Last year, Halloween festivities were swept away on Long Island in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. It was difficult to celebrate with the massive devastation, loss of power, and overall misery engendered by this destructive superstorm. But it looks like Halloween is back in force in 2013. Here’s a blog I wrote about how to keep your kids safe during Halloween. It appeared in Huffington Post on October 23, 2012 – before Sandy!
There’s a nip in the air and pumpkins are everywhere: In patches, on porches, in stores and in schools. It’s hard to ignore the signals that Halloween is fast approaching.
Almost every store has aisles of costumes and candy. Elementary schools plan Halloween parades and high schools organize Safe Halloween festivities for pre-school and elementary school children. But I can’t help think that Halloween is not what it used to be, when armies of little kids combed the streets collecting goody bags from moms who had lovingly assembled them.
That was long before there were objections to Halloween on the grounds that as a religious holiday it shouldn’t be observed in public schools. A Seattle elementary school recently banned Halloween costumes on the grounds that the holiday interferes with learning. It was long before we knew sweet treats were taboo — and even dangerous for those with certain food allergies. It was long before deranged people inserted razor blades into candy and sexual predators prowled the streets. And it was long before the craze of candy-flavored tobacco in brightly colored packages. Cigarillos, cigars and such smokeless tobacco products as chew, snuff and dissolvable tobacco — considered by many the first step to tobacco addiction — compete with Halloween candy for shelf space in convenience stores.
As I recall, we got real about Halloween when schools began recommending that parents bring to school all of the candy their children collected to be X-rayed. When that happened, I thought for sure he holiday was doomed.
But it’s made a great resurgence in recent years. People now adorn their homes with Halloween lights and blow-up pumpkins, witches and scarecrows. It’s a bigger business than ever before.
And yet, Halloween has changed.
First, there are parents who object to Halloween celebrations being held in public schools. With children coming from so many religious and ethnic backgrounds, parents are opposed to celebrating holidays that are not part of their tradition.
On the other hand, it’s probably a good thing that much of the Halloween observance has moved off the streets and into the schools. It’s a lot safer. Every year it seems we get fewer and fewer youngsters trick or treating at our door.
Parents have to decide for themselves if and how their children celebrate Halloween. What do you think?
Here are some tips for a safe Halloween:
• If your child has a food issue, make sure you discuss it with the teacher and school nurse ahead of time.
• If you have an objection to a Halloween celebration on religious grounds, make sure you let your principal and teacher know about it well in advance of the holiday.
• Even if you take your children to a safe Halloween sponsored by your local high school, watch them carefully. It may seem like a very safe environment, but keep in mind that the school gym is full of strangers.
• It’s best to accompany your children if you allow them to trick or treat, including for UNICEF. And of course, discard any treats that are not pre-packaged or look like they have been tampered with.
• Honestly, it’s just a bad idea nowadays for children to go door to door — especially in the dark — to strangers’ homes.
• If you do allow your teenagers to go out, they should go to people they know — and in a group. Make sure they have cell phones with them and that you know their route. You should also stress the importance of obeying laws, respecting private property and not engaging in pranks or vandalism.
• Better yet, encourage your teens to volunteer at a Safe Halloween event at their school.
With the new school year in full swing, it’s a good time to emphasize the importance of parent involvement. This is the time to make a resolution to actively engage in your children’s education. One of the easiest and most accessible ways is to join and become active in the PTA.
Do you think PTA is synonymous with bake sales?
Think again — today’s PTA is about a lot more than cupcakes
We know that research indicates that students whose parents are actively involved in their schools have better grades, attendance, behavior, and graduation rates. But PTA membership is a personal investment you make not only for your child, but for yourself too.
Many opportunities await you at your next PTA meeting. Advocating for a worthwhile mission, having a positive impact on your schools, and supporting amazing events for students are the obvious benefits of PTA involvement. But I have also witnessed more subtle perks that may come to active parents.
Here are five things that you might not know about today’s PTA:
1. Volunteer and get access.
Being an active PTA member gives you legitimate reasons to have input and to be in your children’s school during the school day. For example, do you want to have a say in booking a children’s author, a play or a music or science program for your children’s school? Then join your PTA’s cultural arts committee. You will work closely with your principal and teachers to plan enriching events that PTA fundraising supports. As a member of the committee, you will be able to attend programs to assess their success.
By becoming a known quantity to school staff, you will get a birds-eye view of what’s going on and principal, faculty and staff will know you by name. This will come in handy should you ever have a question or concern. Similarly, you may be asked for your perspective as a parent when issues occur. It’s sort of like the classic Peter Sellers movie, Being There. Because you are there, you may become a go-to parent.
