Q&A with Byron Garrett, CEO, National Parent Teacher Association

Print More
byron-garrett

The National PTA is searching for new models to make the organization more relevant and effective in urban communities and with younger parents, says Byron Garrett, the group’s first male chief executive officer. Two examples: Virtual PTA’s, in which members stay in touch through Facebook or YouTube, and community-based models such as the one in Queens, New York, in which schools come together with local organizations to create a PTA. Garrett has a wealth of experience as an education leader and advocate, including a stint as an Arizona charter school principal and director of community and youth development for former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. Garrett, who is raising his two nephews, talked with writer Maren Handorf about parenting today and strategies for engaging parents.

How has your role as a non-biological parent informed your role at PTA?

My two nephews moved in with me when one was in middle school and the other in high school. I went to parent/teacher conferences, I checked their homework. So I really get it from that perspective. But what folks should understand about PTA is that there is a role and an opportunity for everyone. Whether you have children or not, or whether your children have already left home and you’re an empty-nester, there is still an opportunity for you to be engaged if you care about education in the future of this country.

The National PTA is searching for new models to make the organization more relevant and effective in urban communities and with younger parents, says Byron Garrett, the group’s first male chief executive officer. Two examples: Virtual PTA’s, in which members stay in touch through Facebook or YouTube, and community-based models such as the one in Queens, New York, in which schools come together with local organizations to create a PTA. Garrett has a wealth of experience as an education leader and advocate, including a stint as an Arizona charter school principal and director of community and youth development for former Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano. Garrett, who is raising his two nephews, talked with writer Maren Handorf about parenting today and strategies for engaging parents.

How has your role as a non-biological parent informed your role at PTA?

My two nephews moved in with me when one was in middle school and the other in high school. I went to parent/teacher conferences, I checked their homework. So I really get it from that perspective. But what folks should understand about PTA is that there is a role and an opportunity for everyone. Whether you have children or not, or whether your children have already left home and you’re an empty-nester, there is still an opportunity for you to be engaged if you care about education in the future of this country.

Did you have an effective PTA when you were a charter school principal?

We didn’t create a formal PTA, but what we did have was a very active parent group. Parents were extremely engaged because they had spent additional time to seek out this institution. They came to me and said, “You’re the school administrator. Our kids have needs and we want to know how they’re met. How are you spending your budget to impact them and effect change?” There’s a whole concept of what it looks like to have engagement, whether you’re in a PTA or not.

Was there a mix of parents?

It was predominantly women, but we had a significant number of men. We hosted a male involvement program one weekend for our 4th-, 5th- and 6th-grade boys, and obviously the chaperones for that were dads or whoever the caring adult male figure was in the student’s life. We had clergy participate, business executives, folks from the athletic arena—just a wide cross-section so that the students could see a variety of [career] opportunities associated with educational attainment. That was a unique opportunity for us to get men directly engaged in a way that made sense for them. They would say “I don’t want to come talk about fundraising at the cookie sale, but if you’re telling me other ways that I can help my son and daughter, then I’m interested.”

How do you get parents engaged in communities where there is less involvement?

Regardless of whether you’re in a high-income or low-income community, parents care equally about the student’s success. If I’m in an economically distressed or disadvantaged community and Mom is a single parent working two jobs and/or going back to school, then time is simply not there.

We tell folks that PTA is not just about coming to campus for a meeting or showing up for a parent/teacher conference. Your kid also needs you when they come home. We need you to check the homework. We need you to pull it out of the backpack and sit down and have a reading lesson with your kid. Being able to spend quality time with your child is equally important, and in many cases more important, than just coming to the parent/teacher conference.

How do you make PTA relevant in an urban district?

There are a whole host of things. If you look at Chicago specifically, Phil Jackson, the founder of Black Star Project, recognized, “I want to get more men engaged. I want to create a community-based PTA specifically in our area. Our issue is going to be violence.” He has taken the PTA model for how you engage parents and picked a specific issue that parents want to rally around.

What advice would you give to parents and teachers in urban areas who are struggling to find the resources and time to devote to the educational well-being of children?

On the parent end, I tell folks: People make time for the things that they want to do. If mom wants to get her hair done and her nails done, she makes time to do that. If you want to go visit your child, you make time to do that, just as a dad would make time to go to his favorite sporting event.

On the educator’s end, they are already strapped for time and resources but they must continue to expand opportunities for parents to be engaged. If you’re in an urban area and parents are challenged and pressed for time, that may require you to think through, what are other ways I can meet this parent if student achievement is critical? That may mean I need to meet you at 8 o’clock at night, or I need to meet you for coffee on a Saturday morning. Do [teachers] need to do that every weekend? No. But you need to figure out a way that you can reach out to parents, and not from a condescending perspective.

Tell me about that.

Especially in environments where students are not achieving well and it’s a low-income community, often parents already have their own challenges associated with their own [past] school experience. So for a teacher to turn around and say, “Well, you know, your child is not doing well, I need you to do X,”—no. Reframe that conversation and say, “We’re both concerned about John’s learning. We both agree on that. I don’t know what your experience at school has been, but we need to figure out collectively what we do to make sure that he achieves.” The tone and how you approach a parent can make a world of difference so a relationship moves in the right direction.

I hear that time and time again from parents—“People are not being respectful of me. I know I’m not the professional but I don’t need you to tell me I’m a bad parent because I couldn’t help him do his homework. Did you ever consider that maybe I don’t know geometry? Now you’ve made me feel even worse about being a parent for something that I don’t know how to do.” As opposed to saying [as an educator], “Here are some tips and strategies you might use online, or here are some resources to help you so that you have a better understanding.” The parent needs to know that they have that level of relationship and trust with you as an educator.