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.


How Schools Have Changed Since 9-11

As I read and watched the September 11thanniversary coverage, I was brought back to that terrible day which transformed all of us forever.

The World Trade Center

My initial reaction when I learned a plane had hit the first tower was that I would know people who were in the World Trade Center – and I was right. Among the casualties was Andrew Zucker, a 27-year-old lawyer our family had known since he was six-years-old. His mother told me later that after having led members of his law firm to safety, he was going back to help more when the second plane hit and he disappeared. He left behind grieving parents, grandparents, siblings, nieces and nephews, friends – and a pregnant wife.

That child, now almost 10 years old, innocently joined thousands of young and unborn children who lost a parent on 9-11. Not only did that terrible day change the lives of countless children and their families, but it also changed our schools.

At the time, I was working in the central office of the Smithtown Central School District, about 30 miles from Manhattan. Minutes after the first attack, I and the five other members of the superintendent’s cabinet were summoned to the office of Dr. Charles A. Planz, the superintendent of schools, to watch the ghastly events unfolding on TV and to discuss how we should handle the catastrophe. Dr. Planz ordered a lockdown of all schools and each of us was assigned to visit two of the district’s 14 schools.

I found panic as I drove up to the first school. Parents who had rushed to the school to take their children home, had congregated in the lobby waiting for their children to be released to them. Many had come to the school because cell phone service had been knocked out and they wanted to be with their children at this time of national crisis. As I circulated among the parents, one mother was crying and visibly shaken.

“My husband is a New York City firefighter,” she told me.

Only later as events unfolded did I realize the true import of her words – that her husband and other brave first responders had rushed into the burning Twin Towers without a moment’s hesitation, ultimately sacrificing their lives to save others. Her husband was one of several first responders and employees in the towers from the Smithtown community who died saving others on September 11.

9/11 Memorial

So many things changed in our country’s schools after 9-11. Schools became better at communicating with parents through websites and automated phone messaging systems. Character education blossomed. The events of September 11 were taught and commemorated. Security guards and security cameras became commonplace. Policies were written, post-Columbine codes of conduct were amended, and rules were established that were unforgiving of prejudice and threats of any kind.

Time and again as the Hearing Officer in Superintendent’s Disciplinary Hearings, I had to explain to a student and his parents that although he had made what he insisted was an idle threat or even a joke, since Sept. 11 the school district was obligated to take it seriously and impose consequences.

But some things will never change, such as the memory of disbelief and horror that day evokes, the families and friends who lost loved ones in such a horrific way, and the unborn children who are now almost 10 years old.  All parents have a basic and enduring instinct to protect and shelter their children from harm. When they send their children to school each day, they have implicit faith that their schools are their trusted partners in that essential endeavor.

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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.