White, Lois Jean 1938–

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Lois Jean White 1938

Association executive

At a Glance

Exposed to the PTA

Developed Presidential Mission

Promoted Involvement of All Parents


When it comes to the betterment of children through education, there are few volunteers who can match the dedication of Lois Jean White. Committed to the role that parents must play in the education of their children, she has converted this personal passion into a mission to serve all children through her involvement with the National Parent Teachers Association, better known as the National PTA. Her initial participation for the benefit of her young son has grown into years of hard work for the organization which resulted in her election as president in 1997, the first African American to be so honored.

Lois Jean White was born on March 21, 1938 in Nashville, Tennessee. She was raised by her grandmother, Rosa Barron, and had little relationship with her own mother, who lived in Massachusetts. White clearly remembers her grandmother teaching her the value of taking responsibility for her life, always encouraging her to do the right thing. This childhood lesson would prove to have an enormous impact on White, helping to shape her professional decisions.

One of Whites first passions was music. She started her musical career in elementary school and initially began studying piano. However, she was eager to play in the school band with her friends and thus switched to the flute, an instrument on which she excelled. By the time she was in junior high school, she was considered a child prodigy. According to White in a conversation with Richard Wall of the KnoxviUe Weekly Voice, this status actually helped to shield her somewhat from the institutional slight of segregated schools. For instance, when the Nashville youth orchestra rejected her because of her skin color, the New York Herald Tribune picked up the story and arranged for her to play with the youth orchestra in New York City.

White continued to develop her musical talent while in college, majoring in music at Fisk University in Nashville. After graduation she ventured to Boston, where she planned to work and attend graduate school in music. But after two weeks of working retail at Jordan Marsh, she left for Birmingham to teach music education at Mills College. While in Birmingham, White met her husband, George, and together they started a family. White did not again pursue her professional music career until she and her family moved to Atlanta in 1963, where she

At a Glance

Born Lois Jean in Nashville, TN, March 21, 1938. Married to George White; 3 children, 5 grandchildren. Education: BA Music, Fisk University, Nashville, TN, 1960; extensive graduate work in music, Indiana University.

Career: Teacher, music education, Mills College, Birmingham, 196062; member, community orchestra, Atlanta, 196367; First vice-president, third vice-president, parliamentarian, Knoxville Council PTA; first vice-president, second vice-president, cultural arts chairperson, president, Tennessee State PTA; president-elect, National PTA, 199597; president, National PTA, 199799; principal flutist, Oak Ridge, TN Symphony, 197195; private flute instructor, Oak Ridge, Knoxville, TN.

Memberships: Co-chair, Department of Educations America Goes Back to School Program; board of trustees, Character Education Partnership; member, Presidents Advisory Panel for Public Obligation of Digital Television; member, Alpha Unit, Tennessee Association of Parliamentarians; advisory committee, Puzzle Place television show; previous board member, Knoxville Museum of Art.

Awards: 100 Most Influential Blacks, Ebony.

Addresses: National Parent Teacher Association, 330 North Wabash Avenue, Suite 2100, Chicago, IL 60611.

joined the community orchestra. In 1967 the Whites moved to Knoxville, and White joined the Oak Ridge Symphony Orchestra. She ultimately served as principal flutist and finally retired after 24 years with the orchestra. She continued to teach flute from her home until she began her term as president of the National PTA and still plays in a summer band in Massachusetts and in her local church.

Exposed to the PTA

Whites exposure to the PTA, meanwhile, had begun with her grandmothers participation in the organization. When White and her husband moved back to Tennessee, their oldest child was starting first grade. Because the oldest child is always the smartest, always the most handsome, White laughingly commented, she took her son to school and stayed to participate in his classroom. Ive been involved in his schooling ever since then, she told Ebony, and ultimately logged 29 years of volunteering in the Knoxville schools that her three children attended. She began as a room mother (now referred to as room representative), assisting with events such as field trips and birthday parties. Ive baked my share of cookies to raise money, she told Wall. But we dont like to be considered a fund-raising organization.

