Joan Dykstra has long believed that parent involvement in schools makes a difference.
Now her longtime involvement in parent-teacher organizations has become a full-time job: Ms. Dykstra -- an Ellicott City resident and member of the Clemens Crossing Elementary School PTA -- was elected president of the 7 million member national PTA in June.
"Seeing her get inaugurated was so exciting because . . . she's from Howard County. . . . It brings recognition and experience to your area," said Rosemary Mortimer, a Columbia resident and longtime friend of Ms. Dykstra. "It's even more special to have someone from your own county representing you across the country."
"Even though she's national president, she's never forgotten how it feels to be the new, green person who just walked in to their first local PTA meeting," said Ms. Mortimer, a former Howard County PTA Council president and a current vice president of the Maryland PTA.
Ms. Dykstra, 49, moved to Howard County in 1989 from Racine, Wis., where she was born, reared and got her start with PTAs.
Before moving to Maryland because of her husband's job, she had been a Wisconsin PTA president, a vice president of the regional group and national vice president for leadership. Now, she also is a member of the county's PTA council board and the Maryland PTA's board of directors, and she holds honorary life memberships in PTA organizations in 21 states.
Ms. Dykstra comes from a family of PTA activists, including her mother and her aunts. After getting married and becoming a mother in Wisconsin, she joined the PTA on her oldest son's first day of kindergarten in 1973.
Despite her wide involvement at all levels of the PTA organization, friends and colleagues say, Ms. Dykstra remains tirelessly enthusiastic.
"Joan's watching her priorities -- getting parents involved so kids succeed," said Ellen Rennels, a former president of the county's PTA council. "She's not getting carried away with fund-raising or the political stuff, but she makes sure that kids stay a priority.
"When she moved into this area, she was very low-key in making sure that she didn't come in and bulldoze others with her experience," Ms. Rennels said. "There would be no difference in her enthusiasm for keeping parents involved and helping on a national level.
"She doesn't dictate, she guides," Ms. Rennels said.
As national PTA president, Ms. Dykstra will represent the group at various functions across the country, provide leadership training for local groups, and organize state and national conventions.
She pointed to violence in schools and on television as a prime concern.
"We must educate parents today more than we ever have in the past on how to talk with their children and teens about what's real on TV and about what they should be watching," she said. "These are things that will impact them later in their lives, long after they are from under their parents care."
Another of Ms. Dykstra's goals for her two-year term is to make the PTA more visible nationally, a task she says the Howard County PTA has done well.
"When you can come and see an area like Howard County and find a PTA at every school, then you see and understand that they really do value education," she said. "Research shows that when parents are involved, these kids do better in school. It establishes a support system for them that they can use in life.
"I've used the county as a model many a times for its true partnership with the board here, and its monthly PTA TV show. The county's known to have good schools and good teachers, but it all goes back to the same bottom line, parent involvement, which is high."
Ms. Dykstra said she has been impressed with the energy of the county's estimated 20,000 PTA members and their willingness to tackle problems.
"Whenever they see a problem, they start actively working on it," she said. "They never say die. They say, 'We can do this together.' "
By the national PTA's 100th anniversary next June, Ms. Dykstra said, she hopes to expand significantly the involvement of parents in their local school board committees and task forces.
"It's important for parents to feel that they're a part of the school system and don't just bake cookies or attend a few back-to-school nights, but instead serve as decision-makers at the tables with board members and principals . . . making decisions that will directly affect their children," Ms. Dykstra said.
In this, Ms. Dykstra said, she is motivated by such memories as the single Minnesota mother in her mid-30s who approached her at a national convention a few years ago seeking advice on how to balance her full-time job with raising two children.
"I told her to take 10 minutes a day, even if it was at the dinner table or while her child was getting ready for school, to devote 100 percent of her attention to her child's life and really listen," Ms. Dykstra said.
Two years later, Ms. Dykstra saw the woman again.
"She immediately ran over to me and said, 'Hey, I started doing what you said and it's really working. I've seen improvements in my son within the past two months alone,' " Ms. Dykstra said. "Things like that make me feel wonderful . . . to be able to help out another parent."