creating a Program

When our program began in 1985, no one involved really knew how to create and sustain a language immersion school. Teachers, administrators, and parents - organized as a parent-teacher organization - had to (and wanted to) work closely together to make the thing work. Parents in those days did a lot more than provide students and money: they recruited more students, recruited teachers too, lobbied school district officials, scoured the land for teaching materials, and helped develop curriculum. They were true collaborators in the enterprise, pioneers, and the PTO was their organized arm. PTO meetings were full of passion because failure was possible.

Of course this intensity of energy and involvement could not be sustained indefinitely. Everyone involved looked forward to the time - which often appeared impossibly distant - when the school could run on its own, as other schools did, and people could relax a little.

This happened, but it took a surprisingly long time. Seven, even eight years into the experiment, PTO subcommittees met monthly, sometimes even bi-weekly, to debate and plan curriculum in math, computers, and science, with parents and teachers participating as equals. In our enormous curriculum committee, questions of language immersion theory and practice were debated at great length, and with such intensity and occasional ill feeling that the committee eventually had to be disbanded. Parents sometimes still took the lead role in finding and recruiting teachers. General PTO meetings still consisted almost entirely of committee reports, discussions and votes - many, many votes.

Building Our Community

And then, after nine years, the PTO's role suddenly (if such a word can be used here) changed. Our standing committees stopped meeting. We changed our general meetings from report-and-vote sessions to informational forums. We began to pay more attention to community building than to curriculum.

Many factors contributed to these changes, factors that are probably common to most language immersion programs. Here are four of them.

First, we developed a corps of experienced teachers, and the weight of countless decisions about curriculum and practice forged a way of doing things at our school that satisfied nearly everyone.

Second, teaching resources had been developed. Not only had the school accumulated its own store of materials, but the market now offered many more, and universities were producing more qualified teacher candidates. Parents no longer had to help find or create what had been lacking in the early years.

Third, the school district learned to grant our school the right degree of autonomy and to send us administrators who knew and cared about language immersion.

Fourth, the founding generation of parents - those who knew most and cared most about core issues of theory and practice - moved on. The succeeding generations of parents, and teachers too, were inclined to accept things as they were. This made sense, because the program had become very successful.

After a decade, in short, our Spanish immersion program had become what its founders hoped - a school that ran on its own pretty much the way other schools do, and probably better. Clearly, the role of the PTO had to change. And change it did. As noted above, the monthly general meetings were changed from report-and-vote to information sessions. Over four years we dealt with topics such as standardized testing, Spanish immersion in secondary schools, and language immersion theory, with invited guest experts; we hosted forums for local school board election candidates; we met with teachers and parents from nearby immersion schools.

We dropped standing committees entirely; we now create committees only ad hoc, as needs arise. We gave our officers more power to make spending decisions without consulting membership. We established regular, unchanging fundraising methods, so that, except for special needs, people know every year what to expect.

We began to concentrate more on community building. For the first five years or so, the program was so small that it enjoyed a natural sense of community even though students came from all over the city. But when enrollment exceeded 400 or so (it is 650 now), that feeling faded. So the PTO created more social events, such as grade-level dinners, which give all parents of second-graders, for example, a chance to get together.

Motivating Ourselves

A great challenge for any voluntary organization such as a PTO or PTA is to give its membership something interesting to do. Raising money, as important as that is, will not be enough. People find fun and satisfaction in working together on useful projects. Such projects are also essential to the development of new parent leadership and expertise.

With our Spanish immersion program now mature and thriving, finding useful projects is not so easy as it once was. Fortunately, our PTO has proven flexible. The current leaders have gone back to a report-and-discuss meeting style that gives maximum opportunity for people to propose new projects. When they do, the membership usually endorses them, and thus the PTO takes advantage of new ideas and new energy to re-invent itself.

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