Back to School Toolkit for Working Parents

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.

How to Prevent Summer Learning Loss

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!


School Budget Notes: Implications for NY and Beyond

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.

Newsday coverage:

http://www.newsday.com/long-island/education/li-school-budgets-more-than-90-pass-1.3720351

High School Senior Elected to School Board 

Josh Lafazan

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.

Newsday coverage:

http://www.newsday.com/long-island/education/syosset-s-youngest-trustee-feeling-great-1.3719185?qr=1


Breaking News that Parents Can Use

Education news has been breaking at such a fast and furious pace that I’m calling your attention to a few important stories you may have missed.

New Organization to Engage Families in Education

First, I’m delighted that my good friend Myrdin Thompson of Louisville, Ky., has been named regional director for the central states in the newly formed National Family Engagement Alliance (NFEA).  Myrdin ThompsonThe organization was unveiled this week as part of Parenting Magazine’s Mom Congress Conference in Washington, DC. Gwen Samuel of Meriden, Conn., was appointed as regional director for the eastern and southeast regions and has been an advocate for disenfranchised families.

The organization will provide resources, education and support to engage families, individuals and organizations in schools for the benefit of children. Both women have been recognized for their advocacy and training of parents and education professionals in effective family engagement in education.

While Myrdin was in Washington this week, she was honored as a White House Champion of Change and met with President Barack Obama. He characterized her as “awesome,” which is exactly what she is. Myrdin and I are both part of the blogging team at ParentNet Unplugged, a great group of people dedicated to parent engagement in education.

A few months ago, I featured Myrdin in two consecutive Your Education Doctor blogs because one just wasn’t enough. I called her a Parent Advocate Par Excellence, and I’m thrilled that she will be bringing her experience and expertise to our shared passion of parent engagement in education! To read more about Myrdin, here are my blogs:

Profile of a Parent Advocate Par Excellence

Part 2: Lessons for Parents and the Future of Public Schools

A Letter to the President from School Boards Leader

Standardized tests have recently been on the minds of both parents and children. Last week, Mary Broderick, president of the National School Boards Association, wrote to President Obama urging him to begin a national dialogue on education — not among politicians but educators. Mary BroderickShe asked him to wear his “parent hat” to the endeavor of finding a new direction for public education.

Your daughters, she wrote, “like all of our children and all of our teachers, don’t need more tests designed to identify weaknesses. They need excited, motivated, passionate teachers who feel challenged, supported, and encouraged to try new approaches, who share with their students a learning environment that is limitless. …”

She also decried the focus on standardized testing, saying: “Strict quantitative accountability has never worked for any organization, and it has not worked with No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. … Teachers’ focus on tests is undermining their potential and initiative, making it more difficult to share a love of learning with their students.”  Here is the full text of her remarks.

Resolution to Reduce Standardized Testing

Finally, the National Education Association (NEA) has thrown its support behind a resolution calling on federal and state policymakers to reduce standardized test mandates, and to base school accountability on multiple forms of evaluation that will support students and improve schools.

Other supporters include: Parents Across America, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. The resolution’s signers have joined with public education advocates Diane Ravitch and Deborah Meier to call upon state officials to “reexamine school accountability,” and to develop an evaluation system that reflects the “broad range” of how students learn rather than mandating extensive standardized testing. Click here for the full text of the resolution.


School Bus Accidents in the News – Are Your Children Safe?

Three separate school bus accidents on Monday – in Indiana, Washington State, andOhio — have left a student and a bus driver dead, and scores of students injured, some critically.  The three crashes have fueled concerns about school bus safety.

In the Indiana accident, the bus was mangled when the driver hit an overpass without braking. In Washington, the bus rolled over after it veered off the road. In Ohio, the bus tipped and then rolled over onto its right side into a ditch.

None of the buses were equipped with passenger seatbelts, which the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) does not require in larger school buses. But those accidents have now renewed calls for passenger seat belts on all school buses.

Federal law requires seat belts on school buses weighing less than 10,000 pounds, but 80 percent of the nation’s school buses do not fall into this category. Six states – New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, Texas and Louisiana – have laws requiring seat belts on all school buses.  But just because seat belts are installed, doesn’t guarantee they will be used.

For example, New York leaves the decision of whether the seat belts will be used to local school boards.  On the contrary, the Texas law calls for disciplinary action against students who do not use them. California and Florida laws, while requiring seat belts in school buses, state that employees of school districts are not responsible for requiring students to buckle up.

The debate about seat belts on school buses has been going on for years. Despite increasingly strict requirements about helmets for bikers, seat and lap belts, and car and booster seats for children in passenger vehicles, school bus safety has not kept pace. In an ABC News interview, NHTSA spokesperson Lynda Tran said of school buses: “They are safer than their parents’ cars.” But Dr. Phyllis Agran, a pediatrician, told ABC that about 17,000 children are treated in emergency rooms each year from injuries sustained in school bus injuries.

Defenders of the status quo regarding school bus safety contend that statistics are on the side of the 24 million children who take a bus to school each day. But statistics fly out the window if it is your child who is involved in an accident.

