LAND O'LAKES — The Pasco County Council of PTAs is making a comeback after years of inaction.
Dormant for nearly a decade, the organization that aims to coordinate activities, advocacy and training for parents throughout the schools has begun holding regular meetings and creating bonds among the previously disparate PTAs across Pasco.
"We're starting to have a really good growth spurt," said president Denise Nicholas, who led the Seven Oaks Elementary PTA before taking over the countywide organization. "We are all about helping the kids. We are here to advocate for the kids."
Among its first efforts, the County Council connected some of the PTAs serving more economically advantaged communities with schools in more needy areas.
Seven Oaks Elementary, for instance, helped collect blankets, clothing and other supplies for students at Lacoochee Elementary. Other partnerships included John Long Middle and Chasco Elementary, Denham Oaks Elementary and Gulfside Elementary, and Connerton Elementary and Mittye P. Locke Elementary.
"We have been able to help literally hundreds and hundreds of kids," Nicholas said. "Those are the types of things we are trying to do in Pasco."
She acknowledged that the effort will take time and dedication. Only about half the schools in the county have active PTAs, and the membership is at about 5,500 parents compared to the district student population of about 67,000.
Interest is growing, though, Nicholas said, with several schools asking for help in chartering the PTA and participation in the county-level group rising.
"We are really excited to have more help," she said. "Students do better when their parents are involved."
And that doesn't mean making copies and running fundraisers. The purpose is to make a difference in students' lives through programs such as anti-bullying awareness, health and wellness initiatives, and even art competitions.
More than 1,000 students participated in this year's PTA Reflections competition, with three gaining national recognition.
Sometimes school officials expect the PTA to serve in a support role rather than an activist one. But the organization, which has taken advocacy stances statewide on such issues as the parent trigger (which it opposed), expects to participate in many debates that affect their children in the schools.
In other districts, county councils have stepped up with support of such things as tax referendums for schools.
"If it's something that fits within our mission and purpose, they certainly can support it," said Jean Hovey, Florida PTA executive director and former state president.
Hovey mentioned Pasco's effort to help bring blankets to needy students as a prime example of the good that the PTA can do. "The county council," she said, "can bring everyone together."
That's a big plus for the district, which has felt the void in the council's absence, said learning community executive director David Scanga, who has attended several of the meetings as a district liaison.
"Without the district County Council, some of the PTAs don't get supported the way they could or should be," Scanga said. "It's a good service."
Nicholas, who left an executive post at Hewlett-Packard to become a stay-at-home mom, said she and the two others who revived the County Council — Carlos Vera (Sand Pine Elementary) and Lori McCandrew (Connerton Elementary) — are "true believers" in public schools and the role that parents must play. Over the summer, she said, the organization will further step up its activities in advance of the coming school year.
It plans a training in July, and regular monthly meetings with PTA representatives as well as district and School Board officials.
They're looking to create a scholarship program, provide access to free dental care for students and attract more business partners to the schools.
At a time of tight finances and continued cuts, Nicholas said, the County Council aims to leverage its efforts to bring programs and services that the schools otherwise cannot afford.
"That's where we need to step in," she said. The message to the district, she said, is "We're here. What can we do to help you?"
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.