When opening a new school, there are plenty of details to work out -- placing equipment, arranging furniture, hiring staff -- and it all gets done for that first opening day.
What isn’t so easy is building a culture and creating a base of support from parents and the community at large. Veteran educators often point to the importance of parent/teacher organizations and other volunteers who provide financial support and “sweat equity” for the school.
Union Grove Elementary School principal Kristy Brewer has seen that at the 2-year-old Union Grove Elementary School through its Parent Teacher Organization.
“This group has come in, and people have really supported this,” she said. “They have done a phenomenal job.”
Brewer said part of opening a new school is establishing an identity. The PTO at Union Grove has helped with that because parents are getting involved in the school.
“We’re building a culture all our own, not Friendsville or Mary Blount’s, but our own. This is going to take time. Everybody is new, and we’re still in the process of learning. Now we’re getting down to the nitty-gritty of what this school is,” she said.
Brewer said when the Blount County community of Union Grove was created in the 1800s, it happened because people in the area felt they needed to come together as a community out of necessity. “The Union Grove community was built because of change, and we were built because of change,” she said.
The PTO was started when the school had its first open house during the fall of 2008. A parent volunteered to start it, and then a few more came along, and soon it was growing. “They have taken it and run with it,” said Brewer. “They filled out all the county (school board) paper work. We have the best, gung-ho set of ladies and gentlemen. They’ve been phenomenal,” Brewer said. “They’ve been here on a consistent basis.”
The first year, the newly created PTO raised money to buy pull-down maps for the fifth grade. They also bought books and videos for the library, projector screens for every classroom and other items like hallway clocks. They hope to raise enough money, about $6,500, to install pull-down maps in every grade and to buy other items needed in the classrooms.
Another area they’ve helped out with is in manning the concession stand during ball games. A portion of proceeds from concessions sales goes to the PTO. “They don’t collect dues,” Brewer said.
The principal said the PTO also has a formal process by which teachers fill out paperwork to request additional funds for their classes. “They’re very considerate of what all the kids and teachers need,” she said.
A core of about six to eight individuals leads the group. There are 415 students at the school.
Brewer said the school is doing well in its second year. “We have great students and parents, and our staff works well together,” she said. “The kids go by the office and wave, and they still hug you. You can fuss at them one minute and love them the next. It’s a great job.”
Debbie McCrary has a child in the first grade at Union Grove and took on the job of president of the PTO this year. “I was in the business community for a long time, had a great career and had a child late in life,” she said. She missed the first PTO meeting last year but asked Brewer the next day about assuming some responsibility. She was soon the treasurer and worked with Blount County Schools fiscal administrator Troy Logan to ensure all the proper documentation was filled out while setting up the PTO.
“We look at every child in the school and how they can have a better education and how we can improve their education and try to supply what the county or state is not able to provide,” said McCrary.
For example, the first year, “we didn’t have a library,” said McCrary. “We got money in place, provided small items, and we were able to buy projector screens in every class. We bought little things like hallway clocks.”
The benefits are also the intangible ones, said McCrary. “What is so gratifying to me is when I walk in the school, the students smile and wave. They know I’m here to help them, and it does make me feel good,” she said. “I feel like I’m impacting their lives.”
McCrary said there are 71 members in the Union Grove Elementary PTO. The other officers leading the organization are Jackie Strickland, vice president, Sandra Jacome-Shirley, auditor, Gary Wade, treasurer, and Karen Bennett, secretary.