Two of my three children were involved in school bus accidents and I have to tell you that although they were minor, it was a chilling experience to be notified that your child has been in a school bus accident. Parents have a right to expect that when they put their children on the school bus in the morning, they will get to and from school safely. They certainly don’t expect serious injuries or worse.

Seat belts have become a hot topic, but I can tell you as a former school administrator that they are not the only bus safety issues. Buses tend to be a “no man’s land” when it comes to supervision. It’s difficult for drivers to steer the bus while at the same time police kids’ behavior. Because there is no adult supervision on the bus other than the driver, school buses are fertile fields for bullying, profanity, fistfights, and other dangerous behavior, such as walking around while the bus is in motion and throwing things.

If the bus driver reports misbehavior to the school, it will be handled with an appropriate consequence. But not all bus drivers take the trouble to write a report. If your child tells you about misbehavior on the bus, take it seriously and report it to your principal or assistant principal. It’s not just annoying – it’s potentially dangerous. Be sure to inquire what steps the school takes to emphasize school bus safety. And make sure you reinforce them at home.

You may also inquire about the supervision of bus drivers.  If the school district owns a fleet of buses and the drivers are district employees, they are usually better screened, supervised, and monitored than if the district contracts with a private company for their buses and drivers. If you have reason to believe a bus driver is engaging in dangerous or suspicious behavior, be sure to report it to your school district immediately.

The following bus rules should be emphasized by the school and reinforced by you with your child at home.

  • 

Kids should go directly to their seats. They should remain seated and facing forward for the entire ride.
  • Children should speak quietly and make every effort not to distract the driver.
  • Students should not throw things on the bus or out the windows, or play with the emergency exits.
  • The aisles of the bus should be clear at all times. That means no walking around or placing objects that may cause someone to trip.
  • In an emergency, children must listen to the driver and follow instructions.
  • Students should never put head, arms or hands out of the window.
  • At their stop, children should wait for the bus to come to a complete stop before getting up. They should then walk, not run, to the front door and then exit using the handrail.

http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2012/03/school-bus-crashes-raise-the-issue-of-seat-belts-and-bus-safety/


Celebrating Learning, Teaching, and Parenting on Presidents’ Day

Presidents’ Day always makes me remember my maternal grandfather, who encouraged my brother and me to learn the names of all the US presidents and vice presidents when we were still in the early grades. When we got together each week, we would play quiz show, mimicking the popular TV shows of that era. He would give us our assignment the week before and then reward us with pocket change for our correct answers the following week. He also had us learn each of the states and their capitals, as well as difficult spelling words.

My grandfather, who came to this country from Russia at age six, had to leave school at 14 to work as an errand boy to help his family of 10. But he knew the importance of learning. He later secured a plum position at the Post Office and courted and married my grandmother, who was one of 12 children born to immigrants.

My grandmother had graduated from high school, which she attended at night – something that was unusual for her day and station. My grandparents later ran a drug store with a soda fountain and put my mother, their only daughter, through college. When my mother graduated from New York University in 1943, she enlisted in the military after seeing a film about the Nazis. A generation later, my brother and I both received advanced degrees.

Only in America — the land of freedom and opportunity — is such advancement possible. Only in America could an errand boy have a daughter graduate from college and grandchildren earn a doctorate and a law degree. Only in America could individuals from humble origins — such as Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Lyndon Johnson — become president of the US. Only in America could Oprah Winfrey achieve her incredible success. Despite being born into poverty, her grandmother taught her to read when she was three-years-old. Later, when she went to live with her father as a teenager, he made education a priority.

Traditionally, public education in the United States was considered the passport that would level the playing field for the poor and disadvantaged. But an article in last week’s New York Times reported that several research studies indicate that while the racial gap has been shrinking, there is a widening achievement gap between affluent and poor students that is threatening to weaken education’s equalizing effects.

Researchers aren’t certain why, but some hypothesize that affluent children may perform better because their parents spend more time and money in providing them with enriching experiences, such as tutoring, music lessons, and literacy activities. Additionally, they appear to be more involved in their children’s schools. The recession likely has exacerbated this disparity.

But James J. Heckman, an economist at the University of Chicago, contends that parenting counts as much or more than income in developing a child’s ability to learn and succeed in school.

“Early life conditions and how children are stimulated play a very important role,” he said. “The danger is we will revert back to the mindset of the war on poverty, when poverty was just a matter of income, and giving families more would improve the prospects of their children. If people conclude that, it’s a mistake.” 

One young person who still believes in the power of education to be the great equalizer is Samantha Garvey, the 18-year-old Brentwood, L.I., high school senior who in January was named a semi-finalist in the Intel Science Competition while her family was living in a homeless shelter. She is president of her school’s chapter of the National Honor Society, and has a 3.9 grade point average. Her amazing story so captivated the public that Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone arranged for her family to move into a rent-subsidized home. 

“My family’s setbacks are a source of motivation. I want to get my family ahead, which is why I do well in school,” Samantha told Newsday.

