Not Your Mother’s PTA

pta-meeting-parents-e1316549376678With 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!

10 Tips to Encourage Summer Learning

FDRhseThe hot weather is signaling to us that summer is on the horizon. School – with all of its structured routines, homework, testing, and projects — will soon be over.  Summer – with its outdoor play, excursions to the parks and beaches, and vacations — will replace the frenetic daily school schedules.  Both kids and parents are likely to be more relaxed!

But did you know 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. But the weak economy has taken its toll on families across the board. Fewer parents will be able to afford camps, tutors, and the plethora of 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.

So what’s a parent to do? Here are 10 tips for maintaining your child’s skills and learning levels during the summer.

  • Foster the expectation that summer is a time for learning. Ask your child what he/she would like to learn over the summer. It’s also helpful if you are a role model for learning. Discuss with your children what you plan on learning this summer.
  • 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.
  • Let your child calculate what the change should be at stores, restaurants, and activities that require admission fees. If your children are old enough, ask them to calculate tips in restaurants.
  • Try word games, including board games, such as Scrabble, and crossword puzzles and Sudoku to build vocabulary. Encourage your child to learn a certain number of new words during the summer.
  • Sharpen your child’s math skills by playing games with him or her that require computation, such as Monopoly or dominoes. Let your child be the scorekeeper or “banker.” You can also use flash cards to help review addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. Go online for worksheets that match your child’s learning needs and skill level. Many of these can be printed or downloaded for free.
  • 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?
  • Inspire your children to write about their summer learning experiences. Remember to keep learning fun. You want your children to return to school in September with improved skills and a renewed love of learning!


Scholarships Keep Memories Alive


The 2013 recipients of the Herbert J. Fischman Memorial Scholarship with Meryl Ain

On Thursday evening, I had the pleasure of attending the Brentwood High School Awards Night as a presenter of two scholarships in memory of my father, Herbert J. Fischman, a former teacher and elementary principal in the district. With this gesture, I joined with many other individuals and groups who together awarded hundreds of scholarships to Brentwood’s deserving graduates.

Principal Richard Loeschner and his family were among the presenters, memorializing their mother, Mary Ann Loeschner. There were also countless relatives, colleagues and friends of former Brentwood employees, local residents and students who also presented scholarships

The evening, which was coordinated by Paula Santorelli, was filled with warmth, spirit, and excitement. It was particularly inspiring to hear presenters speak about the loved ones in whose memory they were donating the scholarships. Listening to the speakers actually brought me closer to my father, who worked in the school district for 25 years. I recognized many of the names as colleagues and friends with whom he had worked, all of whom were so dedicated to the students, staff, parents, district and community.

In these difficult economic times when discretionary funds are diminishing, a scholarship — no matter how small – is particularly meaningful because it can have such a positive impact on the life of a young person. It also perpetuates the living memory of a loved one. The more scholarships that are available, the more opportunity there is to acknowledge young people who work hard to do their very best, as well as those who exemplify character traits that our communities and country desperately need, such as service and caring.

Four years ago, while writing a book with my husband and brother, I decided to establish the scholarship in memory of my father. Our book, The Living Memories Project, due to be published this fall, is about honoring memories and carrying on legacies. The idea for the scholarship came from two of our interviewees — Nick Clooney, the father of George Clooney and brother of Rosemary and Betty Clooney, and Yeou-Cheng Ma, the sister of cellist Yo Yo Ma. Both separately suggested that one of the easiest ways to honor a loved one was to establish a scholarship in his or her memory. It was then that I made the commitment to continue the scholarships each year.

While the students are the recipients of the scholarships, attending the assembly and presenting the scholarships each year has been both cathartic and therapeutic for me. For example, I met retired teachers who worked in my father’s school and who shared with me their reminiscences, as well as their affection and admiration for my dad.   In addition, listening to others speak about their loved ones confirmed that dedicating a scholarship, no matter what the amount, helps to keep alive the memory of those who are no longer here.

