Eco Back to School: Greening Your School’s Parent Organization

Parent/teacher organizations are the work horses of schools across America.  They influence decision-making.  They affect morale.  They connect people–parents, teachers, administrators, communities.  PTO/PTA groups do good things, but Enviro Girl would argue that they can do good things with even greater environmental consciousness.  During her term as PTA president for her kids’ elementary school, she has encouraged changes in how the parent organization and the school does business.  It only takes one parent to act as a catalyst for change at their child’s school.  Some take on curriculum, others become vigilant soldiers in the war for  playground safety, and Enviro Girl became a one-woman show touting environmental issues at her kids’ school.  Below are just a few ways any ordinary person can become an Eco-Superhero and “green” their local PTO/PTA.

1) Keep fundraising event focused (Family Night Out, Brain Bowl, talent night etc.).  People have enough stuff, so quit selling it.  People enjoy events and events build community spirit and bring the focus on FUN instead of STUFF.   Enviro Girl’s PTA has held donkey basketball games, carnivals, sock hops and spaghetti dinners.  Her PTA’s biggest fundraiser is the Brain Bowl–participating students collect pledges and then get quizzed on questions designed by their grade level’s teaching team.  The Brain Bowl requires volunteers and 2-3 reams of paper.  The profit for their organization averages $8,500 a year.  Enviro Girl’s PTA keeps the Brain Bowl from getting stale by limiting who participates–only grades PreK-2 do it, so the participation rate never flags. Enviro Girl got regular solicitations from companies begging her PTA to sell their pizzas and gift wrap and candles.  She gave them her standard rejection line, “Sorry, but we only do event-based fundraising.  No thanks!”

2) If fundraising must be employed, try to do this through local businesses.  Reject the magazine subscriptions from a company in Texas or candles shipped in from China. Gift certificates from the cheese factory up the road, spirit wear from a local seamstress and crafts from local artists are all acceptable “stuff” to sell.  Fundraising in this fashion keeps the money local and increases the quality of the products sold.   (Even though her PTA doesn’t sell them, those cheese gift certificates are very popular in Enviro Girl’s neck of the woods, especially around the holidays.)

3) Purchase exclusively from locally owned and operated businesses. Sure, those treats for Student Appreciation Day cost less at Sam’s Club, but the guy with the local grocery store up the road is part of your community and hey, his price isn’t unfair.  Consider the time/money/energy you save by driving a half mile for treats instead of driving 20 miles!  By supporting local merchants, you reduce transportation costs and spread the local love and support that you ask in return every time you knock door-to-door soliciting silent auction donations or Little League sponsors.  It’s hypocritical to beg the local businesses to help out your group when you never patronize them.

4) Purchase and use a few big Igloo cooler/drink dispensers for events like the teachers’ luncheons and school dances.  Instead of buying bottled water, offer lemonade and water in the coolers with sleeves of paper cups. The cost difference is nil, the reduction in plastic trash and waste is significant.

5) Organize t-shirt swaps–instead of parents purchasing new school shirts each year for the early childhood field trips, coordinate passing along t-shirts each year. The same t-shirt swap can work for park & rec sports teams and Scouts, too!

6) Put money and elbow grease into the abandoned and decrepit Nature Center on your school’s property or create a native prairie or garden on that unused tract of grass in front of your school building.  With the PTA’s support and some grant money, Enviro Girl’s kids have a nature center used on a regular basis by classrooms and ecology has become a huge part of their classroom curriculum with the new resources made available.  One of the most popular summer school classes at their elementary school is Bird Watching!   The PTA recruited Boy Scouts needing Eagle Scout projects to build an outdoor classroom in the Nature Center and now the space is even used by community groups!  Their nature center includes a butterfly garden, prairie and woods so students can explore a variety of ecosystems in one area.   The biodiversity of a schoolyard garden is healthy for the environment and provides the school with an excellent teaching tool.

7) Support the schools’ “healthy foods” campaign by offering yogurt and muffins in lieu of cookies and candy bars as a snack on test days.  If your school doesn’t have a “healthy snacks” rule, advocate for one.

8) Support TerraCycle programs by recycling drink pouches or any of the other packaging the company upcycles.

9) Show your teachers love and appreciation by serving them meals or buying classroom supplies.  Quit buying them coffee mugs and pens and plastic crappe.  Teachers really appreciate food and books, consumable and plastic-free gifts.

10) Go paperless by setting up a website or Facebook group and emailing monthly meeting agendas and minutes.  Enviro Girl’s PTA did this, creating less work and using fewer resources, resulting in greater parent participation.  Turns out everyone is on Facebook these days, while few folks read the school’s monthly newsletter cover to cover.  (Enviro Girl’s PTA still provides paper copies of all communication per parent request.)

11) Take on the environmental issues at your children’s school.  Request that the school buses turn off their engines while idling in front of the building at the end of the day.  Advocate for healthier school lunches.  Beg the school to use non-toxic cleaning supplies.  Demand that the school building meets air and water quality standards.  With the weight of a PTA/PTO behind a movement, great change can take place.

12) Support environmentally conscious curriculum.  Pay for a guest speaker or a school assembly like Shows That Teach or ECOSiZEME to educate students and raise awareness about environmental issues like pollution, trash, consumerism or water conservation.   Hire an artist-in-residence for your school to demonstrate how to use recycled trash to create beautiful things.  Buy books or magazines for the school library or classrooms that take on environmental issues.

13)  Recycle for cash! Enviro Girl’s school earns $1,000 three times a year by holding a paper drive–community members dropped off 2 industrial dumpsters full of their paper for recycling which the PTA then sold to a local paper company.  This is probably the easiest and least invasive fundraising the group ever did and it was good for the planet because it concentrated on reusing and recycling instead of consumption.

Some of these ideas cost money, others are free or cost-neutral. The bottom line is this: one parent CAN make a difference by bringing one idea to the table and “greening” one part of a school’s practice.  What can you do this year at your child’s school to make it greener?  Share your ideas in the comment box!

Disclaimer:  The Eco Women are not employed by any of the companies or groups mentioned in this post.

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