All the parent-teacher association had to do was start a reading program for Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary. That’s all that mattered for Wallace Bridges, the president and founder of the parent group.

A narrow focus was right for the Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary PTA. Nearly all students at the school qualify for a free lunch. A broad PTA that focused more on fundraising to bring extra programs to schools wouldn’t work because most parents were simply trying to meet their household needs. About 42% of residents in the surrounding neighborhood live below the poverty line, and nearly half of children do, too.

A year later, the PTA has a small and dedicated group of volunteers who students run up to and tell them they have been reading. The parents reward Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary students with small prizes when they reach their reading goals. And the group holds meetings at places and times during which more parents can attend.

What is a PTA?

PTA is short for Parent Teacher Association. These are groups of parents and teachers that advocate for students and help bring programs to their schools.

This tailoring of  the organization has so far paid off for the Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary PTA. Meeting the needs of a school, as well as its parents, could be a way to introduce PTAs into more campuses across Fort Worth ISD, where four out of 10 schools have a PTA.

Fort Worth ISD has 57 active PTAs, according to Texas PTAs, a statewide organization. The district has 140 campuses. 

Bridges, now a school board member-elect, wants every campus to have a PTA, and believes what he was able to do at Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary is a blueprint for the schools that don’t have this kind of parent engagement.

“We always felt that the PTA was just a spark. If we could get that going to promote a reading program, we believed that it would spill over to other pieces,” Bridges said.

Few well-funded PTAs mirror district

For the most part, schools that lack a PTA are like Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary: campuses that have a majority of students of color and where a majority of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

PTAs that raised significant amounts of money tend to be at schools where fewer students qualify for free or reduced lunches, according to a Fort Worth Report analysis. Texas describes these students as economically disadvantaged. More than 85% of Fort Worth ISD students fit this description..

The Report analyzed publicly available tax forms that PTAs, which are nonprofit organizations, have to submit. The analysis compared the groups against all active PTAs in the district and the demographics of their campuses.

Only 11 PTAs had publicly available tax documents. Only one of those PTAs, the group at Maude Logan Elementary, was at a campus that serves a higher percentage of economically disadvantaged students than the overall district number. Nearly all Logan Elementary students qualify for free or reduced lunch. The last publicly available tax form for the Logan Elementary PTA is from 2009.

Two of the PTAs that are flush with cash are at schools where white students are the majority of enrollment. 

Overton Park Elementary PTA raised $631,139 in revenue in 2021. Nearly 79% of students are white. Tanglewood Elementary PTA raised $306,806 in revenue last year. About 66% of students are white.

Across the entire district, white students make up 11% of enrollment.

‘Some schools have access’

This reality isn’t lost on some parents who lead the more well-off PTAs in Fort Worth ISD. 

Jessica Morrison is the membership chair of the Lily B. Clayton Elementary PTA. She will be the group’s president starting in the 2023-24 school year. Fort Worth ISD has room to grow more PTAs to help more students, Morrison said.

“It’s an area where there are inequities in our community,” Morrison said. “Some schools have access to these resources from their PTA and other schools don’t.”

The Lily B. Clayton Elementary PTA gives teachers some additional funds so they can buy more materials for their classrooms. Sometimes the group will even pay for a speciality program or curriculum that might help an educator enhance their teaching.

Outside of the classroom, the PTA is geared toward building community. The group hosts a dance in February for girls and their male role models and also plans sports day for boys and their mother figures. The PTA also will provide scholarships for fifth graders to go on their field trip to Austin and San Antonio.

Unlike the Overton Park and Tanglewood PTAs, the Lily B. Clayton group helps a school that is fairly diverse and where 43% of students are economically disadvantaged. Enrollment is 46% white, nearly 44% Latino, 6.3% Black, 1.8% Asian and 1.8% other. 

The Lily B. Clayton PTA raised $150,239 last year. Part of its revenues came from the $6.50 fees parents have to pay when joining. But Morrison noted the group is fortunate to have members who are able to contribute beyond the member fee to help boost the PTA’s success.

Although the Fort Worth ISD Council of PTAs helps schools that don’t have these groups, Morrison wants to see a future where all campuses have a group like hers.

“It would be great if there were more of these sorts of resources and community-building opportunities through a PTA in all of our schools,” she said.

Rise of more activist parents

Parent engagement is changing and it has gained a political bent that no longer fits inside the traditional PTA structure, according to a new report from Georgetown University. FutureEd, an independent think tank at Georgetown University, published the report in April. 

Across the country, some parents have pushed the typically apolitical PTAs to the side and started their own groups. 

These more activist parents are more politically engaged and demand more policy change from their school boards, according to the report. Some of these groups also are conservative and were born out of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions and a backlash to some districts’ efforts to examine race, gender and sexuality.

Fort Worth ISD is no exception. One local group is Improve FWISD, which has leaned into more of these political issues instead of taking a more traditional PTA-like approach.

More conservative parents and other residents have organized to voice their concerns about pandemic restrictions, how students are taught about diversity and limiting books available to students. 

At the June 14 school board meeting, two conservative parents brought up those concerns and how the district’s next superintendent should not wade into those issues.

“This is what we don’t want: We don’t want any more CRT (critical race theory), equity, gender fluidity. We don’t care. We want a classical education for our kids, and we want less distractions from all that stuff,” Arlington Heights High School parent Todd Daniels told trustees.

Copying Van Zandt-Guinn PTA

Morningside Elementary is one of the 83 Fort Worth ISD schools that doesn’t have a PTA. The school is just a short 2-mile drive away from Van Zandt-Guinn Elementary. Both campuses feed into the same middle school and high school. And both campuses have similar student demographics. 

Yet, only one has a PTA — for now. 

Bridges has been talking to parents at Morningside Elementary about how to start a PTA like the one he leads at Van Zandt-Guinn. He has told them the lessons he has learned. Don’t expect to raise tons of money. Expect to start out with a small number of members. Meet parents where they are and at times that work for them.

The Van Zandt-Guinn PTA president has stressed one thing above all to the Morningside parents: Find a singular cause, rally behind it and use it as the vehicle to drive the PTA. 

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.