2. Contribute and make friends.
You will meet like-minded parents who have children of comparable ages, with whom you will share similar concerns, goals, and hopes for your children. You will form close friendships and you will help one another through the sharing of ideas. If you are new to an area or your first child is starting school, PTA is a good place to meet people.
3. Give and receive much more.
PTA provides you with a wonderful outlet and platform for your passions. For example, if you are passionate about healthy eating, you can join the PTA’s health and wellness committee, and exert influence not only on the school lunch program, but also on classroom practices, such as giving candy for rewards.
If you are a parent of a child with special needs, you are probably already a strong advocate for special education. It is essential that you join SEPTA, Special Education PTA. There you will meet like-minded parents and professionals who will provide you with a support network, cutting edge information and strategies to help your child succeed. You will have the benefit of attending presentations by outside experts. And you will be able to forge positive relationships with district special education administrators, who attend SEPTA meetings. This will give you easy access to these professionals, should you have questions or concerns.
4. Be a player and get the “skinny.”
You will reap enormous benefits if you rise to the highest levels of PTA leadership. If you are the PTA president of your school or a member of your District PTA Council, you will meet with your Superintendent of Schools on a regular basis. He or she will update you on news, issues and problems and ask for your support. If you are a person who likes to be in the know, you will be informed of everything from district accomplishments to drug busts. You will have the information first and will be the one to share it with your members. The superintendent will also solicit your opinion and may ask for you to poll your members on various issues, such as proposed budget cuts.
As a key stakeholder, you may also be asked to serve on interview committees, citizens’ advisory committees, and task forces. The superintendent may also recruit you to help plan district-wide events, and to request that PTA help sponsor them.
5. Hone your skills and show what you can do.
The more you give of yourself and the more you hone your skills, the more valuable you will become to your PTA, your school, your district and community. The seeds you plant may bear fruit in unexpected ways. Is your main job CEO of your household for the foreseeable future? Then why not put your accounting expertise to work as a treasurer? Or use your organizing skills to plan events? Utilizing your background and experience can help close gaps in your resume. Continue to dazzle everyone with your generous contribution of your talent, time and energy, and your volunteer experience could lead to paid employment!
Now that school districts are in the home stretch of the yearly budget process, it’s a good time to reiterate the importance of parent involvement. Parents are their children’s best advocates, but you can’t be effective unless you are informed. Here are the Top 10 things you need to know to help you navigate the budget process in your school district.
- Know your school district’s budget calendar, which will give you a list of meetings and topics. Attend these meetings if you are available.
- Be sure to check your district’s website for information, and read budget brochures that are mailed to your home. Read the fine print so you will understand if your children’s school experience will be impacted.
- Keep up with media reports of budget meetings. Local newspapers and the Patch offer different perspectives, which may not be covered in official school district information.
- Know when PTA meetings are held. Your PTA president should have the latest budget information.
- Know when and where Board of Education meetings are held, attend them, and feel free to voice your opinion during the public participation part of the meeting. You must sign up to speak before the meeting. This is the time when you can join together with other parents to protest proposed reductions that you oppose, such as full-day kindergarten, or increased class size.
- Know the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of the Board of Education members and the District Clerk. In public school districts, trustees are elected by the residents and should be responsive to their constituents’ opinions and problems.
- If you are upset by a proposed cut, you may circulate petitions to the board, discuss the topic at PTA meetings, write letters to the board and to the newspapers, and come to board meetings en masse. Impassioned and organized efforts sometimes have the desired results.
- Make sure you register to vote. Check with the District Clerk for procedures and deadlines if you are not sure if you are registered.
- Remember to vote. There is a uniform voting date for all school districts in New York State, which this year is Tuesday, May 21. If you live in another state, check with your district for the date of this year’s budget vote.
- If you will be out of town you may request an absentee ballot. Check with the District Clerk for information about absentee ballots, polling places and voting hours.
A new national study shows that the use of smartphones among teens has increased during the past year. The news is hardly shocking to parents and educators – but it does give us an opportunity to reflect on the role of technology in our kids’ lives – and also in our own.
The study, conducted by the Pew Research Center, indicates that one in four teenagers use their cellphones to access the Internet, compared to 15 percent of adults. Seventy-eight percent of 12 to 17 year olds have a cell phone, and 37 percent have a smartphone, an increase from 23 percent in 2011, according to the study, Teens and Technology, 2013.
