How Safe Are Our Schools?

At the time, I thought that I would always remember April 20, 1999, as the day then-First Lady Hillary Clinton visited the school district in which I was working.

I was one of the entourage who escorted her and her staff around the Village School in Syosset, L.I.

The school was packed with media because there were rumors Mrs. Clinton would soon announce she was running for the U.S. Senate from New York. When I got home from work, I settled in to watch what I expected would be wall-to-wall coverage of the visit.

Columbine Memorial, Littleton, Colorado: Photo by David Keyzer (CC)

But it was quickly pre-empted by the horrific news from Littleton, Colorado — the massacre of 12 students and one teacher by two student gunmen before they killed themselves at Columbine High School.

Ever since that day, our notions of school safety have changed. So this week when police sought four men in connection with a home invasion robbery in Bellmore, L.I., they ordered a lockdown of 27 schools in Bellmore, Merrick, Wantagh and Levittown as they pursued the men through residential neighborhoods. The lockdowns went on for hours before the suspects were all apprehended, but not before there was a shootout in front of the Lakeside Elementary School in Merrick.

Anxious parents were advised not to come to the schools and were assured that their children were safe. Although the specter of lockdowns evokes memories of Columbine and subsequent school shootings, it’s important to remember that schools are now required to have comprehensive safety plans.

I remember chairing a large Project SAVE Committee in 2000 when New York State first required districts to have very specific safety plans, which must be tweaked and improved each year. This week when the lockdowns occurred on Long Island’s South Shore, the affected districts used their Websites and automated phone messages to inform parents — tools that were not widely used or available 11 years ago.  

But how do you know about your child’s safety? Here are some questions you can ask:

  • How does your school communicate with parents in case of a lockdown or safety situation?
  • Does your school conduct lockdown drills with its staff? (There is mixed opinion on whether students should participate because it might frighten them.) Is all staff familiar with safety plans, and what to do if there is a threat to safety?
  • Do your district and school administrators have ongoing contact with their local police and fire departments?  
  • Do parents have access to reports that include information about the number of violent or other unsafe incidents at the school?
  • Does your school have ways to prevent as well as to respond to crises?
  • Are students taught conflict resolution skills?
  • How is school safety promoted in your school?
  • Are school facilities safe and free of hazards? 
  • Does your school or district have a Safety Committee?
  • Does your child know how to protect his or her personal safety and what to do if he or she is threatened?

It really does “take a village” – to borrow a line from Hillary Clinton — to ensure that our children are safe. Although schools are doing a much better job than they used to, there is always room for improvement. Board of education members, school and district administrators, teachers, staff, students and parents must always be vigilant and act as partners with one another to protect our students and schools. 


Not Your Mother’s PTA

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!


Knowledge Plus Participation Equals Power

I cannot emphasize enough how much it benefits your child for you to be actively involved in his or her school. Over the years, I have attended countless PTA and Board of Education meetings as a parent, teacher, and administrator, and I will tell you that the prescription for power is knowledge and participation. I have come to understand the crucial role parents play not only in their own children’s education, but in determining the quality of the schools they attend. Indeed, research indicates that the more involved parents are, the better the schools. Conversely, when parents are uninvolved, uninformed – or worse – apathetic, their children and their schools suffer.

The current bus situation in the Smithtown School Districtis a perfect case in point of why parents have to be informed and involved.  On May 17, 2011, a transportation referendum to reduce busing limits was passed by voters inSmithtown. The minute it was passed there was an outcry from parents that the proposition was confusing: they didn’t know what they were voting for and, worst of all, that they were unaware that a vote on transportation had been scheduled.  Parents were up in arms that their children’s safety was being jeopardized and that their lives would be in danger because they would now have to walk to school on streets without sidewalks and cross large thoroughfares where numerous pedestrians have been injured and killed.

Clearly, this debate should have taken place before the vote.  But not enough parents were aware – until it was almost too late.  After the vote, large numbers of parents began to systematically lobby the Board of Education for a revote.  They circulated petitions, discussed the topic at PTA meetings, wrote letters to the board and to the newspapers, and came to board meetings en masse. This impassioned and organized effort had the desired results, and the board scheduled a new vote for September 19. Stay tuned for the results.

There is no question that parents are their children’s best advocates, but parents can’t be effective unless they are informed; they need to play with a full deck.  They need the facts, and they need tools and tactics. My mission is to empower parents to better understand and navigate their children’s schools with the insider information, unvarnished truth, and useful strategies I have acquired in the trenches and at the top levels in public and nonpublic schools. I fully understand that each child has only one chance to experience a particular grade in a school. My passion is caring. I wish that all schools would operate from an ethic of caring – understanding and meeting each child’s needs with respect and sensitivity.  My goal is to help parents make the schools more accountable for the benefit of their children.


Beware of the Tiger – Parents’ Bill of Rights

When my brother was in fifth grade, he had persistent nightmares about his teacher Mr. X. In his dreams, Mr. X. was a huge tiger that was attempting to devour him. Uncharacteristically, my mother made an appointment with the principal to discuss the matter. I don’t know what transpired during that meeting, but my brother was immediately transferred to another class – and the nightmares stopped.

It was unusual for my mother to complain – about anything. Indeed, 50 years ago it was rare for any parent to voice an opinion about what went on in their children’s schools.  Most people had the attitude that the school was always right. This has changed somewhat over time. When my kids were in school, some parents spoke up, but the majority still implicitly trusted their schools. Conventional wisdom was that if you complained, you might be considered a nuisance and this would reflect poorly on your child.

