The (First) Man for the Job
Q: Your role as national PTA president is slightly different from previous presidents.
Saylors: The PTA as an association has been in place since 1897, and I'm the first man to serve as national president. I was installed in June 2009 for a two-year term. I'm coming into the end of my first year. As far as we can tell I'm also the first national president that still has his or her own children in grade school. I have a fifth-grader and a seventh-grader. My oldest is 25 and my only daughter is 23. A number of my predecessors have had grandchildren in school but not their own child still in grade school. I'm currently also on the school board of the Greenville County (S.C.) School district.
Q: So does having kids in school impact this leadership position?
Saylors: I absolutely understand what parents are going through. I've got a child with an IEP, and I know exactly what it is that parents have to deal with for children with learning disabilities and having to interact with administrators. So I'm hoping that kind of gives the families that we serve an understanding that I know some of the challenges they face.
Q: What's the biggest initiative that PTA is dealing with currently?
Saylors: There are two things we're working on from a legislative standpoint. The first is related to the reauthorization of ESEA. Parental engagement has got to be a larger focus of that legislation than it currently is. We're very hopeful that the Obama administration will add some more teeth to the legislation in the Blueprint for Reform, so we are looking forward to that conversation. Also, we are very much involved in the promotion of the approval of common core standards. We've had this as an issue for 10 years. It's not fair—and that's probably not the right word to use—but it's not fair to expect children to be successful border to border, coast to coast if everybody's not singing off the same page in the hymnbook. That's what common core does. We received a $1 million Gates Foundation grant where we're actually working at a grassroots level in about four states—fixing to add five more, so nine states—as pilot programs to getting that approved within those states.
Q: How has the organization been challenged with the financial crisis?
Saylors: Over the last several decades, the PTA has been seen more as a fundraising arm of education, and that's been an unfortunate necessity. As school districts have had to shave budgets for this and that, many times the parents have had to cover the copier expenses, paper in the classroom, or the costs for a field trip—things that districts in the past normally covered. Because budgets are being cut more, parents, and thus the PTA, are being asked to do more, like supplying computer labs, paying for musical instruments and physical education supplies— and that's in the areas where they're fortunate enough to have the money, program and the teacher.
What we find frustrating is that we have elected officials in our state government and in the halls of Congress that when you approach them and say, "Look, education needs to be covered better or held harmless (or whatever the term of the day is)—when it comes to budget cuts, how are you going to do it?" they say, "I don't know."
They have no idea. We've lost the age of a statesman and we've gained the age of a politician. This is, for the most part, not all of them. Some are truly working very hard to make sure education is supported, but they're in the minority. And this is on both sides of the aisle. This is not a party issue; this is a philosophy issue.
Q: The PTA is best known for volunteering. How has volunteerism been impacted?
Saylors: When I was in school, I was lucky enough that my father worked and my mother did not. My mother was able to volunteer in the school, although my father was very active as well. Today, however, Dad works, Mom works, and in many cases, more than one job each. e level of need has never diminished, but the talent pool has. And so, one of the things we're trying to do as the PTA is encourage parents, and any other adult family member that care to contribute time, to be willing to volunteer three hours of time during the school year.
We have a program with the PTA called Three for Me. It asks an adult to contribute three hours of time throughout the school year. It can be at one time or broken up over the year. We still get these folks that'll say, "I can't do that because I don't have time." My response is, "Can you go to a movie, watch the movie, and come home in less than 180 minutes?" When you dial it down like that, the light bulb comes on and they say, "Oh, I think I can do that."
My point is, getting them in the door is the key. If you can convince an adult to contribute three hours, we have tracked that they'll agree to give three and end up giving nine or 10. If you get them in the door, they'll come back.
Q: What about parents who do not speak English? They are often intimidated to participate in their children's schools. We've written about school districts that have created homegrown programs to try to welcome them. Has the PTA addressed this?
Saylors: We need to reach out to all communities regardless of background and regardless of income level. The PTA has been working to try to identify ways that we as an association can communicate with those very communities that you're talking about.
As a matter of fact, on our Web site, pta.org, your readers can go on and download four different documents that we've produced in 12 different languages. We're getting ready to do the next 12. We polled our states a little while ago as to what their top translation needs are. California does a tremendous job, as do Texas, Florida, and some of the larger states with more diverse populations. We set up metrics of the highest priorities. Hopefully by the end of this year we'll have a wide array of our most popular printed materials related to parental engagement. That's just a drop in the bucket, though. We've got to do more, but we do see that as a big need.
Q: How do you handle being the president of the PTA and a school board member with two children in school, time wise?
Saylors: (laughs) And a full-time job? I'm a volunteer. As national PTA president, I do not get a salary. I work for a company that builds schools, oddly enough. I'm in the construction management business. I work for them as a day job, if you will, then my position with the PTA, plus my school board, plus my family. It is an exercise in creative scheduling. I'll be the fi rst to admit that I work for a company that is tremendously supportive and that I could not do this without the support of my family. My wife is a saint.
—Judy Faust Hartnett