“Effective Leadership in Challenging Times”
“Effective Leadership in Challenging Times” was the topic as a panel of four current Parents Association Presidents shared their insights and recommendations for effective leadership within our independent school communities.
Molly LaRochelle, President of the Parents Council of Washington, welcomed all of the Parents Council of Washington Parents Association Presidents to this year’s Panel Presentation on the topic of “Effective Leadership in Challenging Times.” She presented an overview of the many events that the PCW has sponsored during the 2010-2011 school year and thanked the Parents Association Presidents, both incoming and outgoing, for their participation and continued support.
Ms. LaRochelle introduced the panel of four current Parents Association Presidents who volunteered to share their insights and recommendations for effective leadership within our independent school communities. The panel members were Susan Carras of the Holton-Arms School, Polly Bomstein of the Sidwell Friends School, Tom Johnson of the Washington Episcopal School and Wendy Stanislav of the Woods Academy. The panel members were asked to give a summary of their tenure and suggestions for incoming Parents Association Presidents regarding lessons learned from their experiences.
Susan Carras of the Holton-Arms School shared with the audience that she has been affiliated with seven different schools and that she has been actively involved in each school’s Parents Association and as a result “has seen a lot of good and a lot of bad.” For example, “well planned programs can quickly go bad if you run out of coffee for the parents.” She became involved in the Parents Association because she wanted to share in her children’s school experiences and meet new people. As the Parents Association President, her philosophy was to remember that your role is not to create bureaucracy, but rather to make certain that the parents in your school are satisfied with the quality of the programs and events sponsored by the Parents Association and most importantly that these programs are available to all parents within the school community. Her recommendation for incoming Parents Association Presidents is to manage your Parents Association activities in a streamlined timeline with fewer, bigger events that generally cater to the entire school community. Focus on signature events, which at Holton include Convocation, the Autumn Fest, the Mosaic multicultural event and the End of the Year Parents Association Meeting which features a State of the School Address. For each program, the Holton Parents Association pays for the food that is served, as parents are often too busy to bring food items to events. When conducting Parents Association meetings, Ms. Carras emphasized the importance of sending out meeting agendas prior to the meeting and always ending the meeting on time in order to be respectful of the volunteers’ time. In summary, Ms. Carras advised that the hallmark of a strong Parents Association is to model friendship and hospitality.
Wendy Stanislav of the Woods Academy discussed the three goals she set at the beginning of her tenure as Parents Association President; first to support the school, second to end rumors, and third to give parents an opportunity to participate in the school community. Planning and budgeting for the Parents Association was conducted in the spring prior to the actual school year, so that parents could organize the committees over the summer. The Woods Academy charges a $75 Parents Association fee on the tuition bill in order to fund programs and events. Ms. Stanislav remarked that there has been a significant decrease in volunteerism, which has resulted in the Parents Association streamlining its activities. One especially successful effort has been building relationships with the Room Parents, and one P.A. Vice President was assigned the role of liaison to the Room Parents to facilitate effective communications. Ms. Stanislav added that she sent a personal handwritten thank you note to every volunteer who helped throughout the year. The Parents Association at the Woods Academy is involved in fundraising but on a limited scale and has discontinued its Sally Foster program. In closing, Ms. Stanislav urged incoming Parents Association Presidents to remember “that we are all volunteers and that sometimes good enough is good enough.” She added that being part of the Parents Association is a great way to learn about the school in which you have entrusted your children.
Tom Johnson of the Washington Episcopal School began his remarks by stating that he has worked hard to make WES a better place for the students and parents. He stressed the importance of effective communications and letting parents know how important volunteering is to the school – “It keeps costs down and creates programs that would not exist if not for the parent volunteers.” Mr. Johnson added that he believes that students do better at a school where parents actively participate. It also further demonstrates leadership for the students to see firsthand. When conducting Parents Association meetings, Mr. Johnson urged incoming Parents Association Presidents to follow their agendas to the letter and to make every effort to limit meetings to 45 minutes. In addition, he stressed the need to plan ahead with budgeting and to encourage parents to be fiscally responsible and to submit expense receipts in a timely manner. Lastly, Mr. Johnson recommended that effective communication about the needs of the school beyond tuition is important, “for when put into a favorable light, parents come forth.”