Since establishing the Herbert J. Fischman Memorial Scholarship I have met some amazing students, parents, teachers, and principals in the Brentwood School District. I thank them for the opportunity to enable me to honor the memory of my father in a meaningful way!

Declining Enrollment: Is it Time for School District Consolidation?

As Long Island school districts continue to massage their 2013-14 budgets, declining student enrollment casts a huge shadow.

About 70 percent of Long Island’s districts had a decline in elementary school enrollment over the past six years, according to a Newsday editorial this week that argued there are too many Long Island school districts. Gov. Andrew Cuomo agrees, recently calling for more consolidation of districts throughout the state.

According to Newsday, the number of K-12 public school students on the Island has decreased from a high of 471,000 in 2004-05 to a projected estimate of 430,000 in 2015-16, a decline of 8 percent that is likely to continue. The drop in enrollment is due to a variety of factors, including a weak economy with slowing housing turnover, an aging population, lower birthrates, high property taxes, and a shortage of job opportunities.

For district leaders, dealing with the fallout from declining enrollment can be a very tricky proposition, and it typically leads to rancorous battles when school closings are proposed. Parents are often attached to their children’s schools and seldom appreciate a change.

The number of full-time teachers on the Island dropped 3.5 percent in the past seven years and in the last two years, at least six school districts have closed their elementary schools, Newsday pointed out. It says more schools are on the chopping block and that the “trend shows no sign of reversing.”

How school district officials and parents respond to these changes will determine the future quality of education here.

“We’ll also need more sharing of services, willingness to close unneeded schools and a plentitude of innovative thinking,” the newspaper argued. “In one sense, there is some good news: The decreases are significant enough that some financial savings can now be culled.”

In the last decade, school districts have been reluctant to sell their closed buildings. This is because districts that sold their buildings in the past often needed them just a few years later when enrollment picked up. District officials faced criticism and remorse when the buildings could not be reclaimed. But Newsday suggests that this would no longer be the case.

“That’s a harder sell now,” it said. “No one knows when or if the tide will turn, holding on to underutilized schools and property keeps them off the tax rolls. Beyond that, a building erected in the 1950s or 1960s might not be equipped with the infrastructure, like high-tech labs, audio-visual devices and computer wiring, to fit future educational needs.”

In addition, the entire way schools do business may change, the editorial suggested. For example, the three BOCES on Long Island have just started a cooperative venture to create online advanced placement courses.

“With pension and health care costs climbing, a property tax cap in place, and little or no new revenue on the horizon for districts, the time for change is now,”

the paper said.

One person who has long been a proponent of district consolidation is Martin R. Cantor, CPA, Ed.D., the director of The Long Island Center for Socio-Economic Policy. He contends that consolidation of Long Island’s school districts could save millions of dollars a year and would still preserve local control and save educational programs.

Under his proposal, the merger of dozens of local districts would allow the elimination of the vast majority of school superintendents, business and personnel officials. And he would give principals the power to budget and hire. He points to county systems in similar suburbs, such as those in Maryland and Virginia, which have comfortable, well-educated residents.

He argues that consolidation would not impact the students’ school experience but rather is a budget item “that has no role in the children’s education; in fact, it directs more school budget dollars to the classroom.”

“The plan preserves the neighborhood school,” Cantor insisted. “Children are not transported to other schools and districts. Nothing changes but better education at lower costs.”

To read his proposal, go to his website, and click the publication link: Town-Wide School Districts: 
A Case for Long Island Education at Lower Costs.

Become familiar with all of the issues related to this topic. Deeper cuts are on the horizon in all districts. Be informed, and decide for yourself what’s best for your children’s education!

Education News and Views

Fat Letters to Parents Spark Controversy

The North Andover (Mass.) Patch recently reported that parents there received letters from their schools alerting them to the weight status of their children. Selectman Tracy Watson called attention to the letters when she got one indicating that her son Cameron was classified as “obese.” The letter explained BMI (Body Mass Index) standards and suggested that she and her husband contact Cameron’s pediatrician.

