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!


The Music of Giving Back

musiccampAs summer draws to a close, it’s nice to remember that education is a 12-month-proposition, and that good teaching and good parenting are infinite.

Brian Biederman, 24, a middle school music teacher in Nashville, Tenn., fulfilled his lifetime dream of starting a music camp this summer. The Littlestone Summer Music Academy brought together 23 seventh through twelfth graders from diverse backgrounds to make music together.

As a youngster, Brian discovered his own niche when he attended music camp for the first time when he was 11-years-old.  He later worked at music camp for several summers, and formed lifetime friendships as he honed his musical talent.

“My dad said that camp for me was what I did in between school.”

“I attended the same camp as my dad,” he recalled. “I didn’t want to go to band camp at first, but my dad told me to try it for two weeks. Within three days, I wanted to extend my stay for two weeks. I ended up staying four weeks.  I knew immediately that I had to be part of the music camp community one day –as a patron, participant or to start my own camp.”

About 10 years ago, Brian, a 2010 graduate of Vanderbilt University in Nashville who holds a master’s degree from Vanderbilt’s Peabody School of Education, began planning how he would start his own music camp.

This year his dream came to fruition.

Brian comes from a family tradition of not only music, but also of community service.  His parents, Debbie and Mitchell Biederman of Commack, N.Y., are co-presidents of Helping Hands, a Long Island based charity that provides essentials to struggling families. With the advice and support of his parents, Brian created an educational non-profit organization.

“I contacted everyone I knew,” Brian recalled. “I found a private school — Montgomery Bell Academy — which agreed to let me hold the camp there.”

Brian kept cutting the tuition until he got 23 students to sign up.  He also made special arrangements for those who couldn’t afford to pay, and asked friends and professors from the Vanderbilt community for donations to help pay the staff.

“I wanted to let anyone come who wanted to,” he said. “I wanted to provide an opportunity for young people who don’t feel comfortable in a school environment. And I wanted to create a community where kids were comfortable and confident in looking at and playing music.”

Brian said he endeavored to blur the lines to have a mix of kids from diverse ethnic and socio-economic levels making music together.

“Let’s all make music together; it’s not where you come from,” he said. “Music is bigger than all of us.”

The finale of the summer season was a performance by Littlestone’s Festival Choir. Brian said the concert celebrated the diverse cultures of the students, and all students and staff participated.

For next year, Brian is looking to recruit more students, bring in guest artists, and raise money for more scholarships for students who would otherwise be unable to attend.  He also hopes to start a community choir in Nashville.

http://www.newschannel5.com/category/125220/video-landing-page?clipId=9168869&autostart=true


School Sports in the News

sportspictsSchools Must Accommodate Students With Disabilities in Athletics

The U.S. Department of Education recently issued a guidance document stating that schools must accommodate students with disabilities in school athletics. This means that students with disabilities must be afforded an equal opportunity to participate in school sports.

According to an article in Education Week, the guidance document says that schools can make “reasonable modifications” to enable equal access. The rights of students with disabilities are protected under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Examples of modifications include:

  • Allowing a visual cue, rather than a verbal one, to enable a student with a hearing impairment who is fast enough to qualify for the track team.
  • Waiving a rule requiring a “two-hand touch” in swim meets so that a one-armed swimmer is able to participate in competition.
  • Requiring schools to provide accommodations to students with diabetes the same health assistance he/she receives during the day for extracurricular activities.

Offering students the chance to participate does not mean the rules of the sport will be changed, or that every student who tries out for a particular team will be accepted. But the guidance document notes that schools should create additional opportunities for students with disabilities to play a particular sport if they cannot accommodate them with the offerings they have.

For example, a number of school districts have created disability-specific teams, such as wheelchair tennis or wheelchair basketball. When there are not enough students with disabilities at a school to comprise a team, districts may create district-wide or regional teams, mix male and female students with disabilities on a team, or develop “unified” sports teams with both students with and without disabilities.

Terri Lakowski, a disability advocate and group chairwoman of the Inclusive Fitness Coalition, applauded the guidance, although she said she would have liked it to offer “more examples of ways to include students with developmental disabilities, such as autism, in sports,” she told Education Week.

“This will really do for students with disabilities what Title IX did for women,” she said.

Youth Sports Coalition Says Student Athletes Need Better Sports Safety

The Youth Sports Safety Alliance, a coalition of more than 100 groups, called for schools to adopt stronger measures to protect the almost 8 million high school athletes in the US. The recommendations include universal access to health care professionals, and pre-season physical exams — including concussion testing.

Each year, student athletes sustain 400,000 concussions, which may lead to long-term health issues for these young people. Also suggested were better-trained coaches, up-to-date equipment, and clean and safe sports facilities. More students die playing high school sports than in college or professional competitions.

