In a school with almost 500 pupils, the PTA had 24 parents. People paid their $5 membership dues but never showed up at meetings or events.
“I wasn’t satisfied with the way it was,” said the mother of four from Brooklyn, N.Y.
“I realized the changes Richmond County needed to make to have a functioning PTA.”
Determined to make PTA an educational tool in Augusta, Braswell ran for Richmond County Council of PTAs president, got elected this year and has made advocacy and participation her main goals.
This year, the 51 schools in the council have more members than any other county in the state. So far in 2011, it has increased its membership to 7,802, the highest since 2003.
Braswell said the increase is due to a sense of urgency to advocate for issues and new leaders who don’t back down.
The problems that plagued Richmond County PTA in past years, which led to its membership plunging as low as 4,966 in 2007, were mostly logistical, Braswell said.
Council presidents weren’t properly managing memberships, accepting the dues but never submitting numbers to the state.
Boards of directors weren’t following certain state policies, which made paperwork confusing, Braswell said.
That changed when Braswell and her board received district and state training this summer. They learned how to document the budgets, recruit, do paperwork and collaborate with principals.
The organization turned knowledge into motivation and began influencing parents to get more involved in their kids’ lives.
Schools with nearly nonexistent membership exploded. Glenn Hills Middle School’s PTA went from 27 members to 201 this year, Wilkinson Gardens Elementary School shot from 22 to 550 members, and Murphey Middle gradually increased over the years to 678.
“Most people joined PTA in the past because their mom joined the PTA when they were in school, and they really did it just because it’s a tradition thing that their family has always done, not because they really understood what the PTA really does,” said Dawn Duncan, the Richmond County Council of PTAs’ first vice president. “Now they understand.”
Richmond County is one of 13 counties in Georgia PTA District 8. District 8 Director William Good said the participation seen in Richmond County is not a trend.
“It’s pretty bad,” Good said. “Parents are not involved. I think sometimes people get scared of giving time.”
The 13-county district has about 8,000 members, with Richmond County carrying almost all of that at 7,802, Good said.
Keeping a thriving council of PTAs is not easy, though. Braswell works 18 hours a day, answering calls, sending e-mails, visiting schools and doing paperwork.
People say her aggressiveness has given the PTA new energy. Braswell sits in on every Richmond County Board of Education meeting and sends board members blunt e-mails when they say something that offends her or her organization.
She didn’t hesitate to send Georgia PTA president Donna Kosicki a 1,100-word e-mail to tell her she used “poor leadership and judgment” in how she handled a complaint against Richmond County.
After Braswell told a Richmond County school board member he offended her in comments he made about the PTA in a recent meeting, she rejected his handshake and said she’d shake his hand when he shows her respect.
“I don’t deal with bullies,” Braswell said.
Along with the national push to change the perception of PTA as a fundraising group for stay-at-home moms, Braswell and her team are determined to be more involved with local issues.
“A lot of people don’t know we’re at the Capitol fighting to keep nurses in schools,” Braswell said, citing trips local members make to Atlanta. “We believe in the public school system. We fight for it. You’re going to put taxes on food? We fight it. We fight against things like alcohol sales on Sunday. Anything that’s actually going to affect our children.”
National PTA President-Elect Ortha Thornton said he has shared some of Braswell’s techniques with the national membership chairman.
In her back-to-school drive, Braswell made each family get a ticket to redeem for free supplies. To get the ticket, they had to visit their school’s PTA booth, which exposed them to information and membership materials.
“It was really genius,” said Thornton, who attended Augusta elementary and middle schools as a child. “(Braswell) clearly understands PTA, No. 1, is for advocacy, then membership; then she understands that PTA is a business. She makes sure she visits all her schools. She cares about the children. That’s very impressive.”
Braswell knows that the work ahead is cut out for her. It’s one thing to get the members, but another thing to get those parents to volunteer, attend meetings and advocate on issues.
It’s a fight she said she can make with the determined team behind her.
“Now we want our voices to be heard. We want the children to be heard, and this is the only way we can do that,” Braswell said.