Watson was bemused because her son is engaged in sports and participates in martial arts. He’s a member of a wrestling team, wrestling club, and plays football. A child’s BMI is calculated with a BMI-for-age chart established by the Centers for Disease Control, and a percentile (compared with age and gender) is determined for classification. The classifications are: underweight, healthy weight, overweight or obese. Cameron was in the 95th percentile so he was classified as obese, although he looks – and is — fit.

Massachusetts Department of Public Health has required public schools to adopted a “BMI initiative” since 2009. The initiative requires schools to calculate the BMI of elementary and secondary students of specific ages and send the results to the children’s parents.

The letters have sparked controversy in the town, with some saying they are damaging to kids’ self-esteem and that school suggestions should focus on healthy living and eating.

Good News for Parents of Kids with Autism

There’s some good news for parents of children with autism who have been told that if their child isn’t speaking by four or five-years-old he/she may never talk. An article in Autism Speaks reports on a new study of more than 500 children with autism. The study in the journal Pediatrics indicates that some children with autism develop language skills as late as elementary or secondary school. Scientists at the Center for Autism and Related Disorders in Baltimore, Md., studied 535 children ages 8 to 17 who at age four were diagnosed with autism and with severe language delays. Their language delays ranged from not speaking at all to using single words or phrases without verbs.

Researchers discovered that most of these children later developed language skills. Forty-seven percent became fluent speakers and 70 percent were able to speak in simple phrases.

“These findings offer hope to parents that their language-delayed child will go on to develop speech in elementary school, or even as teenagers,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geraldine Dawson, Ph.D. “By highlighting important predictors of language acquisition – especially the role of nonverbal cognitive and social skills – this also suggests that targeting these areas in early intervention will help to promote language.”

Personal Notes: In the Family

bookCongratulations to my daughter-in-law, Beth Ain of Port Washington, N.Y., on her new children’s book, Starring Jules (As Herself), which was just published by Scholastic. This is the first in a series and is geared to the 7 to 10-year-old set. It got a great review from Publisher’s Weekly and I, of course, loved it too! It brought me back to the days of reading Judy Blume books with my kids!

Kudos to my friend Mark Wasserman of Boca Raton, Florida, on being named an “Unsung Hero” by the Sun Sentinel for his award-winning project, Houses for Change. After retiring as a senior economist for the Office of Management and Budget in Washington, D.C., he has put his heart and soul into helping the homeless with this endeavor.

Since the end of 2010, 25,000 kids have raised more than $375,000 in the Houses for Change collection boxes they created for homeless organizations. Mark has been nominated by Congressman Alcee Hastings for the Presidential Citizens Medal, the second-highest civilian award in the nation. He is looking for more schools and youth organizations throughout the country to participate in this great community service project. For more information on Houses for Change, visit: Family Promise,0,597718.story

Sequestration – What the President and Congress Can Learn from School Districts

Each day we get closer to the dire predictions that will be brought on by the impending sequestration cuts, I – and many other Americans — become more and more incredulous. The country has not had a budget for 1,400 days! Is it really possible that the President and Congress (who are the elected representatives of the people) cannot agree on any reasonable reductions that would not imperil the health and safety of the nation?

As a public school central administrator for 20 years, much of my professional life revolved around the “budget process.” This is the yearly activity engaged in by every school district in the country in which budgets are proposed, massaged, presented for public discussion, approved by school boards, and then passed or defeated by the voters.

If school districts, which are mini-government entities, are capable of crafting budget plans each year, why not the federal government? If school districts can mine their budgets to find non-essential and less essential areas to cut, why can’t the President and Congress do so within the vast $46.3 trillion in federal government spending?