We are well aware of the escalating challenges and benefits of cellphone ownership and use. The benefit of cellphones is that it creates a safety net for teens and gives parents the ability to stay connected with their kids at all times. There are even tracking devices, such as Sprint Family Locator and AT&T’s FamilyMap.
But the challenges are many. Previous generations of teenagers used the landline to connect with their peers. Teens may have tied up the family phone for hours, but parents were well aware of their activities. In fact, parents were usually able to vet potential dates and friends simply by answering the phone or observing their kids’ phone activity. Those days are long gone. The privacy and portability afforded kids by cellphones makes it increasingly difficult for parents to monitor their teens’ behavior. Texting, sexting, taking and sending inappropriate pictures, and cyberbullying are all serious concerns, as is the potential of smartphone addiction.
The incident this week in northern New Jersey is an example of how comfortable a group of teenage girls became with their cellphone camera, taking nude photos of themselves and sharing it through a device that erases the pictures a few seconds later. But some boys to whom the pictures were sent took screen shots of the photos before they were deleted and then shared them with others.
The superintendent of the Ridgewood school district sent a letter to parents informing them that police are now investigating the matter and urging them to have their children delete the photos. He said it is a crime to create, transmit or possess child pornography. Police say they will charge any student caught with the pictures after 7 a.m. Monday.
How many adults sleep with their smartphones next to their beds? Do you really want your teen to model your behavior? Hanging out with friends at the mall is one thing, but virtually hanging out 24/7 with a cellphone not only interferes with sleep, but intensifies the peer pressure that is part and parcel of adolescence.
According to Mashable, another study by TextPlus found that half of the teens they polled said they “couldn’t live without their mobile devices for a week, while 36 percent said they weren’t able to go 10 minutes without checking their phones.”
On the other hand, smartphones can be powerful learning tools, instantly connecting users to information and visuals. But kids also need to know that everything on the Internet is not necessarily true – such as the Tweets someone sent this week claiming to be Pope Francis. Young people need also to develop critical thinking skills. And there are concerns that texting may hamper the development of communication skills, such as writing and speaking.
Our parents and grandparents decried the use of the car, telephone, television, and portable radios by teens. In every generation, parents have had to cope with emerging technology. There is no shortage of lists to tell parents how to police their kids’ activities online, how to talk to them about cellphone use, and how to set rules and insist on responsible behavior.
But beyond that, we all should take a step back and see whether we are controlling the technology we use or whether technology is controlling us. That is the ageless question.
Parenting solutions are timeless too. There is nothing more powerful for parents to do than being present for kids, creating quality family time, sharing real life experiences, communicating face-to-face, inculcating values, and modeling appropriate behavior.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are probably aware that there is a flu epidemic this year — both in the United States and elsewhere. The flu has been around for a long time, and there’s no need for parents to panic. Here are some resources to help parents and children make sensible health decisions.
The New York Times Learning Network offers a number of ideas about teaching students about the flu virus. Included are lessons about how flu attacks the body, how to control its spread, how vaccines work, the history of the disease and how epidemiologists work.
Flu.gov has valuable information on children and the flu, such as: how to protect your children; how to care for them, and even what to do about your pets! And of course, remember to “keep your child at home and away from healthy people for at least 24 hours after his or her fever is gone. Fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.”
For an alternative position on flu vaccines, an article in The Daily Beast points out: “Though the CDC did guess well with most of the strains circulating this year, even CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden acknowledges that the venerable flu shot is only 62 percent effective in reducing symptoms of the disease. In other words, for every 100 people who get the flu shot, 38 of them will get the flu anyway.”
Schools are hotbeds of germs. It’s important for children to know to wash their hands often and to cover their mouths when they sneeze. Recently, some schools have been teaching students to sneeze into the crook of their elbows. The children in this kid-friendly Public Service Video from the Virginia Department of Health describe this method.
During flu season and always, encourage your child to exercise good hygiene, eat nutritious foods, and get plenty of sleep. Don’t send your child to school if he or she is not feeling well. Have a contingency plan for your work if your child is home sick. If you don’t, the school nurse is likely to call before the day is over asking you to take your child home.
Breaking News – it’s now official. Parents are a more significant force in the education of their children than schools! As reported by Michele Molnar in Education Week , a new study indicates that parents who are engaged and involved are more influential in the education of their children than the schools themselves!
The study based its findings on data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, which measured the achievement of a group of 10,000 high school seniors in math, reading, science and history.
The study found that students were more successful if they came from families with high social capital — the connection between parents and children. Although school social capital is important, students succeeded even if their schools had low social capital (teacher morale, positive learning environment, addressing needs of children). This means that the more parents engaged in their children’s education, the more successful their children were.
