Joslyn Elementary PTO President Danielle Hain was giving a recap of an event her school organized, in which a Kona Ice truck showed up to sell frozen treats.
As an added bonus, her parent-teacher organization got a cut of the food truck's sales that day.
Edison PTA President Alex Gates paused.
"Tell me more about this Kona Ice," he said, rapidly typing notes on his laptop. "We need something for our spring carnival."
A new group of Omaha parents and teachers is trying to bring together parent-teacher associations, organizations and other school groups so they can learn from one another.
The groups can swap fundraising tips, share ideas for events that will appeal to families and possibly lobby together on broader school issues, like longer recess at elementary schools.
More than 1,000 school districts across the country, including Bellevue and Fremont in Nebraska, have PTA councils or regions that gather representatives from different schools, according to the National PTA organization. They discuss and troubleshoot problems or learn more about common issues, such as filling out the Form 990 tax document required of nonprofits and other tax-exempt organizations.
Other parent-teacher groups tend to act like their own little islands, Gates said. He's involved in parent groups at both Edison and Wilson Focus School within Omaha Public Schools and is also running for a seat on the OPS school board.
"We all sort of operate in isolated areas," he said. "We do things the way we did the year before and the year before that. ... I think people have really good ideas, but it's not easy to share them across the board."
The group is small and has met only twice so far, but it hopes to grow. The group posts meeting details at meetup.com.
A meeting last week drew six people, an even split of parents and OPS teachers from Kellom, Edison, Joslyn and Rose Hill Elementary Schools. The group is also open to welcoming parents and teachers from districts besides OPS.
The meeting lasted slightly longer than an hour; organizers said they don't want to scare off busy teachers and parents by holding marathon meetings.
Attendees shared ideas for successful fundraisers and family fun nights their groups had planned. These include fun runs, a movie night and an open gym that Harrison Elementary runs where parents can drop off their kids to play on a Friday night while they catch a movie or go to dinner.
They also discussed ideas, gifts or gestures for teachers during Teacher Appreciation Week and ways to get time-crunched parents and teachers to participate more in school activities.
Teachers do want to help chaperone the school dance or volunteer at fundraisers, but they're also busy with grading, lesson plans and family obligations, Kellom Elementary teacher and OPS parent Laura Foix said.
"Every year, more gets heaped on teachers' plates and nothing gets taken off," she said.
Organizers believe a more organized network of parent-teacher groups could also present a united front to lobby on state or districtwide issues such as the extended school day in OPS or longer recess for elementary students, the topic of a recent online petition that garnered nearly 250 signatures.
OPS used to have a PTA/PTO council, but that group stopped meeting sometime in the mid-to-late 2000s, according to OPS board President Lou Ann Goding, who was a member of the council.
Several PTO/PTA parents in Goding's northwest Omaha sub-district have asked if the council might be revived.
"It's always great to have peers that are doing the same sort of work and that you can share and bounce ideas off of," Goding said.
PTAs belong to a national organization and pay dues, while PTO is the more generic term for school groups not affiliated with an overarching structure.
At state PTA meetings and conventions, many members share similar questions and concerns about bookkeeping, parent engagement and fundraising, said Jennifer Doll-Fowler, president of the Nebraska State PTA.
"They want ideas for getting volunteers, for getting membership up, ideas for activities that are bringing some new perspectives to what PTAs are all about," she said.
Some PTAs function as prolific fundraisers for field trips, playground equipment and classroom extras that don't fit in the school budget. Others focus on organizing activities such as sock hops or family science nights or advocating for issues parents and staff care about.
The Bellevue PTA Council meets four times a year and draws from elementary, middle and high school PTAs in the district, council President Nichole Small said.
A Bellevue administrator functions as a liaison between the council and the district, and the quarterly meetings help the different associations collaborate. When a fun run at Leonard Lawrence Elementary last year raised more than $25,000, other PTAs wanted to know how they publicized the event and partnered with local businesses and organizations, Small said.
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