When the doors to the national Parent-Teacher Assn. convention swung open Saturday in Anaheim, delegates had a smorgasbord of workshops from which to choose. Mixed in with lectures on the latest trends in teen sexual behavior and child obesity were discussions on race and money that go to the heart of the advocacy group's future.
PTA leaders say that if the group is to remain a force, it will need to strengthen and diversify its membership in the face of dramatic demographic shifts, changing social norms and increased competition for members, money and time.
"With everything we do, we are trying to be more relevant," said Warlene Gary, the organization's recently appointed CEO. "This is an environment where the kids have changed, the issues in schools have changed and we're dealing with some issues we've never seen before."
The conference, which runs through Monday at the Anaheim Convention Center, is expected to draw 2,500 delegates from throughout the country.
Founded in 1897, the PTA is the nation's oldest and largest volunteer education advocacy group. Along with fundraising by local school chapters and political lobbying on education issues, the PTA has been a leader in tackling major social welfare issues such as polio inoculation in the 1950s and preventing child tobacco use a decade later.
Membership peaked in the early 1960s at about 12 million, and today claims about 6 million members, a million in California. Gary acknowledged, however, that the national total is likely inflated as local chapters often double-or triple-count parents who have multiple children at different schools.
Most vexing to PTA leadership is a membership that remains about 90% white and mostly female. The organization's future, Gary and other leaders said, rests on its ability to diversify.
"We have a huge amount of work to do if we want to remain a viable organization," said Carla Nino, president of the California PTA and the group's first Latino state chief. "We need to redefine the face of the PTA and look like our communities."
A pilot program to draw Latinos to its Southern California, Texas and Florida chapters registered 18,000 new members and trained several Latinos for posts on national committees. Officials hope to expand the program and said next year's convention will focus heavily on improving diversity.
However, delegates said efforts to diversify are hampered by immigrant parents who often work more than one job and come from cultures that lack a tradition of school volunteerism.
"It's a struggle to get [Latino] parents involved," said Perla Mondragon, who recently joined the PTA at Trinity Elementary school in Los Angeles. "I tell them that we have to get involved in every aspect of our kids' lives."
In pushing for more immigrant and minority members, the PTA is reaching out to communities that can give time but not money, Gary and others said.
"You have to consider that a lot of these kids go home to families where there is not enough money for basic needs," said Ann Adams, who heads a PTA at an inner-city Chicago school. "Of course they're not going to be able to help."
A sluggish economy has meant fundraising shortfalls for PTA chapters nationwide. Like many delegates, Shawnee Poling, a PTA treasurer from rural Oklahoma, said her chapter aims to raise about $35,000 each year. This year's main drive fell $10,000 short -- and forced the chapter to work overtime to make up the difference.
At the same time, Poling and other parents said, cash-strapped school principals are leaning on PTAs to purchase school equipment and supplies traditionally covered by district budgets.
The PTA is also competing with an increasing number of independent parent organizations that forgo the national hierarchy of the PTA to focus exclusively on local school issues.
Gary said such groups are selfishly adopting a "my school, my child mentality," but proponents of these PTA alternatives say they welcome being free of the organization's extensive rules and state and national membership dues.
PTA leaders say they are determined to confront challenges to ensure that the group remains a vital link between parents and schools.
"It will take some time to turn this ship," Nino said. "But the fact is, we have to start."