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It Takes a Village

Balmoral Elementary parents mobilized to get school off failing list.

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Balmoral Elementary had never earned the state's failing grade, but when the No Child Left Behind list was released last year, the small East Memphis school was among 149 Memphis City Schools (MCS) branded as not up to par with federal government standards. By August, Balmoral was removed from the list, and school officials say it was a handful of concerned parents who got the school back on track.

In just two years, parents and teachers mobilized a Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO) comprising about 30 of the school's parents. Once off the ground, the PTO immediately launched a campaign to get at what they believed to be the root of the problem a lack of parental involvement. According to PTO president Terrie Elkins, parents must care about their children's education before it can improve.

"The first thing we had to do was get parents to trust us," said Elkins. "We began having a lot of family activities, like carnivals and movie nights. We'd get the parents and the children there and have a fun event, but then we'd slip in an educational segment. It's one of those things where you're tricking people without letting them know you're tricking them."

Elkins said the PTO spent time educating parents on the basics of No Child Left Behind, a law signed into effect in 2002 that sets new standards for academic accountability. Once parents began to attend events and take an interest in the PTO's educational activities, membership began to grow.

These days, the PTO has an average of five to 10 parents in the school every day, doing everything from bus and lunchroom duty to tutoring and reading to the kids. Since the school's enrollment is about 300, that averages out to one parent volunteer per class.

"One of our biggest hurdles was getting teachers to want parents in the classroom," said Elkins. "Some teachers just want to do their thing and have the parents stay away, but Balmoral teachers have become supportive of what we do. They've finally bought into the belief that it takes all of us to educate the children."

The Balmoral PTO was in existence long before No Child Left Behind, but it wasn't until about a year before the list was released that the school's parents and teachers began taking an active role in the organization. According to Bobby Gammel, principal of Balmoral, Elkins has been the first active president in the nine years he's been principal.

"Before Ms. Elkins got here, we had a PTO, but it wasn't active at all," said Gammel. "Two of the past presidents left mid-year, and there just wasn't much being done in the way of activism. One of our teachers, Kecia Hollingsworth, was instrumental in getting our current PTO off the ground. She convinced Ms. Elkins to take the lead."

When Elkins took over two years ago, she was the sole member, and she says there was only 75 cents in the PTO bank account. Today, there's $1,500 in the bank with 30 active members. The PTO now holds at least two activities a month, such as pizza nights, picnics, and ice cream socials. Most of the funding for these events comes from PTO dues and money raised at the school's annual Christmas store.

"We would love for all schools to have PTOs like Balmoral," said Vince McCaskill, MCS public relations director. "But at this point, involvement at some schools is at zero. At Balmoral, you had a teacher there who was instrumental in really rallying parents who had an interest in being involved in schools." n

E-mail: bphillips@memphisflyer.com

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