“The effort that parents are putting in at home in terms of checking homework, reinforcing the importance of school, and stressing the importance of academic achievement is ultimately very important to their children’s academic achievement,” Dr. Toby Parcel, professor of sociology at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., and a co-author of the study, told Education Week.
Teachers, administrators, and family engagement advocates have long been making this point. When parents are engaged in their children’s education, kids get the message that they think school is important and that they value education.
Talk to your children about school, stay on top of their classwork and homework, and communicate with your child’s teacher. And don’t be shy. Take a look at the list of your rights I have compiled — and use them!
Parents’ Bill of Rights
- You have the right to be your children’s best advocate and expect that their unique and special needs are met by the schools in a safe and supportive learning environment in each grade in each school year.
- You have the right to communicate with your children’s teachers, principal, and school nurse as often as you see fit.
- You have the right to easily access and understand information about your children’s schools, school district, teachers, administrators, facilities, policies, procedures, and programs.
- You have the right to have access to your children’s educational records, information regarding services offered by the schools, and expectations about your children’s instructional programs, grading criteria, attendance and behavior.
- You have the right to be treated with respect, fairness, and understanding, free of discrimination and prejudice, by all staff, faculty, and administration in your children’s schools and school district.
- You have the right to attend all public meetings, including PTA, Board of Education, and committee meetings.
- You have the right to complain, without fear of retaliation, to teachers, building and district administrators, and Board of Education.
- You have the right to attend Board of Education meetings and address the board during the public audience part of the meeting.
- You have the right to know official complaint procedures within the school, school district, and outside agencies, and pursue them if necessary, without fear of retaliation.
- You have the right to ensure that your children are learning in safe, healthy, and caring schools, free of discrimination, prejudice, bullying and harassment, and that their physical, emotional, social, academic and special needs are met on a daily basis.
It’s the time of year when parents who have school-age children are in back-to-school mode. But not only should we be thinking about preparing our children for a new school year, we should also think how we can best plan our own schedule.
As a fervent supporter of parent engagement in education, it’s very easy for me to say that all parents should be actively involved in their children’s schools, become active members of PTA, and attend board of education meetings regularly. We know that doesn’t happen. In fact, I have attended meetings where fewer than 10 parents were present – out of a potential 20,000!
Today’s parents are stressed and scheduled to the limit. Parents who work long hours are not available during the day, and may not be inclined to leave home in the evening. So what’s a concerned parent to do?
Cindy Krischer Goodman, a columnist for the Miami Herald, recently interviewed teachers to get advice about how working parents can remain engaged in their children’s education.
Here are some of their suggestions for the overburdened parent:
- Communicating with your child’s teacher via email or phone.
- Making every effort to attend parent/teacher conferences.
- Setting aside one day or evening to be present, such as chaperoning a field trip or attending an evening program.
- Checking your child’s work folder on a regular basis.
- Reading with your child.
- Reviewing your child’s homework every night.
- Monitoring middle school students’ agendas and teachers’ websites.
- Checking high school students’ electronic grade books regularly, and communicating with teachers if there’s a problem.
Additionally, Goodman offers tips that have worked for her on her Work/Life Balancing Act blog. Here are some of them:
- Merge the school calendar into your work calendar so you can plan ahead for days off and half-days.
- Take your vacations during school holidays and use personal days for special events at school.
- Stock up on extra school supplies at the start of the school year so you won’t have to make emergency shopping visits after a hard day on the job.
- Get rid of the clutter as soon as it comes into the house.
- Establish a simple system by the door to assist you in remembering what is needed for each day, e.g., musical instrument for lessons, sneakers for gym. Have a receptacle there so you can leave the items you need in plain sight.
To be engaged, working parents also need to know what’s going on in the school and in the district. Here is my list:
- Become intimately familiar with your school, school district and PTA Websites.
- PTA Websites should give you the names of the PTA officers, meeting and event information, and issues for which the PTA is advocating.
- PTA presidents are a great source of information, so keep in touch with them if you can’t attend meetings.
- School and district websites should give you the names and contact information of all the important players from teachers to board members. You should be able to find important dates, time schedules, meeting information and minutes, policies, procedures and news.
- If you want to find out about the burning issues and controversies in your district with all sides represented, learn whether there are local weekly newspapers or online media outlets such as The Patch that cover your schools. They generally send a reporter to every board meeting and write about it.