Sure, school districts engage in politics too when presenting their budgets. They may threaten to cut full-day kindergarten, sports programs, or other popular offerings, and sometimes they are cut. But often when there is an outcry from parents, these reductions are shelved in favor of those that have less impact on students and the educational programs.

There is no question that there is a political game going on now and voters should be outraged by this fifth budget showdown in two years. We are being told that the cuts will result in an unsafe food supply, an end to important medical research, more criminals on the street, dangerous air traffic, the devastation of Head Start, the crippling of the military, etc., etc.

I have a strong suspicion that there is likely some fat in the federal government. Why can’t Democrats and Republicans stop the shenanigans and start looking for at least some of the $1.2 trillion draconian sequestration cuts in less painful parts of the vast governmental enterprise? For starters, here are just a few areas where there could very well be hidden spending:

  • New equipment, including furniture, computers, etc.
  • Food – lunches, dinners, meetings, special events etc.
  • Overtime – clerical and custodial
  • Conferences
  • Travel
  • Staff – clerical, custodial, administrative
  • Consolidating and eliminating programs that do not affect health and safety.

School boards generally try to engage in responsible spending at the same time they refrain from hurting their constituents and decimating the heart and soul of their educational programs; the President and Congress should apply that lesson as they move forward.

Education News Round-Up: Food for Thought

Should educators be armed?

Mississippi teachers and principals would be allowed to carry concealed guns in schools under a bill passed Wednesday by the House. The bill must still pass the Senate and be signed by the governor.

Those who supported the bill said it was a victory for those who want heightened school security following the tragic shootings in Newtown, Conn. last December. The bill enables boards of education to develop policies for their own districts, subject to state approval.

Opponents criticized the bill as a “knee jerk” response to the tragedy in Newtown, and insisted that security matters should be left to trained law enforcement personnel and not educators.

It is not clear whether the bill actually has a chance to become law. No similar bill exists in the Senate, which has a proposal backed by Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, to provide $7.5 million in matching state funds to allow schools to hire more armed police officers for their campuses

School buses to have Internet access and GPS tracking

Kokomo-Center Schools in Indiana will install wireless Internet – including a GPS tracking system — on all of its 65 buses by the end of the year. Internet access will enable students to do their homework on the bus, especially during long rides to and from after-school competitions. The GPS technology will keep track of the buses and will allow the district to more closely monitor bus transportation.

“This GPS tracking system will enable our transportation department to handle parent concerns in a timely, more efficient manner,” said Larry Johnson, the district’s transportation supervisor. “It will prove invaluable when answering parent questions concerning bus estimated time of arrival and present location.”

South Koreans Bemoan Lack of Values in Students

Don’t think that inculcating values in children is just an American problem. A survey by the Korea Education Development Institute released this week calls upon South Korea’s schools to focus on values education to combat the lack of ethics in its elementary and secondary students.

More than 55 percent of the 1,800 adults surveyed said that students in grades k-12 are lacking in ethics. Improving students’ character and personalities was ranked as the most important responsibility of schools with 35.8 percent, followed by the need to tackle school violence with 34.5 percent and reducing the heavy burden of educational expenses with 11.6 percent, according to the survey.

“A series of appalling school violence incidents, including suicide attempts by bullied students, likely led the public to put priority on ethics education,” said an institute official, calling for education officials authorities to take action.

Bad News About Bullies

Do you think bullies are anti-social outsiders? Think again. A new study has found that middle school students who bully are often the most popular among their peers. This was equally true of both boys and girls who spread rumors, started fights or bossed other kids around.

Researchers from UCLA surveyed 1,900 students at 11 Los Angeles middle schools. The seventh and eighth graders were asked to name the students who were the “coolest” and the ones who were bullies. The students who were labeled the coolest were also often named the most aggressive, and those considered the most aggressive were much more likely to be named the coolest. The findings suggest that bullying and popularity go hand in hand. This is indeed a disturbing finding, and one that may shed new light on efforts to prevent bullying.