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National PTA President: Diversity Outreach Can Fight Membership Drop


Otha Thornton, the new president of the National Parent Teacher Association, is in town this weekend attending the state PTA's Summer Leadership Seminar. 

He sat down for a few minutes with KERA News to talk about his goals for the 117-year-old organization.

In recent years, the national group's membership has fallen. Thornton said the group is trying to figure how it can attract new members.

"We have done the research over the last year or so to really reach out and focus on the needs and the demographics of the association," he said. "So that has played a big role in moving forward and increasing our membership."

The Texas PTA group is the second largest in the country, behind California, with 505,000 members.

Four years ago, the National PTA launched the Urban Family Engagement Initiative now known as the Urban Family Engagement Network. The group has awarded grants in 15 cities to participate in the initiative.

“Basically what we do is we go in, we teach parents how to better advocate in their school system for their kids and how to set up their kids for success,” Thornton said. “With that network now, we’re trying to encourage the different cities to reach out to each other. What are the best practices to help improve student success?”’

One of the best practices includes working with other organizations, education leaders and state officials. So far, Houston is the only Texas city involved in that network.

Thornton said one of the reasons membership has declined over the years is the economy.

“Several years ago, when our economy tanked, a lot of people had to get out to work. Both parents…or single parents had to take on second jobs,” he said. “They didn’t have the time and resources to commit to PTA. They may have cared about their children but they just could not invest the time.

Thornton said he can relate to that struggle. His dad left home when he was 13 and his mom was left to raise seven kids.

“My mom cared about us, she loved us. But she couldn’t get to the school and check on us all the time,” he said. “We tried to stay out of trouble…it was an event [for Mom] trying to get to the school.

Another consideration for the organization is the changing demographics. He said the group can’t shy away from touchy subjects like the children of undocumented parents.

“They’re children. They’re in this country,” he said. “They deserve the proper resources and the proper education like every other kid.”

Thornton said the PTA has become more active on social media. Facebook pages have been created for different committees within the group, so national members can push out information to state members that way.

He also encourage PTAs to hold shorter meetings and to focus on a specific topic. 

"You have to value people's times," he said. "A meeting should be no longer than an hour.