As her son moved through the school system, White joined the PTA and quickly became president of the local organization. In this role she concurrently served as a representative to the PTA Council, which serves as a link between the local and state chapters. Having gained exposure for her innovative work, she was asked to serve as cultural arts chairperson for the state PTA. Her creative exhibit at the Tennessee state convention caught the attention of the National PTA, which asked that she collaborate with them on a similar project for the national convention. After working her way through a variety of offices, she became Tennessee state president in 1989, serving a two-year term. Her reputation for hard work and excellent performance continued to grow, and in 1995 she became president-elect of the national organization. Not only was she the first to serve in the president-elect position; she would be the first black president of the National PTA, an organization often associated with white society.

Developed Presidential Mission

White leads an organization composed of nearly 6.5 million parents, teachers, school administrators, and other childrens advocates. It supports a threefold mission: to teach parenting skills, to support public education, and to advocate before legislative bodies and organizations that affect childrens lives. Recent lobbying efforts include an extension of the Family Leave Act to allow employees to attend school functions and convincing President Clinton to amend the Education America Act to include a parental-involvement provision.

Inspired by the impact that her involvement had on the education of her own children, White adopted Doing More for All Children as the theme for her administration. She aims to address urban families, a population previously neglected by PTA efforts, in an effort to encourage children to stay and succeed in school. The focal point of her efforts revolved around establishing new PTAs where they currently do not exist. She has specifically targeted New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, cities with some of the nations largest populations of children. Her efforts, however, are not only directed at the East Coast; rather, she hopes to use these strategies to improve membership outreach nationwide. To further her goals and those of the National PTA, White has been particularly active in public relations and has sponsored an identity campaign for the organization.

Dedicating up to 80 hours each week to her volunteer position and traveling extensively, White remains committed to the PTA because she believes that parents must be active in their childrens education if the educational process is to be successful. Through her work with the PTA, White hopes to mitigate the tension that often arises between parents and teachers. Parents may be intimidated because of their own personal experiences, while teachers feel threatened that parents want to take over the schools. Ultimately, White noted in Ebony, Many parents dont come into the school unless there is a problem. Under Whites guidance, the PTA thus encourages parents to play an active role in the schools. We think that if we dont see a parent in the school, theyre really not interested in their child. Public education is a fundamental function of society and should be a community effort.

Promoted Involvement of All Parents

White is eager to point out avenues for involvement by all parents, even those who work and are thus unable to participate in activities during the school day. She often discusses volunteer skill banks, which encourage parents to contribute their professional talents in a variety of creative ways in order to enhance the overall well-being of their childs school. She also empowers parents to become a part of the school decision-making process and to advocate and speak out on behalf of children, even when they no longer have school-age children of their own.

The democratic nature of the National PTA poses the greatest motivation and concurrently the greatest challenge to White. Reflective of the populations which it serves, PTA membership is necessarily diverse. This breadth energizes White, for she fervently believes that if we cant make a dent in this country, then no other organization can because we are the voice of children. At the same time, however, achieving one voice and finding consensus among the 54 state affiliations (representatives from the 50 states plus the District of Columbia, the Department of Defense schools in Europe, the Department of Defense schools in Japan, and the U.S. Virgin Islands) often proves difficult to achieve.

White is not sure what awaits her after June of 1999, when her term expires. She has already amended the groups charter so that she will not serve on the board as a past president. Previous presidents have assumed consulting roles, and White knows that she will continue to attend periodic board meetings. One thing, though, is for certain. In all that she continues to do, Lois Jean White will always be guided by her personal philosophy: If you want to see change, you have to get in there and work at it. You have to actively participate in whatever venture it is you feel needs attention.



BET Weekend, September 1998, p. 15.

Ebony, March 1998, p. 90.

Jet, July 22, 1996, pp. 2427.

Knoxville Weekly Voice, April 916, 1998, pp. 7, 39.

NEA Today, March 1997, p. 14.


White, Lois Jean. Interview with Lisa S. Weitzman, October 7, 1998.

Additional material was taken from the PTA web site available at http://www.pta.org.

Lisa S. Weitzman