Presidents’ Day and the President’s Educational Initiatives

OBAMASTAs we observe Presidents’ Day, we are reminded how our presidents have impacted our country. Last Tuesday, we saw presidential influence on display with President Obama’s State of the Union address. The President used his bully pulpit to advocate for several public education proposals. Here are his education ideas:

1.   The College Scorecard, now posted at, shows which schools offer the best value, “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck,” he said. Obama also asked Congress to change the Higher Education Act to link colleges’ federal aid to their “affordability and value.”

2.   Preschool for all children, he argued, would boost graduation rates as well as reduce teenage pregnancy and violent crime. “I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” he said.

On Wednesday, Obama visited a pre-school in Decatur, Ga., telling an audience of teachers, parents, and students that “education has to start at the earliest possible age.” Obama’s proposal would guarantee pre-school at age four for all children from poor and working-class backgrounds. He said also that he would support local initiatives to provide education for middle-class four-year-olds, as well as for infants and toddlers from low-income families.

3.   Higher rewards for high-tech education to prepare graduates for a high-tech economy. This non-specific initiative would “redesign America’s high schools” to prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed for today’s jobs. “We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs,” Obama said.

He also seemed to indicate that every student doesn’t need to go to college if he/she can learn the appropriate technological skills in high school. He referenced “those German kids” who attend schools that provide the technological skills that equip them for a job when they graduate. He pointed to P-Tech in Brooklyn, where graduates leave with a high school diploma and associate’s degree in a high-tech field.

4.   Better school buildings could be among the priorities in his “Partnership to Rebuild America,” a plan to attract private capital to help with construction projects.

Sen. Marco Rubio’s response for the Republicans included: incentives for schools to provide Advanced Placement courses, more vocational training, and increasing school choice, especially for parents of children with special needs. He said also that financial aid should not “discriminate against programs that non-traditional students rely on – like online courses, or degree programs that give you credit for work experience.”

PTA Reaction to State of Union Speech

The National PTA was generally pleased with the State of the Union address, particularly his call for alleviating the impact of sequestration on education, ensuring school safety, providing early-childhood education, helping students become ready for college and careers, and engaging fathers in the lives of their children. But it was disappointed that the comprehensive reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was not mentioned.

This year, National PTA wants Congress to take bipartisan action to address changes to the law governing the federal role in public education. The organization is especially interested in promoting meaningful family engagement via federal mandate.

“Despite bipartisan consensus on the importance of family engagement in education, there remains no central mechanism to translate federal family engagement policies into general practice in states and local communities. Thus, there is little evidence that states, districts, and schools are implementing ESEA-NCLB’s family engagement provisions to meaningfully engage families in the education of their children,” according to the PTA’s 2013 Public Policy Agenda report.

Getting Ready for Kindergarten

kidreadIf you’re a parent who will be sending a five-year-old to kindergarten for the first time next September, it may seem like a long way off. But this is actually the time to start preparing. New parents often have questions about registration as well as how to help get their children ready for school.

First and foremost, you must register your child with your school district. While many districts have “official” kindergarten registration periods this month, you may register your child at any time. Actually, the sooner you register your child, the better. Schools use registration information to plan for the following school year, to budget, and to estimate how many kindergarten classes, teachers, supplies and equipment they will need. It’s also critically important if your child has special needs. You want to ensure that he/she is tested and evaluated early in order to get the appropriate help and services.

Call your district first to find out if there are specific registration hours and what documents you will need to bring with you, such as a birth certificate, proofs of residency, and immunization record.

The average age of kindergarten entrants continues to rise, with 37 states now requiring that children be five when they enter kindergarten. The fact that school districts around the country differ widely in their cut-off dates for students entering kindergarten is a source of confusion for parents. Deadlines vary in different districts; so make sure you know what the date is in your community.

Despite district deadlines, the practice of holding children back from kindergarten until they are six has become popular in the last few years. The decision of whether or not to hold a child back from kindergarten should be based on the individual youngster’s social, emotional, and academic needs and development, not on gaining a competitive advantage over other children. Parents know their children best, and should also take into account what the child will be doing if he/she is not in kindergarten

Parents of incoming kindergarten students may wonder whether teachers expect them to come prepared with certain skills. While teachers are pleased when children enter kindergarten knowing letters and numbers, they do not want you to drill them. Kindergarten teachers look for their students to have readiness skills; these are the building blocks that will enable your child to love learning and to succeed in school. You can prepare your child with readiness skills through daily activities.

Spark your child’s curiosity and vocabulary by discussing and naming observations, objects, and experiences.  Activities, such as visits to the beach, park, beach, children’s museum, or zoo, present many opportunities for you to help your child develop language skills.  It goes without saying that reading to your youngster will also help him/her learn new words and ideas. Use new words in your conversation in a context your child understands.

