Poulsbo resident Laura Bay was installed as president of the National PTA earlier this month. She says early learning, health and safety, and family engagement are top priorities for her two-year tenure.

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These days, parent-teacher associations are about more than bake sales and art projects. Individual regions and councils tackle concerns that range from cyber-bullying to achievement gaps and from the importance of early reading skills to including families that speak a language other than English at home.

Laura Bay says she’s ready to take on all of those issues in her new role as president of National PTA, the largest volunteer child advocacy organization in the country. Bay, who lives in Poulsbo, first got involved in the PTA in the early 1990s when her oldest son, Andrew, started kindergarten at Bremerton’s View Ridge Elementary School.

Bay recently spoke with Education Lab from Tulsa, Okla., where she was participating in a state PTA convention. What follows are excerpts of our conversation. The responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Q: What prompted you to first get involved with PTA? 

A: When Andrew entered kindergarten, I was interested in knowing about the school. So I spent some time up there and got to know that they needed help in a lot of ways. Schools just don’t run on their own. They have PTAs that help them with fundraising or helping with events. I saw that when volunteers were in the classrooms or helped up with activities, it just opened up the world for all kids and helped the learning in the classroom.

After I volunteered in the kindergarten classroom, a second-grade teacher asked me to read to students. Over time, I got more involved in what was happening during the school day and what was going on after hours in the community at the school.

Laura Bay
Laura Bay

Q: What are your priorities for the National PTA during your two-year term?

A: I’m focused on making sure that we have health and safety programs that meet the needs of the whole child. These can address topics like nutrition, fitness and cyber bullying. We’re also going to focus on creating more opportunities in our association around STEM, equity, early-learning — the types of programs that help all of us access what we need to make our schools successful.

Part of the PTA’s role is making sure public dollars go toward public education. We’re also concerned about family engagement and are trying to make sure that parents are part of the educational process, whether that means volunteering in classrooms or supporting student learning at home or partnering with teachers to make sure the learning that goes on in the classroom is safe and effective.

Q: How has the PTA changed its approach over the years?

A: Volunteering looks very different when you have two parents working and when you have different family structures and parents who are trying to make sure their kids stay in school even if they move quite frequently. We’re trying to figure out how we can provide programs that serve the more diverse populations that we’re seeing in our communities. We still have room to grow in those areas.

Q: So what’s at the top of your list for improvements?

A:  The place where we have the most room to grow is in being inclusive. We’ve worked on that for the last five or six years and we’re making strides, but we can probably challenge and push ourselves more.

Areas for improvement include translating all our resources and materials into multiple languages and making sure we go out and build relationships with different groups so everyone understands that we’re all working toward the same goals.

The more that parents realize the importance of being engaged with their students’ learning, the more successful our schools are.