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Can The Pta Get A Passing Grade?

For Decades It Was Synonymous With Parental Involvement and Child Welfare. Now It Has to Fight to Prove Its Relevance.

October 20, 2002|MOLLY SELVIN & GAIL ZELLMAN | Molly Selvin is an editorial writer at The Times whose last article for the magazine was an essay about her mother and growing older. Gail Zellman is a senior researcher at Rand Corp. and a clinical psychologist.

When the mothers who would become the Belvedere Elementary PTA finished drafting the bylaws for their new chapter this year, they asked Principal Eva Garcia to join them in the auditorium. You need to agree on a date when we can elect our officers, they told her, as they rocked their babies and distracted their toddlers.

''Do you really want to do this?'' Garcia asked. ''I want to make sure there's a real commitment. I don't want to start something and then have it become a failure.'' Heads nodded; they were in.

But two weeks later, with many of the same women gathered at the East Los Angeles school, that commitment seemed to be ebbing fast. PTA rules require at least 11 dues-paying members to form a chapter and elect officers, but only eight parents at this largely poor, largely Latino school had paid the $5 fee. When a representative from the PTA's downtown office asked whether anyone else wanted to sign up, for several awkward minutes the only sound in the auditorium came from a squeaky stroller being rolled back and forth to calm a restless baby. Then two mothers came forward with $5 bills. They had 10. Finally, Belvedere's assistant principal, Robert Martinez, pulled out his wallet, became the 11th member, and the elections got underway. A less than roaring start. When the meeting ended, the new Belvedere PTA had its first president in many years, a shyly beaming Veronica Salazar, a mother of two studying for her teaching credential.

Los Angeles Unified School District leaders insist that parental involvement is a key component of student success, and until the 1980s, the Parent Teacher Assn. had a near-monopoly on this mission--nationally and locally. But where the PTA was once a powerful presence, with chapters at most Los Angeles schools, the organization has fallen on hard times, with only about one-third of the district's campuses able to recruit enough parents to sustain a chapter.

The easy explanation is that today's working mothers aren't available to clean paintbrushes during the day, as housewives were in decades past, and they are too bushed at night to attend planning meetings for the holiday pageant. But the roots of the PTA's current troubles are more complicated than that. Many immigrant parents such as some of those at Belvedere come from countries without a strong tradition of school volunteerism. In addition, 1978's Proposition 13 sharply cut into school revenues, compelling parents at many schools to concentrate their energies on fund-raising booster clubs to replace services--such as art teachers and regular maintenance--that earlier generations took for granted. These clubs that have sprung up on wealthier campuses have eclipsed the PTA. Every dollar they raise stays on campus while a big chunk of the money that PTA parents raise must be distributed among regional, state and national offices.

The LAUSD's stubbornly low test scores and its mantra of parental involvement continue to draw extraordinarily dedicated parents to the PTA, giving rise to cautious talk of an eventual comeback. Yet at schools like Belvedere, the PTA is struggling just to gain traction. Is there a future in Los Angeles for the organization that was ubiquitous on campus in the era before blackboards became whiteboards and recess became nutrition?

The PTA is the nation's oldest and largest volunteer child advocacy organization. Founded in 1897 as the National Congress of Mothers, its mission was to promote the education and welfare of all children--a mission that has not changed. Along with marshaling volunteers and raising money in local schools, the PTA has taken the lead in addressing child welfare issues. In the 1950s, it helped organize the testing of the polio vaccine and the mass inoculation of schoolchildren. In the '60s, the PTA opposed tobacco advertising and produced public service messages on the dangers of drug use; in the '70s, the PTA created a school curriculum on the effects of media violence on children. Today, the PTA runs dental and vision clinics open to any needy LAUSD student. Last year, dentists and optometrists at these clinics served 7,000 children, filling cavities and fitting kids with proper eyeglasses.

Nationwide membership peaked about 40 years ago at 12 million. As the decline continued, the PTA, originally a white organization, merged with the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers, prompting still more members to resign in protest. In the meantime, moms were heading to the office, school budgets were imploding and student populations, especially in big city districts, were becoming more diverse. By the early 1990s, though, national membership had begun to climb slightly, and it now hovers at 6.5 million, with 1 million in California.

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