Kindergarten teachers will be pleased if your child has the ability to listen. Read to your child every day and ask questions about the book.  Besides nurturing vocabulary and comprehension, reading develops the listening skills necessary in a kindergarten classroom. Students must listen to concentrate on what the teacher is saying, to be able to follow directions, and to learn. Singing also fosters listening skills and will help develop reading readiness.

Encouraging your youngster to take care of him/herself is good preparation for kindergarten. For example, although it’s easier to hang up your child’s coat yourself, the kindergarten teacher will want students to do it themselves. She cannot take off the boots and hang up the coats of 25 students. Pre-school usually helps children master these skills.

Kindergarten is about socialization, so help your child get ready by encouraging him/her to share, take turns, and understand the rights, space, and feelings of others.

It’s important for kindergarten students to have good eye-hand coordination. Many kindergarten activities involve coloring, cutting, pasting, and writing with a pencil. Playing with clay or Play-Doh, writing, coloring, painting, pasting, and stringing beads are examples of activities that will get your child ready for kindergarten. These activities, along with counting and recognizing shapes and colors, are usually well covered in pre-school. But you can enhance your child’s knowledge by also providing these opportunities at home.

You can help make the transition into kindergarten a fun and seamless one by incorporating readiness activities into your child’s daily routine.

Flu Resources for Parents and Teachers

ImageUnless 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. 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.

Top 5 Must-Read Education Articles of the Week

There were five thoughtful articles on educational issues this week that I’m sharing with you in case you missed them. They are all well worth reading and discussing.

1. When I was a doctoral student at Hofstra University in the 1990s, it made sense to talk about “21st century skills.” But I have to admit that when some of my colleagues in the Smithtown School District continued to use that phrase a decade into the new millennium, I secretly cringed.  In her Huffington Post article, A 21st Education is SO Last Century, Lydia Dobyns cogently makes the point:

“It’s empty phraseology designed to sound like we are preparing for the future when we are already living in that future; and no one believes that what passes for a typical classroom today will be the classroom experience even 10 years from now, let alone for the next 87 years.”

The entire article is a must read.

2. Thinking about the future, David Young and J.B. Buxton write about Language Education We Can Use in Education Week. They suggest that we overhaul language programs to ensure that they are in  “tune with the demands of states, businesses, and parents to better prepare students for the global world in which they will live and work.” This is definitely something to think about.

Read the entire article.

3. On the topic of educational reform, PBS aired a Frontline documentary this week  (“The Education of Michelle Rhee”) about Michelle Rhee, the controversial former chancellor of the District of Columbia Public Schools and the founder and CEO of the StudentsFirst advocacy organization.  Veteran education journalist John Merrow (Learning Matters) covered Rhee during her volatile three years in D.C. for the documentary. Emily Richmond, public editor of the National Education Writers Association, interviewed him about the documentary and Rhee’s complicated legacy.

Read the entire article.

4. Peter DeWitt raises very important questions about guns, TV and video game violence, and mental health in his Education Week piece, Does America Have A Violence Problem?

“We need to have open discussions about mental health and deal with America’s violent mentality. We need to look to the media, parents, society and what our children are allowed to watch on television. Schools are trying to teach students that fighting isn’t the answer at the same time they watch it as the only answer on television. Many parents monitor what their children see, but it seems to be getting harder and harder every year. We need children to actually be children.”

Definitely read the full article.

5. On a one-to-one level, Dr. Michele Borba offers invaluable parenting advice for parents whose children have anger management issues or are unable to handle impulses. Her wise suggestions are a must read for parents who want specific real-world suggestions on how to help kids find healthier ways to control strong impulses, overwhelming feelings, aggression and inappropriate outbursts. For example, she offers techniques to recognize your child’s anger warning signs and ways to develop a feeling vocabulary. This is a great resource for parents who live with this problem.

Read the entire article.

Five Education Stories to Watch in 2013

Question1. Questions about school safety surfaced almost immediately following the unspeakable tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. at the end of 2012.  The school had strong safety protocols in place, but they were no match for a shooter with military-style weapons.

In 2013, look for more soul-searching conversations and concomitant action about school safety. Parents have an absolute right to expect that when they send their children to school, they will be safe and secure, and that they will be returned to them at the end of the day in the same condition. But this heated debate involves much more than amending school safety plans. On one side are the gun control advocates and on the other are the proponents of arming not only guards – but teachers and administrators, too. Where this argument will go is anybody’s guess, but it’s sure to dominate the education and political news this year.

2. High-stakes testing was in the news in 2012. While many national policy and opinion makers favored testing as a way to reform the educational system, those in the trenches disagreed. For example, parents organized boycotts against testing and local boards of education passed resolutions against testing.