Additionally, the coalition recommended student athletes receive warnings about performance-enhancing substances and proposed the formation of a national registry to track student athlete deaths.

Each state determines its own rules for student sports. The alliance requested that state athletic associations adopt its proposals.


Notes on Education from the Republican National Convention

I’m so thrilled to have the good fortune of attending BOTH Presidental Conventions. This week I’m at the RNC in Tampa, and next week I plan to be at the DNC in Charlotte.

There have been a number of references to education in the various speeches at the convention. On Tuesday night, Ann Romney stressed that her husband would make education a priority of his administration, just as he had as Governor of Massachusetts, where she said the schools there were “best in the nation.” Also that night, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie took on the teachers’ unions, saying: “We love teachers, not the unions.” Last night former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice spoke about education as the new civil rights issue, noting that you can see what kind of education a child is receiving by looking at where they live.

I’m meeting and talking to lots of people here, and I’d like to share with you a conversation I had this morning with Elaine Miller, who lives on Long Island and has taught for more than 30 years in the New York City schools. An ELA and Social Studies teacher, she teaches special needs students at a middle school in Queens. During her more than 30-year career, she has worked throughout the city in various locations. She said she’s a Republican because her values mesh more with the Republican value of less government. We had a very free  ranging discussion about education, and she noted that most teachers she speaks to feel the same, regardless of party.

About Teachers and Parent Engagement in Schools:

“Teachers work very very hard. Like any profession, such as doctors, there is a spectrum of quality and expertise. Values begin at home. They have to be instilled in the home. Parents need to follow their children in school. There are dIfficult challenges today — single families, economic hardships, special needs. When children’s education is neglected at home, they can’t perform well in school. I don’t  know how you create a value system without parents helping and supporting schools. I’ve not met a teacher who is not dedicated to educating youth.”

On Dr. Rice’s Speech  to the Convention:

“Condoleezza Rice is fundamentally correct — look at the zip code — you get an idea of the socioeconomic issues and how they affect families, and how parents’ values about education affect the children’s values.

I think of how when I was growing up my mother expected me to have a better life than my parents had. And it has improved for me. However it was always instilled in me that education is your way out of a situation. And that’s open to everyone. It’s the individual’s responsibility to grab hold and take advantage. That’s given to all of us.”

Perception of Teachers:

“It seems as if the fundamental values of education in our sociey have changed to some extent. You walk into a school today and many students perceive teachers as their enemies, not their friends. Respect for teachers has changed. Teachers are no longer valued as a #1 commodity. The teaching profession is now viewed at the bottom rung of the ladder, not the top. Although they knew it was a good job, teachers never went into it for the money. The profession had respect and dignity.

Do parents support teachers? Some do and some don’t. Some parents are ready to attack teachers rather than deal with the problem their child is having. Discipline in schools isn’t the same as it used to be.  There are metal detectors in high schools; students run out of class into the hallways. Teachers are trying, but it’s difficult without discipline.”

Federal Control of Education

“Education was never meant to be federally controlled. It’s a state and local power. It’s up to state and local officials. We don’t need a Department of Education. It should be disbanded.”

Standardized Testing:

“The whole idea of standardized testing — putting teachers’ lives on the line — for one day of testing is insanity. It takes the creativity out of teaching. It takes away the availability of the teachable moment. It makes teachers focus on the state exams and teach to the test. It’s a cookie cutter approach to education.”

When Joel Klein was NYC Chancellor, I wrote him a letter about state testing. I said: ‘You are assessing a teacher on an exam a child is taking, but there are so many variables for students in the schools, such as a difficult home situation, the challenges special needs students face, broken homes, divorce, a death in the family, etc. A child is walking into an assessment and the teacher is also being assessed. How do you assess the value of a teacher saving a student’s life. How a teacher has influenced a child is never tested. How do you measure the real contributions teachers make? When you know that a child is suffering emotionally and you make a difference in the life of a child, how do you test that?”

Gov. Chris Christie:

“I feel the union shot itself in the foot by becoming so political. I’m not against the idea of unions; workers need protection. But unions have become too political and that is their downfall.”


Is Public Education Really Free?

As we look forward to a brand new school year, parents are busily getting their children ready for the first day of school. And that means spending money. The average parent will spend $688 this year equipping children with back to school clothing and supplies. Most schools prepare lists of essential school supplies that parents are required to furnish. Depending on the level of the student, these range from notebooks to laptops.

In our difficult economic environment, this is can be a burden to struggling families. According to figures released by the US Census Bureau earlier this year, the median household income is dropping and more Americans are living in poverty — about 15% of the population.

