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Leading the Way: The Journey of Graham High School’s PTO

Leading the Way: The Journey of Graham High School’s PTO

By the Harwood Narrative Team

Photo credit: April McCorvey

Like all parents, April McCorvey wants the best school experience for her child. McCorvey had joined parent teacher organizations (PTOs) before and knew the benefits that come from families and schools working together. So, when her son entered Graham High School in August 2022, she was anxious to join forces with other parents and school staff to make his experience the best it could be. 

This should be easy, she thought. Graham High was, after all, the same school she had graduated from a generation before and returning as a parent felt like coming home. But to her surprise, Graham High did not have a functioning parent group. “You get it started, Ms. McCorvey, I’ll back you 100%,” she was told  by Graham High’s principal, Joshua Brown, when she visited.

An advocate of parent-school collaboration, Principal Brown was disappointed that Graham did not currently have an established parent organization. He’d worked with active PTOs in other schools and knew the positive impact they had on a school community. He was thrilled when, with a bit of nudging, McCorvey eventually agreed to take on the challenge of starting a PTO at Graham High School.

The stage was set: two determined individuals with a shared purpose, a school with deep community roots, and a small but dedicated cadre of parents, teachers and community members standing in the wings, poised to take action when the opportunity arose. 

It would not be easy. Graham High was a school in transition. County-wide redistricting and newly-initiated magnet programs at Graham had caused a substantial shift in the student population. Families long-associated with Graham High were sent to other schools while families newly districted to Graham brought a fresh set of ideas and new cultures. 

McCorvey took the reins and enlisted the aid of several parents, school personnel and school board members. “We had no idea how to get this started,”  she said in terms of the grassroots process of building something from the ground up. “And we often felt like we were constructing a bicycle while riding it.” 

But ride, they did. With the support of Sandy Ellington-Graves, an actively-involved school board member, and the working-knowledge of a parent who was an attorney, they successfully navigated the legalities and logistics of creating a new organization. By the end of October 2022, the Graham High School PTO was up and running.

Their goals were similar to those of many school PTOs: support all members of an increasingly-diverse school family; provide productive ways for parents to get involved; forge bonds among parents, staff, students and the greater community; show appreciation for the people who maintain a safe learning environment for all students; and improve community perceptions of Graham High.  

These were ambitious goals for a group whose opening bank balance was zero. Their first order of business would need to include fundraising. Their fledgling organization would not last long if they had to pay for events out of their own pockets. 

Fortunately, they found many allies in the community and, soon, things began to fall into place. Principal Brown fully supported their efforts and attended every meeting. The school’s athletic booster club offered mentoring and collaboration and, soon, the two groups were working together on school events. Local business owners like Griffin McClure teamed up to support special events. Ellington-Graves and fellow school board member Dan Ingle were ready to help. Even alumni groups stepped up with donations. 

Their first year focused on celebrating the contributions of, and offering support to, various members of the school community. They held appreciation days for teachers and administrators, and even had a special day for Robert Park, the student resource officer assigned to Graham High. There was a Thanksgiving lunch for teachers that fall and popcorn for students on World Kindness Day in the spring. 

With a year’s experience behind them, the PTO started strong in Fall 2023. They’ve continued to support students and staff, but are now collaborating on special events that address the needs of the community. Two such events are the Hispanic Family Night and the 2023 Homecoming Raffle.

Growing diversity in Graham brings both new opportunities and new challenges to the school. Many Graham parents have limited English proficiency and, according to Principal Brown, often feel excluded from the school community. This past October, the PTO joined forces with several Spanish teachers, culinary students at the Career and Technical Education Center (CTEC) and community members to host a Title I-funded Hispanic Family Night to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month, complete with food, music and dancing. This event celebrated the heritage of many Graham residents and served as a welcoming invitation to those families who had previously been left out of the day-to-day school events. 

PTO members are always anxious to collaborate with other parent groups at the school and with the greater Graham community as a whole. In Fall 2023, the PTO partnered with the school’s Athletic Boosters and local businesses for a special homecoming celebration. The two worked together to raffle three baskets and were able to raise money for both organizations. Alumni returned from classes dating back to 1979, and the class of 1998 even gave a generous donation to the school. 

Both McCorvey and Principal Brown believe the time and energy spent on PTO development has been worthwhile. Principal Brown sees the PTO as an extra layer of support for students, teachers, parents and school communities. Improved communication helps parents better understand the school’s strengths and challenges and, in turn, they become better advocates for positive change. 

McCorvey agrees and adds that her involvement has transformed her as an individual. “I look at things differently now,” she explains. “I notice that regardless of where the students are from, I want to help them. I want them to succeed.” She adds that there are days when her PTO work keeps her almost too busy, but then reminds herself, “This is what I’m supposed to do. This is my purpose for the moment while my son is in school. This is where I need to be.” 

Graham High’s PTO development now serves as a model for other ABSS schools. When asked for assistance, Graham folks freely share their story of how a few parents, some dedicated administrators and teachers and a local community have joined forces to make a difference.