The National Resolution on High-Stakes Testing has been endorsed by more than 13,700 individuals and 460 organizations. It calls on the U.S. Congress and the Obama Administration to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act, “reduce the testing mandates, promote multiple forms of evidence of student learning and school quality in accountability, and not mandate any fixed role for the use of student test scores in evaluating educators.”

In 2013, expect the debate to heat up as more academics and education writers line up against high-stakes testing.

3. In addition, the related issue of teacher evaluations will continue to be hotly debated as teacher unions persist in questioning the wisdom of linking evaluations to testing.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo set a deadline of Jan. 17, 2013, for local school districts and unions in New York to agree on a teacher evaluation plan following the parameters set down in state legislation. If not, Cuomo warned, they would lose state aid. Only about 250 of the state’s 700 districts had approved plans as of Dec. 1.

4. Although 45 states have adopted Common Core standards, sponsored by the National Governors Association for Best Practices and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the implementation, cost, and quality of these assessments were increasingly under fire in 2012. Some believe Tony Bennett was defeated as Indiana’s state superintendent of education because of his support for Common Core.

In 2013, watch for news about grassroots efforts in several states against Common Core. Some states may even withdraw from the program, due to issues with the standards and assessments themselves, as well as the perception by some that they are a federal intrusion into education.

5. Parent/Family Engagement in schools made the news in 2012 with educators increasingly turning their attention to how to actively involve parents in their children’s education. On the other hand, a number of states adopted Parent Trigger legislation, which was passed to enable parents to take over schools — although most of these have been challenged in court.

The efficacy of the Parent Trigger will be debated and tested in 2013 amid concerns from educators that real reform efforts must include the professionals.

I wish you a happy, healthy, safe, and successful new year!!!

After the Storm: The Light of Giving

Dateline: Long Beach, NY

Amid the massive devastation of super storm Sandy that has touched virtually everyone in Long Beach, L.I., the light of caring and giving shined brightly this week.

Many teachers from public and parochial schools throughout Long Island who were off on Veterans Day showed up at the Long Beach Ice Rink to help in the sorting of massive donations of food, clothing, personal items, and household supplies. Like the teachers – students who also had the day off and were out of school for much of the storm — assisted in the effort.

Six families from Great Neck showed up to sort clothing by gender and size.

“We came with our moms and brothers and sisters,” said Orli Cole, 14. “We were looking to volunteer for something, and we learned of this online.”

Jacky Kislin, also 14, said they had all volunteered the previous week in Brooklyn.

“In the last two weeks, we have had one day of school,” she said.

Outside the ice skating rink on Magnolia Boulevard, a line of people waited patiently for donated food, clothing and household supplies. Two weeks after the storm, many of the residents still did not have electricity in their homes.

In front of the ice rink, representatives from FEGS offered bagels, cream cheese, juice, and coffee to those in need.

Zach Solomon, 24, whose home had to be gutted due to the flooding, spearheaded his own effort to help storm victims. He handed out new blankets, toothpaste, toothbrushes, socks and flashlight batteries that he purchased from the money he raised. He said he thought of the idea after remembering that a friend had started a nonprofit to help Katrina victims.

“Within the first 48 hours after I sent out 150 e-mails, we had raised nearly $10,000,” Solomon said. “We used it to buy 500 blankets, and we have a lot more money left to buy other things.” 

At the ice rink, Bob Piazza, Long Beach’s park’s commissioner, said the city has “stopped accepting donations so we can catch up with sorting what we have.”

He pointed to unsorted bags of clothing that filled half the rink’s bleachers.

“It’s estimated to be in excess of 40 tons,” he said.

“We’ve taken in food and household goods and cleaning supplies, and as there is a demand for it we run it out [to those on line],” he said.

Piazza said they are planning to send what is not needed to other communities that can use it.

At the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County dinner on Tuesday night, Gov. Andrew Cuomo thanked the 550 attendees for coming to the event, despite their own difficulties with the storm. Speaking about the destruction experienced by Long Beach and other communities throughout Long Island and New York City, he noted that Sandy was one of three storms he has confronted since he became governor 22 months ago. He fears Sandy is not the storm of the century, but a new reality for which we must prepare.

While promising that New York will rebuild “better and smarter,” to prepare for future storms, Cuomo noted that he was touched by the spirit of caring communities that he observed throughout the state. He noted that a lesson learned from the Holocaust – and that the Holocaust Center teaches — is that we cannot stand idly by as others suffer. He added that we are all responsible for one another, and that the ethos of kindness and cooperation is alive and well in New York State.

