It could be Paul Geller’s Hawaiian shirt.
Or maybe it is how he leaves handwritten notes to fellow parents and signs them with “PTA Chief Cook and Bottle Washer,” rather than “PTA President.”
Geller himself says there are “dozens and dozens” of reasons for the growth and success of the Belmont Elementary School Parent Teacher Association.
Whatever he and other parent volunteers are doing, it is working.
The Olney school now has more PTA representatives than students, with 373 members and 319 students. That is more than double last year’s count of 178 members.
Geller is following the fun approach he learned from Janette Gilman, president of the Montgomery County Council of Parent Teacher Associations, and other leaders of the countywide organization at a training session this summer, he said.
Making the PTA more fun is one of Gilman’s strategies to see the number of members countywide grow, and it appears to be working.
The organization expects to see its membership grow this year, after seeing membership steadily decline, said Pamela Loebach, MCCPTA office manager.
So far, countywide membership is up nearly 3,000 over this time last year, at 39,419 as of Dec. 31 compared to 36,639 last year, Loebach said.
The growth witnessed at Belmont is being seen at many other Montgomery County schools this year, including Cedar Grove Elementary in Clarksburg, Eastern Middle in Silver Spring and Paint Branch High in Burtonsville, Gilman said.
By the end of the school year, the organization expects membership to reach more than 50,000 members for the first time since 2008-2009, and has an overall goal of reaching 57,000, she said.
The state also expects its membership to grow this year, said Rita Lowman, president of Maryland PTA. Statewide membership has dropped from 206,664 members five years ago to 181,000 members last year.
Two of the three schools with the most members in the state are in Montgomery County, Lowman said; Walt Whitman High has 1,160 members and Herbert Hoover Middle has 1,089 members.
The key to getting parents involved has been creating welcoming local groups for them to join, showing them all that PTAs do at schools, and helping them realize that everyone can contribute, said Connie DiJohnson, MCCPTA membership and engagement chair.
“I feel strongly that nearly every parent has an area of expertise, and it is finding that area of expertise and seeing how it can be a contribution to the school,” DiJohnson said.
Belmont’s PTA has tried to get more dads involved, by hosting a car show and having a group of dads run the annual science fair, Geller said.
“Basically [it’s about] making people feel appreciated, that they are part of the team, that they know everything that is being done is being done in their best interest,” Geller said.
The countywide organization’s goal isn’t to get more funding, as the MCCPTA only asks for $1 per member in annual dues (total annual dues per member with state and federal dues included are between $10 and $20), but to increase the advocacy power of the parents at the individual school level and countywide, Gilman said.
“We are really interested in more than just counting the numbers,” Gilman said. “We want people to get involved and get the diversity into MCCPTA.”
PTAs do more than just host events, Gilman said; they build parents’ relationships with school officials, provide a volunteer mechanism for parents, and can help identify and work to solve school issues.
For example, she said, parents at a school with a high population of English for Speakers of Other Languages students can help the school focus on its reading goals by hosting book fairs or read-a-thons.
As the county has grown more diverse, MCCPTA has made it a goal to see diverse PTAs, DiJohnson said.
“If your membership table doesn’t look like your school, it is not as welcoming,” DiJohnson said.
Gilman said she doesn’t pass up a chance to recruit anyone she knows is a parent.
Geller admitted he didn’t believe that the PTA could be fun before he went to training this summer. Now, he said he realizes it is the only way to go.
“Make it fun,” Geller said. “Make it inclusive. Our PTA meetings are like a circus, a Hawaiian luau and the Fourth of July all in one.”