What’s New at the PTA, Dad?
By KYLE SPENCER from the New York Times
At Public School 11 in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, the senior president of the
Parent Teacher Association is a vivacious chatterbox who ascended the school’s executive board
the way many do: forging bonds with parents and teachers, doing an impressive stint as
treasurer and finally being drafted for the top slot by a growing fan base.
The one thing this executive officer did not do is man the cupcake table.
“I’m not into the baking,” said Juan Brea, an admission that once would have been unheard-of
in the PTA.
Mr. Brea, a 43-year-old who favors football, blue blazers, Polo cologne and chopping wood in
his Catskills backyard on weekends, is part of the changing face of the PTA. What was once an
easygoing volunteer group made up mostly of stay-at-home moms has begun to give way to
“This is like running a small business,” said Mr. Brea, whose day job is chief operating officer at
a small nonprofit. “I’m an operations guy. I believe I add value.”
A 2009 study by the National Congress of Parents and Teachers and the National Center for
Fathering, a nonprofit educational organization, found that 590 of 1,000 fathers surveyed
nationwide said they attended school parent meetings. That is up from 470 out of 1,000 a
And in many of the top-rated public schools across New York City, where parent groups have
become ever-more-efficient fund-raising machines in the face of mounting budget cuts, fathers
with financial expertise and a zest for leadership are not just going to those meetings, but
The shift reflects a number of underlying social trends: more women with demanding jobs,
more men underemployed in a lingering recession, more shared parenting responsibilities over
all and the professionalization of the PTA itself.
In School District 2, which winds through some of Manhattan’s priciest neighborhoods, at least
10 of the approximately 40 elementary and middle schools now have male parent-group
leaders, up from just a couple 15 years ago.
On Staten Island, the male firefighters, police and emergency-medical technicians who used to
shy away from PTA meetings now call many of them to order. And in brownstone Brooklyn’s
District 15, PTA boards have been inundated with male leadership, in what officials say is a 15
percent jump from five years ago.
For the most part, female PTA leaders applaud the injection of testosterone. But “both women
and men would be lying if they were to say gender dynamics were not an issue,” said Michelle
Ciulla-Lipkin, a president of the PTA at P.S. 199 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where 5
of the 18 board members last year were male.
At P.S. 110 on the Lower East Side, some have said that John Mooren, an investment banker
whose platform as PTA president includes the ambitious goal of building a new gym, has been
trying to corporatize the once laid-back board. “My response is: we need money,” said Mr.
Mooren, 58, whose sons are in kindergarten and first grade.
In the cramped PTA room with the bright pink door at P.S. 75 on West End Avenue in
Manhattan, Hector Rios, a co-president, said that being the lone man among eight board
members has its downside: “Sometimes I feel like everybody’s husband.”
And at P.S. 3 in the West Village, Nick Gottlieb (a PTA co-president and Papa Nick to students)
said that years as a stay-at-home dad have not erased his own perception that he is occasionally
an interloper in the land of bake sales, recess volunteers and pajama parties.
“I have to make an extra effort not to be perceived as stepping on people,” said Mr. Gottlieb,
who has daughters in kindergarten and third grade. “And I think that does have to do with
being a man.”
A 1997 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency, found that
children whose fathers were involved in their schools were more likely to stay in school, do well
and enjoy themselves while they were there.
A decade later, in 2008, the National PTA — a 5.5-million-member organization headquartered
in Alexandria, Va. — paired with the National Center for Fathering in the hope of getting more
active male members. Its Web site now lists tips on recruiting men, including scheduling
meetings in the morning, which many New York City schools now do.
In 2009, the national PTA elected Charles J. Saylor, a construction industry executive and
father of four in Greer, S.C., as its first male president.
“I grew up in a home where both parents were involved,” said Mr. Saylor, who started out
heading the fund-raising committee at his oldest son’s elementary school because of, he said,
“an inability to say ‘no.’ ” Over the years, he said, “I just started noticing on the county, state
and national level more men in the room.”
In 2010 the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, for its part, started NYC Dads, a
14-agency initiative designed to get men to support their children’s development in and out of
school. And Dennis M. Walcott, chancellor of the city’s department of education, pushes
father involvement at events like one in St. Albans, Queens, where fathers brought neckties to P.S. 36
and taught their sons how to tie them.
The surge in male leadership has, in many places, followed a more fundamental shift in the
nature of the PTA. Women with advanced degrees, high-powered jobs and technological savvy
have brought a new level of sophistication and seriousness to the business of supporting
schools. The changed dynamic — committees that are better organized, deadlines that are taken
seriously, goals that are more ambitious, schedules that accommodate working parents —
helped make many PTAs more comfortable for men.
In interviews around the city, many female PTA leaders praised their male counterparts for
overhauling disorganized talent shows, automating bookkeeping, building gardens, cultivating
contacts with local politicians and silencing parents who go off on tangents during meetings.
Not that women cannot or do not do the same things, but “men on the board can add a calm,”
said Kathy Ellman, who has three sons and who served on the PTA board at P.S. 11. “They can
be a little more relaxed.”
Still, for every admiring story about a father whose PowerPoint presentation revolutionized the
Read-a-Thon, there is one about the bossy treasurer whose budget-balancing came with an off-putting
tone. Or the president who chose the wrong time to talk school politics.
And what seems to be a perennial gripe: men going missing when it’s time to do the grunt work.
“You don’t see many male presidents with the cellophane and the curling ribbon working on the
auction baskets,” said Bijou Miller, who lives on the Upper West Side and has sat on a halfdozen
school-related boards over the last decade.
Mr. Brea of P.S. 11 said he was focusing on appealing to big-ticket donors and setting up
processes that future boards can benefit from. He recently helped convert the PTA into a taxexempt
organization, and helped secure a $2,500 computer program that tracks donations.
At P.S. 295 in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, Dan Janzen used his stint on the grant-writing committee
to persuade Marty Markowitz, the Brooklyn borough president, to give the school $150,000 in
interactive white boards.
“That was my aha! moment,” said Mr. Janzen, 44, a freelance copywriter and father of two. “I
said, ‘This is real. I can really get things done.’ ”
And at P.S. 261 in Boerum Hill, Brooklyn, Rick Knutsen, 46, who has a daughter at the school,
can sometimes be spotted playing piano for the chorus, or doing a PowerPoint presentation for
the PTA, for which he is a president.
Eli Janney, one of the group’s vice presidents, is often at a table in the lobby, Starbuck’s coffee
by his side, peddling tickets to a fund-raising event and imploring parents to “Support the
But Mr. Knutsen has faced some discouraging moments. He was recently dressed down, he
said, by a mother irate that he chose the cherished winter concert, which draws a big crowd, to
vote on a letter opposing a new charter school nearby. She thought his timing was wrong.
“My kid tap-danced and then I got yelled at,” Mr. Knutsen recalled glumly.
Among the beneficiaries of the new PTA dads are their wives.
“If our daughter comes home and tells us about something that happened at school, Rick pretty
much already knows about it,” said Mr. Knutsen’s wife, Frances Barney Knutsen, who works for
BNY Mellon. “That’s comforting.”