In the wake of Sandy, the time has never been more appropriate for the 92Y’s new initiative to inaugurate a national day of spending that emphasizes giving back. Giving Tuesday, which will be launched November 27, is garnering the support of retailers, charities, organizations and individuals to inspire a day of giving and celebration of our country’s time-honored traditions of philanthropy and volunteerism.

You can help by spreading the word about the importance of giving back and joining in the conversation at, or on Twitter by following the hashtag #givingtuesday.

How to Manage Your Child’s Food Allergy at School

The holiday season, beginning with Halloween and culminating in Christmas, is still celebrated in many schools with festivities – including a heavy dose of treats. This is particularly problematic for children with food allergies.

A study reported in the Journal of Pediatrics indicates that eight percent of children under the age of 18 have food allergies. The report noted that food allergies were most prevalent among preschoolers, and teenagers were most likely to have dangerous and deadly reactions. Peanut allergies were the most common, followed by milk and shellfish allergies.  Other foods triggering food allergies were: tree nuts, eggs, fish with fins, strawberries, wheat and soy.

While many food allergies in children are mild and fade as youngsters grow, others can be severe and life threatening. According to the study, 40 percent of children with food allergies experience acute symptoms, such as wheezing, and anaphylaxis– a medical emergency, which involves trouble breathing and a sudden drop in blood pressure.

More students than ever are currently attending school with severe food allergies. And some believe that food allergies are on the rise. For more than a decade, I supervised the school nurses in an 11,000-student school district. I often consulted with parents, principals, and nurses about students’ allergies, the parent’s role, and the schools’ response. Parents need to be proactive about their children’s food allergies throughout the school year, but particularly when shared foods are abundant during class celebrations.

If your child has a food allergy, you are your child’s best advocate. Make sure you are thoroughly informed about your child’s needs and rights. It is critically important for you to communicate with the school principal, school nurse, and your child’s teachers, as well as other parents. Be actively involved in helping the school to understand and provide the services and attention your child needs to succeed. Here are some suggestions to help you be proactive.

  • Become an expert on your child’s allergy.  Read about it, speak with your allergist, and consider joining a food allergy support group. Know what foods your child must avoid, and the signs and symptoms of an allergic reaction. Learn how to use an epi-pen if your doctor prescribes it.
  • Prepare information about your child’s allergy, possible reactions, and medications, and share it with the school.
  • Learn how your school generally handles food allergies. For example: is there a peanut free table in the cafeteria? Are children allowed to bring snacks from home and share them? What happens at birthday parties and other celebrations?
  • Work with school personnel to build a support team for your child. Educate them to avoid allergens, how to respond to your child’s symptoms, and how to react in an emergency. You will also want to discuss issues, such as field trips.
  • Check the school’s policies, protocols and guidelines in regard to the handling of food allergies.
  • Update prescriptions, doctor’s orders and other necessary paperwork at the start of each school year or when there is a change in your child’s treatment.

Often, food allergies can be addressed successfully by developing a medical management plan that gives the school guidance on your child’s specific needs. Creating a medical management plan for how your child’s allergy will be handled at school should be a team effort that includes you, your child, school personnel, and your child’s doctors. It is very important that the plan is documented in writing.

Parents often ask about whether they need a 504 Plan to manage their child’s food allergy at school. 504 Plans are comprehensive plans created collaboratively by parents, nurses, and other interested parties to address the student’s individual needs. While a medical management plan provides guidelines, a 504 Plan is legally binding. It is your call whether you want to request a 504 Plan for your child.

School districts are required by the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (29 U.S.C. § 794) to provide all students, regardless of disability, with a “free appropriate public education.” This provision, found in section 504, applies to any condition – physical, mental, or emotional – that might interfere with a student’s ability to receive an education in a public school. That means that no student with a disability can be excluded from school.

A severe food allergy, such as peanuts, is a condition that may or may not fall under the Rehabilitation Act. For example, 504 Plans may address the use of anaphylactic medications, such as epi-pens, and how staff will be utilized to recognize and respond to allergy symptoms. 504 plans may also address specific responsibilities of students and staff.

A student must have a condition that “substantially limits one or more major life activities,” to qualify for a 504 Plan. Students have to be evaluated by the school district to determine whether they are eligible. The district will take into consideration the age and capability of the child. If parents are dissatisfied with the outcome, they may appeal.

The bottom line has to do with the seriousness of your child’s symptoms and how capable he/she is to take care of his/her health needs. You are the best judge. It is your decision whether you want to have a legally enforceable plan or if you are comfortable with a medical management plan. Whichever you choose, it is always a good idea to make sure everything is in writing. If you are in doubt, consult with your child’s doctor, and an attorney who has expertise in this area.

Follow Dr. Ain on Twitter and subscribe to her blog, Your Education Doctor