Originally created 10/25/98

Parents join PTA before child starts



CUMMING, Ga. -- Their children aren't yet in kindergarten -- some of them aren't even potty trained -- but these gung-ho parents are already in the Parent Teacher Association.

Preschool PTA programs are popping up all over the country, especially in suburbs where parents often push their children -- even the young ones -- to overachieve.

In Forsyth County, a rural, but rapidly growing area about 45 miles north of Atlanta, 150 parents -- and zero teachers -- are in the preschool PTA.

Moms and dads are opening up their homes for play groups, taking their small tots to weekly outings to pumpkin patches and fire stations and attending monthly meetings that feature experts on everything from time management to saving for college.

"When you're looking at parents of young children, they're usually very enthusiastic," said Caroline Butler, education commissioner for the national PTA and an elementary school principal in New Hampshire.

"What we're really seeing is the need to organize and help parents understand the importance of parent involvement in the early childhood years."

The groups fill a need unmet by community groups, giving parents -- especially those who stay at home with their child -- a chance to meet others and share ideas for raising toddlers.

"It's a saving grace for me ... not to hear baby talk all the time," said Colleen Bankston, a Cumming mother.

Mrs. Bankston joined Forsyth County's preschool PTA to meet others and to teach her 21-month-old son, Knight, social skills before he reached kindergarten.

The biggest draw for her was the play group, which promised her a day out of the house to hang out with other moms and give her son some playmates.

"It's nice for them to have a play date. It helps them get used to being with other kids," said Lisa Barger, watching her 19-month-old daughter, Elizabeth, maneuver around toys and four other kids at a recent play group. "It helps parents know what to do with kids at this stage."

In Forsyth County, membership increases at each monthly meeting. This year, the PTA added one play group for children 10-months-old to one year and already needs another one.

"PTA as a whole is a child advocacy group, in a way," said Sondra Gross, president of the Forsyth County PTA. "The earlier you start with kids learning, the better off they are."

She said the group early on met a need in the county, which had no other groups to help parents meet others or answer questions about being a new parent.

"It's not so much for kids, it's also for moms of little ones," she said.

Mrs. Butler said the PTA also hopes to train parents to be advocates for their children.

"For all PTAs, it's helping them to realize they are the voice for children and children's issues, be it immunization, be it health issues, be it educational issues," she said.

But some stay-at-home moms admit they joined the PTA, especially the play groups, for purely selfish reasons.

"When you stay at home with little ones, you crave adults," said Mrs. Barger.

Says Karen Medeiros, mother of 21-month-old William: "It gives you a reason to get up and get dressed."