Reflecting on the PTA Legacy: A Challenge for 21st Century Leaders

  Sandra L. Zelno, Consultant to the Pennsylvania PTA

 

Chapter 4. Pennsylvania: A True Keystone for Kids

 

A “keystone” typically refers to a central supporting element of a larger structure, such as a building or an organization without which the whole structure would collapse.  Most of you in PA are quite familiar with the keystone symbol as depicted on license plates, agencies, road signs, and even the state lottery.   Pennsylvania was nicknamed the Keystone State due to its central location and political importance among the original thirteen (13) colonies.  If Pennsylvania was critical to the United States, how key was the Pennsylvania PTA to the national child advocacy movement?

There is no doubt about it - the Pennsylvania PTA is well-documented as a key leader for child advocacy not only in this state but throughout the nation.   Much of this can be attributed to the dynamic leadership provided by Pennsylvania leaders - the leadership that must be continued today.  Previous articles in this series laid the foundation for the formation of the historic new organization known as the National Congress of Mothers in 1897, the beloved organization we know today as PTA.    With Phoebe Apperson Hearst and Alice McLellan Birney leading the way, leaders lined up behind them in a variety of roles to jump on the bandwagon.  One such leader is an icon to the Pennsylvania PTA - Hannah Kent Schoff.

Hannah Kent Schoff was born in 1853 in Upper Darby, PA, close to Philadelphia.  At the age of 20, she married Frederic Schoff, an engineer from Massachusetts, and together they raised seven children.  Mrs. Schoff not only assisted in the planning of the first national meeting, but was instrumental to the organization of the second state PTA Congress - The Pennsylvania Congress of Mothers.  New York was the first state organized in 1897, followed by Pennsylvania in 1899. Known for her organizational skills and passion, Mrs. Schoff presented a model for the first organized series of meetings between parents and teachers in schools.   It is the original plan which guided the PA PTA and then became the blueprint for the National PTA work.  She was also serving as a Vice-President of the National group.  When National President Alice Birney resigned in 1902 due to illness, Mrs. Schoff took the helm of the new national organization.   She served for eighteen (18) years in that capacity until 1920.  The power and influence of having a Pennsylvanian at the helm of the National PTA had a profound impact on the PA PTA and the state. 

In her capacity as National President, Mrs. Schoff:  

· Established a National Endowment Fund to sustain the organization; 

· Established more permanent national  headquarters in Washington, D.C.;

· Organized several international conferences on child welfare with the U. S. Department of State and the National Congress of Mothers;

· Was responsible for the establishment of the Home Education Division within the U. S. Bureau of    Education;

· Became a major force in the movement for laws on child labor, education, and marriage;

· Oversaw the growth of state PTA  branches to total 37; and

· Initiated and edited the first national magazine called the National Parent Teacher, which we know today as Our Children.

 

Mrs. Schoff’s accomplishments truly have made her an icon in Pennsylvania PTA history.  Her work on the juvenile justice system was unprecedented and is so extensive that this author will address it in a separate article to follow.  Inspired by leaders like Hannah Schoff, national leaders lobbied for the creation of a juvenile court system so desperately needed at a time when the cruel world of industrial capitalism denied kids the social justice they were due. 

Under Mrs. Schoff’s early guidance in Pennsylvania, strong partnerships were created with many educational groups.  Real success was created when school administrators and teacher associations embraced the concept of local PTA units.  In her passionate manner, Mrs. Schoff made the plea, “Do It through the Schools!” which became a popular slogan.

Pennsylvania leaders and members continued to embrace that plea throughout the years when they addressed legislation for students with disabilities, confinement of children in jails, medical and dental examinations for school children, consolidation of schools, school busses, and kindergarten for all children.   All this continued in a state where its founder - icon Hannah Kent Schoff - was still making an historic impact on children’s lives while serving as National President.  Members throughout the country embraced the concept of an organization with the ability to lead nationally yet giving enough autonomy to states to tackle tough legislative issues or something much simpler as local study groups on educating children.  This was the broad based appeal of the organization we serve today.

Since the inception of the national organization, we had seen the turn of the 20th century and significant social, welfare, education, and industrial changes occurring during Mrs. Schoff’s 18 year term.  Alice Birney and Phoebe Hearst had now passed away and Hannah Kent Schoff was growing weary.  In 1911 alone, she had made twenty-four (24) separate membership organizing trips throughout the United States.  Looking forward to a retirement, she welcomed the changing of the guard.  She had not only led but had reorganized the organization and saw its membership grow by 400%.  She continued to lead an exemplary life writing books on children and the legal system until her death in 1940. 

There is no question about the glorious history of Pennsylvania PTA and the National PTA.  The work in Pennsylvania influenced Mrs. Schoff’s work nationwide.  Pennsylvania likewise benefited from the national prominence she could give to state issues.  This was the bottom line of good advocacy - a voice at all levels - which all of us know by being members of this organization.  Working in isolation accomplishes nothing for today’s kids. 

If we reflect on that lesson learned, we know that good leadership has definitely been a keystone to building an organization that has existed over a century.  Have you concentrated efforts on making your local PTA a “keystone” in your community?   Have your leaders examined if your community would flourish or discover a void if you didn’t operate?  Is the work you are doing critical to sustaining the community as you know it?  Are you promoting and integrating national and state issues so that your members have a choice of projects in which they want to be involved?   Remember, that choice of involvement levels was what gave this organization the broad based appeal.   Are you recruiting leaders who can make a difference?  (Assure them that most PTA bylaws have much better term limits these days and they won’t have to serve for 18 years like Hannah Kent Schoff!)  And, of course, remember that famous slogan that guided the work, “Do It through the Schools!”

The May/June 2014 issue of the PTA in Pennsylvania will address the next chapter on the progress of the National Congress of Mothers as we examine how Pennsylvania would contribute visionary leadership to this incredible story.  Stay tuned for Chapter 5: “Juvenile Justice - The Journey Begins.”

 

 


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