"So there I am, and it's 15 mothers and me," recalled Frank Kwan, communications director for the Los Angeles County Office of Education. "And they're looking at me funny, as if to say, 'Do you have a real job?' It took a little bit of adjustment."
Soon other fathers approached Kwan when they found out he was the only dad who volunteered in Alaina's class in Glendale, Calif. By the end of the school year, 10 fathers joined in as classroom helpers, thanks in part to Kwan's pitch: Just give it a try.
Such outreach is happening across the country as the PTA aims to recruit members and develop leaders among groups not widely represented, particularly men and Hispanics.
Nine of 10 PTA members are women and more than eight in 10 are white, the organization estimates. Hispanics, the country's largest minority, are projected to account for almost one in four public school children by 2020, yet they make up only 4 percent of the PTA's 6.2 million members.
The group was founded as the National Congress of Mothers more than a century ago and later changed its name to the Parent-Teacher Association. The PTA has realized that to back up its slogan - "Every Child, One Voice" - it needs some fresh voices of its own.
"You can't be a parent organization, a really strong, vibrant one, if you're not reflective of all the parents," said National PTA President Linda Hodge of Colchester, Conn. "It's imperative for the organization to make that happen."
The PTA's national agenda over the years has ranged from promoting polio vaccinations to teaching parenting skills. At the local level, PTAs often pay for field trips, computer software and textbooks the school system could not otherwise afford, along with getting volunteers to help in classrooms or with school projects.
With 26,000 local chapters, the PTA is active in more than one of every four public schools. Yet more diversity is needed for the organization to remain relevant, strengthen its base and build its clout, leaders say.
All that leads to the top goal: helping more kids succeed by getting parents or guardians involved in schools. Research on fathers, for example, shows children do better in class when fathers get involved.
"Historically, a school has been a place where the women go in, help out the teacher, help out in the office and, if you want to go further back, do the bake sales," said Renata Witte, immediate past president of the New Mexico PTA. "As dads have become more of a partner in the raising of children, I'm not sure we've changed that school culture."
The New Mexico PTA sent every school in the state a brochure of activities for dads, featuring a clip-and-send form for fathers who want to read in class. Every school also got posters promoting participation by dads, Witte said, designed to make sure male visitors don't feel like intruders.
Men tend to like serving on legislative committees, helping with school technology and landscaping projects and aiding students in class, leaders say. What they do not like is sitting through those traditional PTA meetings.
"That's just the nature of men," said Mark Clinard, a minister and president-elect of the PTA at Harp Elementary in Springdale, Ark. "They want to come and get a list - 'What do I need to do to help?' - as opposed to discussing, 'Are we going to do this? Should we do this?' You can watch men, they'll just tune out."
Clinard, who got plugged in through a program that encourages dads to spend a day at a school, said getting more male leaders will take time. At his first state PTA meeting, for example, people were puzzled a father would be so engaged. It was assumed he was a teacher or administrator.
To recruit Hispanic parents, many of whom have never had a PTA as part of their culture, the National PTA regularly produces materials in both English and Spanish. A Hispanic outreach initiative is being tried in California, Florida and Texas.
An organizer in that program, Rick Mendiondo of Harlingen, Texas, has worked to build the PTA's Hispanic base in towns near the Mexico border. Over the past year, eight schools in the community of Los Fresnos, Texas, have formed PTAs. Still, the low Hispanic membership figure nationally underscores how much ground the PTA has to cover.
"That just motivates me, and hopefully I can build that motivation in others," said Mendiondo, an insurance broker.
Kwan has been an advocate of fatherhood initiatives for years, but his rapid rise to National PTA board member began with his experience as a classroom volunteer. Children can be good recruiters for the PTA, said Kwan, who watched other fathers get hooked on helping when students joyfully tugged on them in class.
"It becomes 'Oh yeah, you got me,"' he said. "That's how it begins."
By Ben Feller