Summer vacation is around the corner – and that means that both parents and kids get a break from the rigors of the school year. If your children are enrolled in day camp or other summer programs, they’ll likely get plenty of fresh air, exercise, and exploration. But the weak economy has taken its toll on families across the board. Fewer parents have the means to afford camps, tutors, and other summer programs that can enrich learning during the summer. And school budget cuts have also reduced free summer educational programs that existed in the recent past.
The bad news is that when students return to school after summer vacation, they’ve often lost one to three months of learning. Research indicates that math skills are most in jeopardy. Elementary students at all socio-economic levels typically lose math skills, while middle class students often make slight gains in reading.
The good news is that there are a number of strategies that you can use to ensure that your child doesn’t lose learning and skills over the summer. In the June/July issue of Long Island Parent, I offer 10 suggestions to help parents continue their children’s learning during the summer months. To read the whole article, go to: http://liparentonline.com/features2.html
Here are a few of the tips:
- Encourage reading by providing your children with plenty of books that interest them. Use school summer reading lists and library grade-level reading suggestions. Visit the library often and check out special summer events. Read with your children, and discuss the books they are reading with them. If you are really ambitious, organize a book club with a few of your child’s friends.
- Understand that any topic of interest to your child can be a source of learning. For example, if your child is interested in baseball, surround him or her with baseball books and magazines. Watching a baseball game and keeping score or cataloguing baseball cards can be a lesson in statistics, i.e., RBI, ERA.
- Car trips can evolve into math or geography lessons. Instead of the perennial kid question: “Are we there yet,” ask your children to estimate and calculate the travel time to a destination. Encourage your kids to recognize different state license plates, and talk about those states with them, fostering their geography skills.
- For social studies learning, make day trips to local historical sites, such as Teddy Roosevelt’s home at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, or FDR’s home in Hyde Park, NY. Overnight trips to Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, Gettysburg, and Boston, offer a wealth of information about our nation’s history. And for science skills, don’t overlook children’s science museums and zoos, as well as outdoor natural wonders to explore, such as caves, beaches, and parks.
- Don’t overlook the kitchen as a wonderful learning lab. Involve your children in cooking and preparing meals, and they will exercise their reading, math and science skills. For example, have them read recipes, measure ingredients, and observe how the combination of different ingredients leads to the creation of something amazing. For advanced learning, ask questions, such as how many pints are in a quart, or what made the dough rise?
Remember to keep learning fun. You want your children to return to school in September with improved skills and a renewed love of learning!
In the first New York State budget vote since a 2 percent tax cap was mandated, 92.7 percent of Long Island school budgets passed last week. Of the Island’s 124 districts, 115 had their budgets approved; nine were defeated.
Of the nine that were defeated, seven had opted to exceed the 2 percent tax cap in the hope that voters would approve the increase anyway. But those school administrators bet wrong because under the new rules, they needed to convince at least 60 percent of their voters to approve their spending plan — and they didn’t. Districts whose budgets were defeated may submit the same or a new budget to voters next month.
The tax cap ushers in a new era in New York State. It demonstrates that the majority of districts were able to make deep cuts, and most taxpayers accepted the reductions despite outcries in numerous districts that cuts were hurting students. Across the Island, a number of schools were closed, teachers were excessed, class size was increased, and educational programs were reduced.
The dilemma is that taxpayers want to keep tax increases down at the same time that they want their schools to be outstanding. It remains to be seen whether parents will accept this state of affairs in coming years.
High School Senior Elected to School Board
High School senior Joshua Lafazan did the unimaginable last week! Just 18-years-old and the president of his senior class, he won a seat on the Syosset Board of Education – in a landslide!
Voters gave Lafazan an overwhelming mandate despite the district’s launching of a robo-call to parents accusing his father of taking the district’s list of absentee voters. He said his win was a backlash against what he characterized as a “smear campaign” by district officials.
“The people of Syosset have sent a mandate that we need open government and transparency in this town, and Josh Lafazan will deliver,” he told Newsday after he learned he had won.
During the campaign, Lafazan had been critical of the salary and benefits of Superintendent Carole Hankin, who is the highest paid superintendent in New York State and earns $541,000 in salary and benefits.
It’s interesting that while taxpayers and parents have decried administrative salaries and benefits in many districts, it took a student to make this a centerpiece of his campaign.
Could this be a harbinger of school board elections of the future? Will parents and taxpayers in other districts take on entrenched administrators? Calling for transparency is a familiar theme among critics of school boards. But most critics never step up to the plate by running for office. How many adults have the courage of this young man? If more did, it could substantially change the dynamics of school district politics.