With more families living below the poverty line since the 1990s, income dropping and rampant unemployment, parents are increasingly concerned about expenses. In the 2012-2013 school budget vote, many districts scaled back programs and cut staff to keep tax increases low. But is public education really free? Just because parents pay taxes doesn’t mean that they do not have to contribute to their children’s education. In addition to school supplies, here are some of the extras parents are typically paying for:

  • Tissues — To save district funds, many elementary schools ask parents to send in boxes of tissues and other supplies for use by the entire class.
  • School Spirit wear, such as tee shirts, sweatshirts, sweatpants, etc., are popular items at all levels.  Students may be asked to wear these for special events at school.
  • Musical instruments, purchase or rental
  • Sports equipment and uniforms
  • Field Trips
  • Fundraising — School, PTA, Special Interest, e.g. sports, music, theater.
  • Celebrations, such as birthdays, holidays, special events

What Can Parents Do?

  • For back to school, PTAs can contract to provide boxed set of school supplies by grade at a cost less than shopping for supplies on your own. The school will supply a list of school supplies by grade. For example, Staples does this through http://www.schoolkidz.com. Ask your PTA to investigate this money saving option.
  • Parents can lobby the principal or superintendent of schools and request that fundraising activities be reduced and consolidated. Parents may prefer to write one check for a set amount instead of being compelled into participating in a perpetual round of sales and fundraisers.
  • If parents believe that the cost and incidence of field trips are excessive, parents have the right to question school’s field trip practices and ask that guidelines be established to limit frequency, distance, and cost per field trip, e.g., two per grade at a limit of $25. Also, parents should request that they are informed at the beginning of the school year what their expenses will be for field trips.
  • Request that your school limit expectations for children’s birthdays at school.
  • Lobby to scale back spirit wear and unnecessary sports paraphernalia, such as sweatshirts and sweat pants. It’s hard to say no when everyone else is buying it and your child wants it too.
  • Volunteer with your presence and skills at school and at special events and fundraisers instead of with your pocketbook.
  • Parents should know that all schools provide help to families who cannot afford school-associated expenses. Don’t be afraid to ask your principal if you need financial assistance.

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!


It’s Scholarship Season – Helping Graduates and Preserving Memories

ImageThis week I look forward to attending the Brentwood (N.Y.) High School Awards Night as a presenter of two scholarships in memory of my father, Herbert Fischman, who was a teacher and principal in the school district for 25 years.  With this gesture, I will join with many other individuals and groups who together award hundreds of scholarships to Brentwood’s deserving graduates. I suspect that we are all part of a much larger group this spring who will also donate scholarships to high school graduates across the country.

In these difficult economic times, it hardly seems like a $500 or $1,000 scholarship makes a difference, but it does. Many of the students are awarded multiple scholarships, so while most of the individual awards are modest, they can add up — and numerous students receive sizeable support.

But it’s not just about the money. It’s about honoring young people who have excelled in spite of adversity, and who passionately want a shot at college. One of those Brentwood graduates, Samantha Garvey, made national headlines earlier this year when she 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.

Scholarship But you don’t need to have Samantha’s resume to receive a scholarship. The more 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. I have to confess that the scholarship was not my idea. Vicki Novak, a Brentwood graduate who later became president of the Smithtown Council of PTAs, had the council donate the scholarship when my father died in 2005 and I was the administrative liaison to the PTA Council.

It wasn’t until three years ago while writing a book with my husband and brother that a light bulb went off in my head. Our book is about honoring memories and carrying on legacies, and the idea for the scholarship came from two of our interviewees — Nick Clooney, the father of George Clooney and brother of Rosemary Clooney, and Yeou-Cheng Ma, the sister of cellist Yo Yo Ma. Both separately suggested that one of the most accessible ways of honoring a loved one was to establish a scholarship in his or her memory. It was then that I made the commitment to continue the scholarship each year.

While the students are the recipients of the scholarships, attending the assembly and presenting the scholarships 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.  Some of the past recipients have sent me thank you notes expressing their appreciation.

One female student wrote:

“It is with great appreciation that I thank you and your family for allowing me to be one of the recipients of the $500 Herbert J. Fischman Memorial Scholarship.  Words can’t describe how grateful my family and I are for your help towards my future.  In this economy every little bit helps.”

And a young man who was on his way to an Ivy League college wrote the following:

I would like to thank you for your generosity and support toward my college education.  I would also like to pay respect to your father since he did serve in the community for an outstanding 25 years and is most likely respected by former colleagues and students.  It still must be tough to cope with this loss since it is just over five years, but I know he still lives through people like you who give back to the community of Brentwood.

I am of Mexican and Haitian descent and I will be the first in my family to attend college.

I am blessed that I am one of the recipients of your scholarship. I will work hard to keep the spirit of your father alive and I will not let you down.

In these difficult economic times where discretionary funds are diminishing, a scholarship, no matter how small, can enhance the life of a young person. It also perpetuates the living memory of a loved one.