Polly Bomstein of the Sidwell Friends School told the audience of Parents Association Presidents that it was interesting for her to listen to the remarks of the other panel members, because although each school is different, we all face similar issues. However, since Sidwell Friends is a Quaker school, the Parents Association must follow Quaker tenets. Each meeting is begun with a moment of silence which allows everyone to “regroup and focus on our meeting” during this time of reflection. Further, at Sidwell Parents Association meetings decisions are not voted upon, but rather reached by consensus. Ms. Bomstein noted that this can take additional time and can also be a difficult process. As a result, her goal for the past year has been “to simplify.” This has been challenging at times because the structure of the Sidwell Parents Association had been far too layered and included many co-chairs of various committees. Ms. Bomstein’s motto has been “Communication, Cooperation and Collaboration.” Every agenda for every meeting during the past year began with a query, which is very collaborative and helped to start thoughtful discussions. Her Parents Association meetings were run tightly with agendas distributed in advance and all meetings concluded in less than one hour. As the President, she was responsible for scheduling events for all three divisions within the school, which gave her an all-encompassing view of the activities taking place for parents. She found that there was always something unpredictable and a new challenge. In closing, Ms. Bomstein said, “I had no idea how much work this job would be, yet it is the most gratifying thing I have ever done.”
Questions and Answers:
How do you stick to an agenda if you need to achieve consensus?
Sidwell – You table things or agree to resolve or discuss over email and come back to it later. We ask people for any last comments and then the topic is finished.
Do you charge dues?
Sidwell – Yes, the dues are part of the tuition invoice, though they are “optional.” Most families pay them. Some dues amounts differ by division, for example Sidwell dues are less for younger students and more for older students.
Holton – The dues are $85 per student and are charged as part of the tuition bill. Even though families are able to opt out and remain members of the P.A., most families contribute dues to the Parents Association.
Woods Academy – Dues are $75 per family.
One PCW Member asked if the PCW might conduct a survey of its member schools to determine the amount of the Parents Association dues and how they are collected. This would be very helpful.
What do the dues cover?
WES – Dues cover Book Fair, Golf Outing, Sally Foster, Speakers for school events, and any funds remaining are allocated to infrastructure projects such as Smartboards.
Holton – Dues cover costs of all school events so that the Parents Association does not ask for money throughout the year. Classrooms are different, as Room Parents raise funds for class parties and outings.
Woods – Dues do not go to classes. They raise their own funds. The funds go to all school events and special infrastructure items like extraordinary pencil sharpeners.
Sidwell – Dues cover costs for all division and school events and community building, including the Book Fair.
What are some strategies for getting new leadership all on the same page?
Holton – We got together for a working dinner in late August. Our goal was to integrate into the school communications with no separate communications from the Parents Association. Holton has fantastic administrative staff who do all the editing for our communications.
Woods – The Head of School hosts a planning lunch for both the outgoing and incoming Parent Association leaders. Each incoming Committee Chair meets with the outgoing Chair to coordinate a smooth transition. (example – hot lunch volunteers). We maintain a book on each project and pass it along each year to the new Chair.
Do schools all have auctions, and if so, how involved is the Parents Association?
During the discussion, most school representatives remarked that their schools still have auctions for raising funds for financial aid. In some schools it is part of the Parents Association, and in others it is a separate entity and an Auction Chair manages it with the Parents Association offering support. In some schools paid staff members are responsible for planning the auction and parent volunteers are asked to support the event. It was noted that GDS has a new format for this type of event. Everyone is invited but there are no “auction items” available for purchase, it is all based on “Fund a Scholar.” In this format everyone contributes funds (as much as they are able) and the evening is more of a school event.
How many Parents Association Presidents sit on the school’s Board of Trustees?
This question was answered with a show of hands by the incoming and outgoing Parents Association Presidents in the audience. About half responded yes, although some noted that they are non-voting members.
The Moderator then read questions that had been submitted on cards by the Parents Association Presidents in the audience.
How do you create community among parents, especially including new families?
Maret – We host Class Potluck Dinners during the fall on campus. In the spring the Class Potlucks are held in four to six different homes on varying nights. We also hold class coffees, which include a Q & A with the Division Head. These meetings are more formal with the Division Head sending out articles in advance, in this case related to the film “Race to Nowhere.”
Sidwell – We do Potlucks at school and in individual homes. “You choose a date, but you don’t know which parents will be there.” Sidwell also hosts grade coffees from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. usually about Query topics geared toward specific grade issues.
