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Brooke Jennison high-steps over some hurdles as she runs a course Thursday at Roosevelt Elementary School in Fargo. The purpose of the Energ-I-ze project is to hold family events centered on physical activity and nutrition education. Dave Wallis / The Forum
Brooke Jennison high-steps over some hurdles as she runs a course Thursday at Roosevelt Elementary School in Fargo. The purpose of the Energ-I-ze project is to hold family events centered on physical activity and nutrition education. Dave Wallis / The Forum

PTA chapters in North Dakota, Minnesota see growth, bucking national trend

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Membership in North Dakota and Minnesota PTA chapters is rising slightly, bucking a national trend that has seen a big dip in Parent Teacher Association membership over the past decade.

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North Dakota PTA has 5,331 members this year in 38 chapters or units, up from 5,305 last year, said Marcia Hellevang of Fargo, who handles membership extension for the state group.

Mayville joined PTA this year, and Casselton and Central Cass joined North Dakota PTA last year, Hellevang said. A special education chapter has also been added for the Fargo-Moorhead area, she said.

"We're making headway; that's always good," Hellevang said.

Minnesota's PTA membership is 15,169 this year in 203 local chapters, said national PTA spokesman James Martinez. That's up from 14,961 and 193 chapters last year, he said.

At its peak in the 1960s, the PTA claimed about 12 million members nationally.

But the organization saw membership drop drastically in the late 1960s and early '70s, in part due to racial rifts caused by school desegregation.

It then stabilized. But in the past decade, membership has eroded from about 6 million to less than 5 million, though Martinez said the past five years have been fairly stable.

All membership organizations are struggling with numbers due to the economy and with the changes in society that bring a faster pace of life and more single-family households, Martinez said. People just don't have as much time to volunteer, he told The Forum.

Martinez said the national group is providing its chapters with new tools, training and programs to improve membership. "That's the only way we're going to turn it around."

One way North Dakota PTA is attacking the problem is by inviting men and other father figures into what has long been a group largely populated by women.

Sean Brotherson teaches in the department of human development and family science at North Dakota State University. He researches the importance of fathers being involved in their children's lives. He also works on a committee to get men involved in PTA.

"The importance is that every child tends to do better in school and perform better academically when they have parents who are attentive to their educational needs and involved in providing educational support," Brotherson said.

"Where one parent is good, two parents, or more, is better," Brotherson said. "Whether it's a father or a father figure, we encourage men to be more involved."

Hellevang added that the North Dakota PTA is also trying to get grandparents involved.

The PTA's shrinkage is not just due to societal factors.

After all, there are tens of thousands of schools in independent parent-teacher organizations (PTOs)

For example, Moorhead schools have parent-teacher advisory councils, or PTACs, and about half of West Fargo schools have PTAs, and the rest PTOs,

Other factors eroding PTA membership are frustration over state and national dues, and disenchantment with the PTA's role as a vocal advocate on such issues as charter schools, juvenile justice and home-schooling.

One national initiative to turn around enrollment declines involves expanded use of social media. Members are being kept up-to-date via podcasts on National PTA Radio, some meetings and training sessions are being conducted through Skype, and members with expertise as bloggers or tweeters are being recruited as "social media ambassadors" to enhance the PTA's online presence.

Kristi Crawford, the Fargo PTA president, is happy with the increases in membership at the city's schools.

She said an encouraging trend in North Dakota is parent-teacher groups switching from being PTOs back to PTAs.

"West Fargo is a perfect example. They used to be PTOs for the longest time. They're switching back to PTAs," Crawford said. "There are a lot of groups out there that are realizing that they should switch back."

She said PTAs are strongest at the elementary schools, with dedicated groups of 30 to 60 members.

But those groups thin out at the middle school and high school levels, with perhaps 10 adults attending meetings. That, despite the fact that high schools often rely on PTAs to sponsor events like post-prom and post-graduation parties. Local PTAs also raise money for scholarships, Crawford said.

A similar problem is seen in Moorhead, though that school district has Parent Teacher Advisory Councils, which work much like the PTA, but are not affiliated with the national group.

Wendy Howes, a single mother of four, is treasurer for the Horizon Middle School PTAC, one of the most active among Moorhead's schools.

The group buys books for whole grades of students to study at the same time. It has also sent the school's seventh-graders on an annual three-day Courage Retreat to help eliminate bullying.

To that end, the group has raised $20,000 a year for the past three years, Howes said.

She said monetary support for the PTAC is great, but after that, involvement drops off and attendance at meetings is usually just officers.

"C'mon parents, we've got to get involved," Howes said. "That's the big way we can help, is being involved."

One thing national PTA officials say won't happen is that the organization won't back down from lobbying on behalf of children and public schools.

Among many causes over the years, it has campaigned for better nutrition in school cafeterias, fought to sustain arts programs, called for more empathetic treatment of juvenile offenders, and voiced wariness about school vouchers and for-profit charter schools.

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

Material from The Associated Press was used in this story

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