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PTA Preschool Chapters Draw In New Parents

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As a newcomer to Cumming, Ga., a fast-growing community north of Atlanta, Nancy Carlson had a home in one of the town's pristine new subdivisions--a perfect place to raise her two preschool-age boys.

What she didn't have was a way to meet other parents with children the same age.

"It was very distressing," Ms. Carlson recalled recently. "There were no playgrounds. There was nothing."

So through a local church newsletter, Ms. Carlson began searching for parents interested in starting a preschool PTA, something she was involved in when she lived in Plano, Texas. Marie Clewis, the mother of a 1-year-old and a newborn, recently had relocated from Orlando, Fla., and responded to the ad.

"I was desperate," said Ms. Clewis, who frequented the local McDonald's restaurant just to talk to other parents. "It was difficult to make lasting friendships."

The two women soon founded the Forsyth County Early Childhood PTA and had 75 members in just a few months. Now 3 years old, the 150-member group organizes an assortment of activities, such as field trips, play groups, and informational meetings. The parents also maintain a lending library, publish a newsletter, and run a baby-sitting co-op.

A Growing Trend

Preschool affiliates, such as the one in Cumming, are a growing segment of the nationwide PTA membership.

There are now 359 preschool chapters of the Chicago-based National PTA, including elementary school PTAs that have a preschool component. Several state affiliates and local PTA presidents say they regularly receive inquiries from parents or groups that want to organize preschool chapters. There are more than 26,000 PTAs nationwide.

"In general, people are becoming more aware of how important those preschool years are," said Jolene Davis, the chairwoman of the Illinois PTA's early-childhood-development committee.

Unlike the typical parent-teacher associations based at individual schools, preschool groups often round up parents from several neighborhoods and various early-childhood programs. They also open their meetings to child-care providers, grandparents, and others who are involved in caring for young children.

Most of these parent groups welcome members with infants and toddlers as well.

"When new parents leave the hospital, there are a lot of decisions and choices they have to make," said Vivian Williams, a parent-involvement coordinator for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system in North Carolina. "They're looking for information, and they just need someone to offer it to them."

Janice Cox, the president the state PTA in Georgia, said there has been considerable interest in starting new preschool groups there because of the state's lottery-funded program for 4-year-olds, which now serves about 60,000 children statewide. More than 25 such groups now exist in Georgia, and the state office gets calls weekly from people interested in organizing local preschool affiliates.

Ms. Cox said that while she was serving on a statewide school-violence task force--before the prekindergarten program began in 1993--she recognized that the PTA was overlooking young children.

"If we are going to combat violence in our neighborhoods, we need to begin prevention from birth on," she said. "I realized that the zero-to-five age group had been an area where we had really not been inclusive with our programs."

Reaching New Parents

Outreach to new parents--and to parents who are new to the growing Charlotte, N.C., area--is the main focus of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg preschool PTA. The group delivers "educational gift packages" to Charlotte's hospitals for all new mothers and runs workshops for teenage parents during the school day.

One mission of early-childhood PTAs should be to prepare young children and their parents for the transition into elementary school, said Caroline Butler, the principal of Maple Wood Elementary School in Somersworth, N.H., and the head of the National PTA's early-childhood team.

A report released this fall from the Carnegie Corporation of New York said that transition activities, such as visiting the new school, should be a key part of every early-care and education program.

But according to "Years of Promise," which focused on children 3 to 10, "only 10 percent of elementary schools report systematic contact between previous caregivers or teachers or hold joint training with the staff of preschool programs located in their communities." ("Carnegie Offers Reform Strategy for Ages 3 to 10," Sept. 18, 1996.)

Smooth transitions are the main objective of a two-year project, co-sponsored by the National PTA and the Alexandria, Va.-based National Head Start Association. Parent involvement always has been an ingredient of Head Start, the federally funded preschool program for low-income children. But organizers of "Continuity for Success," the NHSA-PTA project, want that level of participation to continue when the Head Start parents encounter an often intimidating, and sometimes unwelcoming, public school system.

The three pilot sites involved in the project are Rochester, N.Y., Charlotte, N.C., and El Paso, Texas. The North Central Regional Educational Laboratory in Oak Brook, Ill., is developing an evaluation model that the project leaders can use to gauge the success of the program.

In Rochester, for example, some of the Head Start parents have attended a kindergarten orientation, while others are enrolled in the school district's "parent academy" program, which introduces parents to the system's policies and procedures, shows them how to get involved, and presents tips on how they can help their children be more successful in school.

Mary Conyer, one of the parents in the Rochester program, has seven children. Her oldest is in 10th grade, but she said that hasn't made her an expert on the public schools.

With a 4-year-old daughter now in Head Start, she said the Continuity for Success program is teaching her how to be a more active and confident parent.

"I probably will volunteer more than I would have, knowing that my involvement will reflect on her and motivate her a little more," Ms. Conyer said.

One of the program's objectives is to address the obstacles that keep parents from being involved and attending group meetings, said Jan Naujokas, the New York PTA liaison to the program. Since many low-income parents cannot afford a baby sitter, child care is always offered so that parents can participate.

Each site has received about $10,000 to pay for child-care costs, send parents to training seminars, and cover other small expenses.

Results of the evaluation will be released at the end of next year and will be made available to other communities interested in establishing similar partnerships.

No Extended Family

PTA organizers say the demand for such programs is symptomatic of the isolation many mobile young parents of preschool-age children feel. Many of them don't have extended families to call on for help or advice.

Aside from the regular outings provided by Georgia's Forsyth County Early Childhood PTA, Ms. Clewis said, parents are just glad to find a sympathetic shoulder to lean on and to have playmates for their children.

With a growing emphasis on "school readiness," preschool PTAs also are an important help for parents who are trying to decide on appropriate educational programs for their children.

"We're saying it's never too early to get involved in your public schools," Ms. Butler said.

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