A strong Parent Teacher Association is a key to creating a strong school. Freelance education writer Karin Chenoweth writes about how parents can build a strong organization to help serve students and their families.

There are two main purposes for a school to organize a Parent Teacher Association. The first is to create a sense of community within the school, and the second is to advocate in a broadly political way for the needs of children and families. One of the main missions of the national PTA is to encourage parent and public involvement in the public schools, but membership is open to all, including private schools.

For a boatload of information about the PTA, go to the Web site www.pta.org. It has a lot of ideas about how to organize and run a PTA and why you would want to do so. For even more specific information, call the Maryland state PTA at 410-235-7290, and it will send you membership packets.

Creating a sense of community requires a number of things: a common purpose, a broad agreement on how to go about achieving that purpose, a way of resolving disputes and a tolerance of other viewpoints. But even before that, you need to know one another. And so a PTA in any school should have as one of its first goals bringing people together so that they recognize each other and feel a connection.

You can do this in any number of ways, but one is to organize a continual volunteer presence in the school. Not all parents are able to volunteer during the workday, but many of them can give a couple of hours a month. This allows parents to get to know the children, the teachers and each other, and it gives them common experiences that serve as a basis for conversation. It is occasionally helpful to the teachers, as well, in providing grunt labor for photocopying, cutting paper or grading math and spelling tests.

Every PTA should also organize volunteer opportunities in the evenings and on weekends such as running a tutoring program in math and reading or fixing up the courtyard or grounds. The activities should be meaningful--no one has time for busy work--and varied enough that everyone can find something interesting.

But there are other, even more basic, things to do, such as publishing a directory with each child, class, address and phone number. In my child's elementary school, we also include what language the family speaks at home and cross reference the child's last name with the mother's last name if they differ. Something as simple as a directory means that children can invite school friends to birthday parties and outings, and parents can call other parents to find out if the math homework was really supposed to take 1 1/2 hours to finish.

And each class needs a room parent, who can organize a phone tree to spread news quickly throughout the school community, so that if the furnace goes on the blink no one shows up thinking there is school that day. Room parents usually also organize any classroom holiday parties that the school holds.

And, of course, you should have a monthly newsletter with announcements of school and PTA events, a letter from the principal and any news that affects the school or the students.

The Maryland PTA has sample bylaws that will help set up your school's PTA structure. If you decide on a traditional structure, you will have a president, who runs the monthly meetings and acts as the liaison between the organization and the school principal; a treasurer, who reports regularly on how much money the organization has and how it is being spent; a secretary, who keeps notes and publishes minutes; and perhaps a few vice presidents, who are in charge of specific committees, such as communications, fund-raising and special events. PTAs also should have a vice president in charge of broad political action such as advocating for smaller class sizes and linking with other PTAs in the cluster, the county and the state.

At many private schools, PTA officers are on the school's board of directors. As quality management councils take hold in Montgomery County schools, public school PTAs also should have more say in the administration of individual schools.

A missing element in many PTAs is the teacher component. I'm not sure exactly why this is, but an effective PTA should work to ensure that the teachers in the school have a full voice. Many middle and high schools also include students in their PTAs, although they have to work to ensure that the discussions and activities are meaningful for the students.

The best meetings have a short business meeting in which the members are brought up to speed on recent activities and the state of the budget and can vote on any expenditures. Use Robert's Rules of Order to make sure everyone gets a say and no one unfairly dominates. (You will find a simplified version at public libraries.) The rest of the meeting should be organized around a topic in which parents are interested, such as what the students are learning in math and science, how to help children get their stuff organized and what the college application process is like.

If someone feels like organizing refreshments, it is a nice way to keep people around and talking, but no PTA meeting should go later than 8:30 or 9 p.m.--everyone needs to get home for bedtime routines.

Schools where some parents don't speak English pose an additional challenge. Newsletters should be translated at least into Spanish, and sometimes French as well, and that is a good job for any bilingual parents. But it is unfair to expect bilingual parents to interpret at meetings--simultaneous interpreting is a very highly developed skill that requires tremendous attention and keeps the interpreters from participating in the meeting.

I have not studied organizational theory, but I have been part of many organizations, and from my observations there are three ways to destroy a volunteer organization like a PTA.

The first is to invite the general membership to meetings and then bore them with long discussions that are appropriate for small committees or even individual decisions. (Should we hire a pony or a moon bounce for the spring fair? Can we publish the directory more cheaply if we use the school photocopying machine rather than go to a printing service?)

The second way to destroy a PTA is to let fund-raising become the reason for its existence. Fund-raising should be for specific purposes, such as books for the library; scholarships for children who can't afford to pay for field trips or, in the case of a private school, tuition; cultural and educational events at the school, such as the Maryland Science Center or a drama or music company presentation; and perhaps some additional money for teachers to use for instructional purposes. And fund-raising should be done in a way that builds a sense of fellowship, such as holding a spring fair where all the families come together to picnic, play silly games and shop at a flea market to keep all those clothes and toys circulating through the community.

The final way to destroy an organization is for one or two people to do most of the work. When a few people do too much, it does three things: It causes those few to become enormously resentful; it lets everyone else off the hook; and it makes it very difficult to find replacements for the key people. And, because most PTAs forbid officers to serve more than two years in any job, finding replacements is always an issue.

So, PTA officers out there, heed my warning: Don't do more than is reasonable. Any time you do more than that you are hurting the organization--and thus the school community. If it is something that the community needs, someone from the community needs to organize it.

Don't you love having a good excuse to spend more time with your children and less time on the telephone?