“My daughter is a blessing,” her mother, Olga Garvey Coreas, an immigrant from El Salvador, told the Huffington Post’s Latino Voices. “I never tire of thanking God for giving her the talent she has. She lives dedicated to her studies — nothing stops her.”

She added that parents must be vigilant in encouraging and supporting their children’s education. She pointed out that her husband, Leo, worked nights and that she worked days.

“The fact was that we never left them alone; we were always there to help them with their homework,” she said. “I believe that good communication is the basis for guiding our children.”

As we observe Presidents’ Day, let’s remember the promise and the possibilities of our country. We must ensure that public education continues to be the great equalizer. But that requires a team. We need more parents like Samantha Garvey’s, who encouraged her to learn despite the odds — enabling their daughter to achieve the unimaginable. We need more teachers like the ones in the Brentwood Public Schools, who embraced and encouraged Samantha, enabling her to shine. Samantha, of course, deserves credit for internalizing her parents’ values and grasping the opportunities her school offered. 

There is no substitute for active and involved parents partnering with caring public schools. They are still our country’s best hope for enabling young people to become all they are capable of being.     

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/10/education/education-gap-grows-between-rich-and-poor-studies-show.html?pagewanted=1&_r=1 

http://www.newsday.com/long-island/suffolk/new-beginning-for-evicted-li-family-1.3449717?qr=1

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/01/19/samantha-garvey-intel-science-immigrant_n_1215994.html


News You Can Use

If you follow me on Twitter @DrMerylAin, you know that I’ve been trying to tweet the education news that has been coming fast and furiously since 2012 began. There’s so much of importance that it’s hard to keep track. The economy has still not recovered as school districts grapple with their 2012-2013 budget process. The following news items deserve to be watched as they unfold, both as local and national trends. The key is to read the fine print and ask lots of question.

1.         The Half Hollow Hills (N.Y.) Board of Education voted unanimously to freeze salary increases of district administrators for two years as a result of negotiations between the board and the administrators’ union. While it sounds idealistic, note that included in the agreement is a stipulation that there will be no administrative terminations due to budgetary reasons. Is this just an attempt by administrators to save their jobs at the expense of teachers, librarians, nurses and others? Will the salaries of non-union administrators, such as the superintendent, also be frozen? 

2.         School districts throughout the country are looking to save money and school libraries and librarians have become targets. Nowadays – librarians or library media specialists — do so much more than encourage reading, which is certainly important enough. They teach cutting edge online information skills and collaborate with teachers. Is your school district threatening to cut librarians and libraries? Let the school board and district administration know that this is unacceptable. There is also a petition drive to ensure that all U.S. students have access to an effective library program. The petition asks that the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provide dedicated funding to support library programs. 

https://wwws.whitehouse.gov/petitions/!/petition/ensure-every-child-america-has-access-effective-school-library-program/tmlbRqf

3.         We all know about the harm that has been done to young people with cyber-bullying. The National School Boards Association and other educational groups requested “clear guidance” from the Supreme Court about the power of school officials to mete out consequences to students for electronic misbehavior. Nevertheless, the Supreme Court recently decided to stay out of this maelstrom by not hearing two cases involving students’ use of their MySpace accounts to belittle other students and a school principal. By not hearing the two cases – one in West Virginia and the other in Pennsylvania — the issue of whether school officials throughout the U.S. can regulate online behavior that takes place off school grounds is still unresolved. Check to see if your school district has policies and practices in place to deal with cyber-bullying.

 4.         A measure being presented in the Indiana House of Representatives would let 51 percent of parents vote on turning public schools into charter schools. The “parent trigger” almost made it through the Indiana General Assembly last year as a part of a package of education reforms that included the creation of the nation’s most expansive voucher program and an expansion of the groups that can approve new charter schools. In its place, legislators approved an abridged version of the bill, which left the ultimate decision with school boards and limited it to schools that have underperformed for at least two years in a row. Proponents are attempting again this year to pass a full “parent trigger.” 

The idea is part of a national trend that began in California in 2009 and has been debated in a number of states over the last two years. The proposal would also let parents petition the state school board to have the state take control of their schools. The “parent trigger” leaves out the school administration and school boards from the decision. Although the California law has given parents this power, the parents of one school who attempted to use it now find themselves in court. The “parent trigger” has also been used as a vehicle to push for removal of incompetent teachers and principals. Two other states, Texas and Mississippi, approved the “parent trigger” last year. Other states, including Arizona and Florida, are considering the measure this year.

 5.         Proposed revisions to the American Psychiatric Association’s definition of autism would exclude about three-quarters of those now diagnosed with milder forms of autism called Asperger syndrome or “pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified,” also known as P.D.D.-N.O.S. These are people who have difficulties with social interaction but do not share the most severe impairments of children with classic autism. The proposed revisions, which would take effect in 2013, have alarmed parents of children with special needs and special education advocates. The changes, coming at a time when resources are shrinking, may reduce the number of students who will qualify for services that will ultimately improve their ability to learn, socialize, and succeed in school and beyond.

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