Nan Austin

PTA celebrates 1897 start as Gratton School steps into 1850

Fifth-grade teacher Sarah Carlisle at Gratton School in rural Denair talks to students working on an essay project last week on the character they will portray in the living history trip to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento.
Fifth-grade teacher Sarah Carlisle at Gratton School in rural Denair talks to students working on an essay project last week on the character they will portray in the living history trip to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento. naustin@modbee.com

On Friday, PTA will celebrate 120 years of making families a part of the school fabric and working for children’s causes.

Long before women were allowed to vote, Alice McLellan Birney and Phoebe Apperson Hearst lobbied Congress to create child labor laws as the National Congress of Mothers. Those mothers provided penny lunches at schools and pressed Congress to provide lunch for poor children nationwide.

Kindergarten, a separate juvenile justice system and a public health system all got off the ground with the help of PTAs. It was PTA volunteers who helped mount the first widespread inoculations with the Jonas Salk polio vaccine, back when it was given to children in sugar cubes.

In 2001, President George W. Bush tapped PTA to help draft the parent participation portion of the No Child Left Behind Act, and it remains the largest and oldest volunteer organization working on behalf of children and youths.

In California, parents can find extensive information about everything from tips for helping children at school, to teen driving, to resources for foster youths at capta.org. The annual California State PTA legislation conference is coming up March 13-14 in Sacramento.

But the bottom line for every parent group is having active, interested parents.

At Gratton School last week, parents and retired teachers joined in a sew-a-thon to get kids ready for a trip into state history circa 1850. The school’s third, fourth and fifth grades – about 50 kids – will be heading to Sutter’s Fort in Sacramento, and they needed to be outfitted for the trip.

“They’re really, really excited about this,” said fifth-grade teacher Sarah Carlisle, whose mom was among the volunteers snipping and sewing away Thursday.

Every pupil heading to Sacramento needed a satchel, a lunch bag and a homemade notebook, all adorned with a “brand” the child designed. Lunches had to be made with no plastic bags, no supermarket treats. Tin cups filled with water will be their beverage.

“This is a learning experience. We do stuff, but not like this,” Carlisle said with a laugh. Every student will have a character to portray. Her fifth-graders have researched theirs for a living history museum the entire school can visit.

On Thursday, all the kids were busy making Popsicle stick chests, being fitted for aprons and measuring out the size of a Conestoga wagon.

“That has to be everything for months and months,” Carlisle told skeptical students. “Could you stop by Target if you run out?” she asked them.

Gratton School benefits from very active parents, the upside of schools of choice. The tiny one-school district has only 43 students who live in the district. Another 93 students attend its integrated public charter school, meaning parents who live outside the district chose to bring their students to Gratton. The school has a waiting list to get in, and class sizes of about 15 to 18.

The history trip showcases a school in many ways staying close to its century-old roots.

As schools all around California grapple with requirements to get their diverse parents informed and involved, one tiny, rural school serves as a warm reminder of how things used to be.

Nan Austin: 209-578-2339, @NanAustin

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