How to Be in the Know if You Can’t Be There

Patricia Heaton, who as Frankie Heck on “The Middle” is intimidated by officials in her children’s schools, recently confessed in a TV interview that she wished she had more time to attend PTA meetings for her own four children but finds it difficult because of her career.

I know and I empathize, both with Patricia Heaton and the many other parents who are stressed and scheduled to the limit. You work full-time and want to be home with your children in the evening; you have a newborn; your husband gets home at 9 p.m.; you’re a single mother. There are so many reasons that parents are unable to attend both daytime and evening meetings. 

In a perfect world, all parents would attend PTA and board of education meetings regularly and stay on top of all the school news that way. But 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! 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?

First, 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 him or her if you can’t attend meetings.  In many districts, the PTA president meets regularly with the superintendent and has an inside track on the latest developments. PTA presidents consider it their responsibility to share what they know, and are often frustrated that so few parents attend meetings. So be sure to stay in contact with your PTA president.

If school and school district Websites are good – and nowadays many are – they will provide you with a wealth of information that will be easy to navigate. I should warn you that some are not user-friendly, but with some effort you can usually find what you need to know. For example, you should be able to access the names and contact information of all of the important players from teachers to board members. Additionally, you should be able to find important dates, time schedules, meeting information and minutes, policies and procedures, and news.

It is in the area of news that school Websites present a one-sided view, focusing on the accolades and accomplishments that enhance the district’s reputation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! As the Public Information Officer and PR person in two prestigious Long Island districts, it was my job to spin the news in a positive way — and that’s what you’ll find on your school district Website. It’s the school district’s job to present itself in the best possible light.

As a result, 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 that cover your schools. They generally send a reporter to every board meeting and write about it. In addition, there may be editorials and letters to the editor that offer other points of view. Some stories rise to the level of coverage by a daily newspaper, such as Newsday, or a TV station, such as Cablevision’s News12.  In the last couple of years, the Patch, the AOL-owned hyper-local on-line newspaper, has been covering news in many communities across the country. It presents comprehensive news about the school districts in its coverage area, as well as the opportunity for readers to comment on stories.

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