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Utah's PTA leaders follow a path marked by committed predecessors

Barbara Willie laments missing an opera written and performed by students at Alpine Elementary School because she had to speak with educators at a retreat about the PTA's involvement in Utah schools.

Willie, an accomplished pianist who has taught private lessons at her Weber County home for more than 35 years, really would have loved to have gone to the opera. "It's the kind of stuff that makes it all worthwhile."But duty calls. In her first six-months as president of the Utah Parent-Teacher Association, Willie has traveled the state, stumping for increased government funding for education, effective drug- and alcohol-prevention measures, child-abuse watchdog groups and the voice of parents in school activities.

Her message is simple: It takes a village to rear a child.

"We are advocates for children. That's our whole objective. They can't vote. They can't stand up for themselves. So, we do it for them," said Willie, a perfectly coiffed woman with a broad smile.

The PTA, founded 101 years ago Tuesday, claims its roots in an organization called the National Congress of Mothers, which advocated the welfare of children and the family. In 1908, the congress changed its moniker to include the parent and teacher association.

Members believed the name change more closely reflected the involvement of parents, as well as teachers, who were in the growing membership, according to the group's history.

This year, the Utah PTA celebrates 75 years of helping children learn as well as planning games, passing out punch and frosting cookies for school Valentine's Day parties.

The exact day the Utah PTA was organized is unknown, Willie said, but records show the group officially met in 1923. Membership now climbs to as high as 150,000 yearly.

As membership in local chapters grew in the early 1900s, the national PTA took the movement to the world. Representatives from 12 countries on four continents attended 1909's first International Congress on the Welfare of the Child, organized by President Theodore Roosevelt and the PTA.

Before Roosevelt's administration ended, he called a special Conference on Dependent Children the first in a series of White House conferences on children.

The PTA was a strong presence at the Washington, D.C., conference. Since that time, the organization has been a major presence in every White House conference involving the needs of children, according to the activist group's history books.

The tireless volunteer tradition continues today. Willie accepted fewer piano students to accommodate the 10-hour days often demanded of her as president.

A few years ago, she taught 75 private lessons a month. Now she handles about 25.

"I had to cut back to do a volunteer effort," she said, adding she serves on 32 boards of organizations advocating the welfare and education of children.

"We have a lot of partnerships," she said. "Basically, what I'm doing now I couldn't have done when my kids were small."

It has been about eight years since one of Willie's six children was in Utah's public education systems. Willie's oldest daughter, Yvonne, is 34. Her youngest, Craig, is 26. The other four, Brian, Mark, Pam and Scott, come in between.

She and her husband, Ned, started working closely with PTA and Scouting groups when her children were young. She was asked to join the state board 14 years ago after working in the regional council in northern Utah.

"I first got involved because my kids were all so close together," she said. "One of the challenges we face is getting parents involved. It's not that they don't want to get involved, some just don't know how."

Another formidable task is the yearly lobbying effort during the 45-day run of the Legislature. The group has established a comfortable and professional rapport with many legislators, Willie said.

"Our rating with legislators is high," she said. "They know we don't represent anyone but children."

Paula Plant is the PTA's point person on Capitol Hill. She's there whenever lawmakers debate such issues as reducing class sizes, reverting funds from tobacco sales to teen smoking-prevention programs or establishing review boards for potential foster families.

Lobbying efforts, led by Plant and Willie, suffered a small setback last week when legislators gutted a bill that would lower the headcount of students in middle-school classes.

The legislation was changed to allow school districts to divide state allocations as they see fit instead of plugging the resources into sixth, seventh and eighth grades.

"We're disappointed. We're hoping to get an amendment in the Senate," said Plant. She has one child in high school, another in the fourth grade and two others attending college.

The Salt Lake resident said some legislators don't know she works the 10-hour days during the session for free. Her savvy, persistence and constant presence lead some gadflies and lawmakers to assume she's a hired gun for the education group's interests.

"A lot of people are surprised to find out we don't get paid," she said, "and they don't always agree with us, but they are willing to meet with us and hear our concerns."

Plant believes the focus of the PTA has not changed since its origins: Men and women who belong to the group are devoted to giving children an opportunity to grow, she said.

"It's not just punch and cookies, although that's an important part of the PTA's work with schools and teachers and administrators," she said. "We have an advocacy role."

Lisa Dunn is one parent who wholeheartedly took on the volunteer role. She realized the need for hands-on involvement with young students while her eldest daughter was in school several years ago,.

"It's so important to be at the school and see what the kids are doing," said Dunn, who is the PTA president at Brockbank Elementary in Spanish Fork.

But not all parents are able to invest that kind of time in the classroom. "It's challenging to get help sometimes because so many mothers work," she said. "And many of them have church callings and other responsibilities. By the time they do all those things, this is just extra."

Among the difficult tasks local PTA presidents face is fund raising and implementing new programs. Dunn has had mixed results in these areas. The school is trying to raise money for a new playground through the General Mills box-top program. For every cereal box top sent to General Mills by students, the school receives 15 cents.

"It's been tough to get kids to do that," she said.

On the other hand, the "Swish" program, which allows children to receive periodic dosages of fluoride, has made quite an impression. "I'm recognized by the kids wherever I go," Dunn said. "At the grocery store, kids will come up to me and say, `Hey, you're the `Swish' lady.' "

"I've enjoyed working with the principal and teachers. It's a good experience," she added.

"The best part of the PTA is getting to know the kids."

"It's a great partnership. It's a wonderful way to know what goes on at school and get to know the faculty," said Debra Ward, PTA president at Sage Creek Elementary in Springville.

"I've seen the extra things that teachers do. Some arrive early at the school to read with kids who are having trouble. Teachers aren't paid to do that, but they do it. No one knows about it."



History of the PTA dates to 1900

1900 - Charter for the National Congress of Mothers incorporates under laws of District of Columbia.

1908 - Name is altered to National Congress of Mothers and Parent-Teachers Associations to reflect the membership and role as an advocate for children and education.

1910 - Group establishes Feb. 17 as Founders Day. Resolutions at annual convention endorsed instruction and care of mother after a birth of a child and advocated supervision of motion pictures and vaudeville acts by local organizations. Membership reaches 20,000.

1911 - PTA recommends to federal government that kindergarten be made part of the public school system.

1913 - First conference of National Education Department opens door for organizing PTAs in many schools across the country.

1924 - Organization adopts a new name: National Congress of Parents and Teachers. More than 875,000 parents and teachers belong in 48 state branches.

1934 - PTA rallies to save schools during the Depression.

1956 - PTA reaches goal of 10 million memberships. A library services bill, long advocated by the PTA, signed into law.

1966 - Dues are increased from 5 cents to a dime. American leaders met with PTA leaders in India, Philippines and Taiwan.

1984 - Reflections scholarship programs under way. More than 300,000 students write poems, stories, draw pictures and compose songs in the annual contest. Membership rises 1.3 percent to more than 5.4 million members after 20 years of sagging numbers.

1997 - National PTA celebrates 100th anniversary with Washington, D.C., gala. The group is successful in getting content information included in TV ratings.