Surprisingly, I still encounter parents who are afraid of retaliation against their child if they have a grievance.  Actually, the opposite is true. In my official capacity, I have seen time and again, that the parent who advocates for his or her child gets better results than the parent who remains silent.

As we begin a new school year, the first thing to remember is that you need not be shy when it comes to advocating for your children. It is your right and your responsibility. You know better than anyone that this is your child’s only chance to experience kindergarten or sixth grade or 12th grade. You want your child to have the best possible experience in that particular grade despite budget woes, logistical problems, or personnel issues. Here’s a Parents’ Bill of Rights to help you be a better advocate for your children in school.

Parents’ Bill of Rights

  1. You have the right to be your children’s best advocate and to 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.
  2. You have the right to communicate with your children’s teachers, principal, and school nurse as often as you see fit.
  3. You have the right to easily access and understand information about your children’s schools, school district, teachers, administrators, facilities, policies, procedures, and programs.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. You have the right to attend all public meetings, including PTA, Board of Education, and committee meetings.
  7. You have the right to complain, without fear of retaliation, to teachers, building and district administrators, and Board of Education.
  8. You have the right to attend Board of Education meetings and address the board during the public audience part of the meeting.
  9. You have the right to know official complaint procedures within the school, school district, and outside agencies, and to pursue them if necessary, without fear of retaliation.
  10. 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.

Back-to- School List for Parents: No Trips to Staples Required

The Back-to-School List – I admit I still shudder when I hear it. My most desperate memory was banging on the door of a locked Staples store minutes before 6 p.m. on Labor Day because my son needed a scientific calculator. The staff insisted it was already six 0’clock and that the store was closed. I begged, but to no avail. Fortunately, we all survived that trauma, purchasing the calculator later in the week. My son went on to graduate from high school and even college, but the memory of that ordeal remains.

The average parent will spend $600 this year per child on school supplies, clothes, backpacks, and sports equipment. And I suspect that many parents will be as intense about their children’s Back-to-School List as I was. Will the correct backpack heighten or lessen a child’s self-esteem, and lead to success? We really don’t know. But what I do know is that preparing your kids for school is only half the battle to ensure a successful school year. Parents, too, have to be prepared, as full partners with the schools. From my perspective, it’s not enough to obsess about the list the school gives you. The list they don’t give you is equally, if not more, important. Here’s my list for parents, one that will serve you and your children well in the coming school year. And no trips to Staples are required!

Top 10 Back-to-School List for Parents

  1. Know the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of all your children’s teachers, principal, other school administrators, and school nurse.
  2. Find out if anything that might affect your child has changed since the last school year. With budget cuts, schools have reduced services and personnel, so just don’t assume that everything is the same. Are time schedules the same? Does your child still have bus service? Are there any late buses? Does your school district still offer full-day kindergarten? Is the person you expected to be your child’s teacher still there, or has she been excessed or moved? Does the school have the same principal and assistant principals? Have sports or music or art been reduced?
  3. Know your school and school district websites, and check them frequently for calendar changes, meeting announcements and minutes, news, policies and procedures, and other information.
  4. Find out how your school communicates important information with parents and then be alert to those messages. Is it by automated phone message, e-mail blasts, electronically through systems such as Parent Portal, newsletters, snail-mail, or in your kids’ backpacks?
  5. Keep the school calendar in an accessible area and check it frequently.
  6. Find out when Meet-the-Teacher evenings are held, and do your best to attend them for each of your children even if they’re seniors in high school. If you can’t attend, contact the teachers to let them know you are an interested and involved parent.
  7. Know when PTA meetings are held, attend them, and become an active member. This is the single, best way to keep informed and become involved in your children’s schools.
  8. 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 if you have something important you want to share.  You must sign up to speak before the meeting.
  9. 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 are usually responsive to their constituents’ opinions and problems.
  10. Know the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of your superintendent of Schools and other districtwide administrators. If your child has a particular issue, such as a medical problem, food allergy, or learning disability, it’s important to know the name and contact information for the central office administrator in charge of that issue.  Although it is always desirable to follow the chain of command, i.e., teacher or school nurse, then principal, sometimes it’s necessary to go to a higher level in advocating for your child. Be proactive and have that information at your fingertips in case it’s needed.

The Inside Scoop – Prescription for Success

By now, you’ve probably received your school’s back-to-school literature and official calendar, and you’ve taken a look at it. Have your eyes glazed over the endless list of Board of Education and budget meetings? Have you figured out all those test dates or the staggered bus schedules?  What happened to the teacher your child was supposed to have? And how are you going to juggle your three children’s concerts and back-to-school nights? How are you going to attend PTA meetings when you are working two jobs? Do they really consider those lunches healthy? And how is your child going to participate in sports when the district has eliminated late buses? They say if you have a question, check the website, but isn’t the website almost impossible to decipher?

Being a parent in today’s education system and in the current economic and political climate is challenging at best. And yet, you are expected to be your child’s advocate, active in the PTA,  aware of all the Board of Education happenings, and undeterred by bureaucracy and politics. This takes a lot of research, a lot of navigating a complicated system, and a lot of wearing through red tape.

That’s where I come in. As an insider for many years, I earned a doctorate in education, and have worked in several Long Island districts as a central office administrator, teacher, and school building administrator. I am also a mother and grandmother. I retired this year on June 30 and now want to share the information, secrets, and strategies I have gleaned with you.  I want to shed light on the workings of your school and school district to help you be a better advocate for your child.

My goal is to take some of the pressure off you and instead to make you feel in control and empowered. I’m here to help you find your way through the school system so that you can get the most out of your school on behalf of your child. Consider me Your Education Doctor, and let this site serve as your prescription for success!