St. Andrews – We host Parent Potluck Dinners that are grade specific in the fall and Class Coffees with the Head of School. The Parent Association plans parent-to-parent initiatives for new families, which lasts throughout the school year.
Potomac – The Grade Representatives plan one or more Mom’s Night Outs at either the home of a parent or a local restaurant. There is no business agenda for these dinners.
GDS – The Parents Association hosts events at school and “keep it an even playing field.” If everyone pitches in and brings something, it builds a sense of community.
Holton – The school now hosts mostly school-wide social events that are free for parents to attend.
How do you get Dads involved?
Visitation – We have a Father’s Club and the Dads are very involved in school activities. They host four to five events each year from the school bazaar to campus clean-ups.
WES – We host a Golf Outing that is very popular with the fathers. They also organize groups of fathers and children to go on fishing trips.
St. Andrew’s – We host a Dad’s basketball game and a Dad’s ski trip to help the fathers be more involved at the school.
How do you get volunteers?
Woods – The Parents Association includes the position of Volunteer Coordinator. In recent years it has been helpful to have a Lower School parent in that position, as they are very enthusiastic about getting more new parents involved. In addition, the P.A. President will personally call parents and ask them to volunteer. We also ask the Room Parents to submit the names of three parents who would be good volunteers.
Langley – We have gone to an online volunteer sign-up system. Parents use a toggle on an interactive online form. This has been highly successful and we now have more volunteers than needed for most committees.
Norwood – We also went to online volunteer sign- ups and it is very helpful for managing volunteer efforts and schedules.
Landon – We have online signup by event. Everyone can see who has signed up and it becomes a status to chair a committee.
Woods Academy – We use signup Genius, which is a terrific way to get parents to volunteer to help without all of the “reply all” chain emails. We also use Survey Monkey for evaluation of events.
How do you schedule Parent Association meetings? Are meetings open to all parents?
Most schools responded that they have open Parents Association meetings. However, Executive Committee meetings are not always open to all parents. One school noted that even though the Executive Committee meetings are open to all parents, no one has attended who was not a member of the Executive Board.
The majority of the Parents Associations conduct meetings in the morning because evening meetings are not well attended.
Holton – We have very few meetings. However, certain topics can bring in the whole school, such as the meeting on the topic of the “Healthy Holton Girl,” which included a panel presentation by various experts.
Stone Ridge – Our committee is an advisory committee. We have meetings so committee chairs can attend and report on their activities and ask for help as needed. We also act as an advisory board to the Head of School.
What topics bring in parents?
Norwood – All school parent meetings were not well attended, so they planned presentations of specific topics such as bullying, learning styles, and budgeting, which increased the number of parents who attended.
Sidwell – Attendance at all school Parents Association meetings is driven by the topic and the speaker. If the Head of School is the featured speaker, the attendance will be very good.
How do you encourage long-term change in what is a short-term position?
GDS – Our goal is to grow the Parents Association to include more people who can continue the efforts of the organization. Communication of the roles and responsibilities of the Parents Association are very important. Post “Roles and Responsibilities” for all positions so that interested parents can easily volunteer. It is also very helpful for a parent to volunteer on a committee before assuming the position of Committee Chair.
To conclude this Parents Council of Washington Parents Association Presidents Forum, Molly LaRochelle asked each outgoing P.A. President to submit their thoughts on the question, “If I knew then what I know now..” Here are their insightful responses:
“If I knew then what I know now….”
“I would spend a year on the Parents Association Board before becoming President, so you can be proactive in the job.”
“I would organize more volunteers in advance.”
“I would send out an agenda for meetings in advance and have no oral reports given at meetings.”
“I would keep making sure everyone is on the same page, delegate but verify.”
“Remember we are all volunteers; and doing the best we can.”
“Have a clear message about your goals as President of the Parents Association.”
“Just be the Parents Association President, don’t volunteer for any committees, just say, ‘Let me help you find someone,’ instead of doing it all yourself.”
“Delegate some of the Parents Association duties to your Vice Presidents.”
“I would try and understand different individuals’ points of view and passions and I would try and understand the Parents Association better at the beginning.”
“You wear two hats: advocate for your own children and Parents Association President for the school. Keep them separate.”
“Learn to delegate. You can’t do it all yourself – so go for quality not quantity in your Parents Association events.”