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!

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Flu Resources for Parents and Teachers

ImageUnless you’ve been living under a rock, you are probably aware that there is a flu epidemic this year — both in the United States and elsewhere.  The flu has been around for a long time, and there’s no need for parents to panic. Here are some resources to help parents and children make sensible health decisions.

The New York Times Learning Network offers a number of ideas about teaching students about the flu virus. Included are lessons about how flu attacks the body, how to control its spread, how vaccines work, the history of the disease and how epidemiologists work.

http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/01/16/teaching-about-the-flu-with-the-times/?smid=tw-share

Flu.gov has valuable information on children and the flu, such as: how to protect your children; how to care for them, and even what to do about your pets!  And of course, remember to “keep your child at home and away from healthy people for at least 24 hours after his or her fever is gone. Fever should be gone without the use of a fever-reducing medicine.”

http://www.flu.gov/at-risk/children/index.html

For an alternative position on flu vaccines, an article in The Daily Beast points out: “Though the CDC did guess well with most of the strains circulating this year, even CDC Director Dr. Thomas Frieden acknowledges that the venerable flu shot is only 62 percent effective in reducing symptoms of the disease. In other words, for every 100 people who get the flu shot, 38 of them will get the flu anyway.”

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/01/18/flu-shots-are-damn-dangerous.html

Schools are hotbeds of germs. It’s important for children to know to wash their hands often and to cover their mouths when they sneeze. Recently, some schools have been teaching students to sneeze into the crook of their elbows. The children in this kid-friendly Public Service Video from the Virginia Department of Health describe this method.

http://www.vdh.state.va.us/epidemiology/DiseasePrevention/H1N1/Video/PSAs/Sneezing101.htm

During flu season and always, encourage your child to exercise good hygiene, eat nutritious foods, and get plenty of sleep. Don’t send your child to school if he or she is not feeling well. Have a contingency plan for your work if your child is home sick. If you don’t, the school nurse is likely to call before the day is over asking you to take your child home.


Chicago Teachers and Students Return to School: What happened to caring?

The 350,000 students and 29,000 teachers in the Chicago Public Schools returned to school on Wednesday after the teachers’ union voted to suspend its strike that had lasted seven days.

Union members must still ratify the contract agreement with the school district. Key provisions in the contract include: longer school days for elementary and high school-age students, 10 additional instructional days each school year, and a 17 percent salary increase over the next four years.

The contract preserves the right of principals to determine which teachers will be hired and puts into place a teacher evaluation system in accordance with state law that takes into account student performance. The system will be phased in over three years, when test scores will account for 30 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

The evaluation system, based on standardized exams, was a sticking point for the union, as it is for teachers throughout the country.  Teachers object to this impersonal form of evaluation that they believe destroys creativity and forces them to teach to the test. They also point to the fact that any test is only a snapshot of a student on a particular day and can be influenced by any number of factors, including a challenging home situation, special needs, and health issues. One thing a standardized test can never measure is caring — a teacher’s ability to understand and address the unique needs of every child in his or her class.

Having sat in on numerous school contract negotiations, I can tell you that the best contract agreement is when both sides walk away not feeling totally satisfied. That appears to be the case in Chicago.

But one has to question the wisdom of union officials to have locked the poorest and most vulnerable children out of class at the beginning of the school year, placing additional burdens on their already struggling parents.  Chicago teachers can’t have it both ways. They can’t object to an evaluation system that does not recognize their profession as a humane enterprise – and then turn around and ignore the basic needs of their students.

Caring – the most essential and least tangible element in education – cannot be measured by test scores. But can it be gauged by the actions of a union?

As Chicago and the nation move forward from the debacle of this strike, let’s hope that the needs of children, teachers, and parents, can find common ground. The teaching profession is a caring one, and children who are nurtured by teachers and parents have a better chance of succeeding in school and in life. The concept of caring needs to be injected not only into the dialogue about education, but also into the actions of all stakeholders.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chi-todays-assignment-seal-deal-with-chicago-teachers-20120918,0,7319589.story?page=2

The subject of Dr. Meryl Ain’s doctoral dissertation was caring leadership in schools. She writes about this and other issues on her blog, Your Education Doctor www.youreducationdoctor.wordpress.com


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.


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/


Teachers’ Holiday Gifts – What’s A Parent To Do?

`Tis the season and everywhere we look there are suggestions for gift giving.  No doubt on your list of recipients are your children’s teachers. Newspaper articles, TV spots, websites and blogs — not to mention catalogs — provide a potpourri of possibilities for teacher gifts. There’s a lot of pressure out there to give your children’s teachers the right gift. So what should that be?

You might want to start by examining your school’s policy on gifting. Some schools set a limit, e.g. $25, some don’t allow it at all, some specify one gift from the entire class, while others say nothing on the subject. Whatever your school’s policy, it’s likely to be ignored by at least some people. My experience has been that parents feel very pressured to give the teacher a gift she/he will appreciate, and worry that no gift could influence the teacher’s perception of their child.

Some parents go all out, while others begrudgingly do the minimum. I will never forget that when I was in first grade my teacher announced to us that Becky had given her the best gift in the class. She had been invited to Becky’s house for lunch and Becky’s father, a dress manufacturer, presented her with a beautiful dress. I remember that I and the other children felt powerless and unworthy as she opened our gifts. Throughout the year I understood implicitly why Becky was the teacher’s pet.

Those days may or may not be gone. There are still some parents who will lavish expensive gifts on teachers, causing others to be resentful. There are some parents who believe teachers don’t need “tips,” and others who simply can’t afford it in these difficult economic times.

Conversely, as a former teacher and administrator, I can safely say that most teachers don’t even want gifts. They truly appreciate a lovely note or card expressing appreciation, or perhaps even a homemade gift or gift card. But while receiving a truckload of extraneous gifts is flattering, they usually don’t know what to do with all the random stuff they get.

Case in point: one year I sent an email to all 1,000 teachers in our district asking for new items that we could use to put together gift baskets for the elderly in the community.  I was inundated with “stuff” — unwanted Christmas presents. We recycled the gifts, assembling beautiful baskets wrapped in cellophane and curling ribbon, and made a lot of people happy. It’s amazing how a potholder, dishtowel, and hand lotion can be made to look so good with the proper wrapping!

There are some schools that ask parents to refrain from giving teachers gifts and instead suggest they honor their teachers with a contribution to any number of worthwhile causes.  In this way, families can contribute what they are able to afford – or not at all if they are strapped – and the gift is from the entire class. Here are some ideas:

  • A gift card to a supermarket or department store for a needy family
  • A class collection of non-perishable food items for a local food pantry
  • Purchasing holiday gifts for a homeless family
  • Providing a holiday dinner for a needy family
  • A donation to a charity

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently suggested several humanitarian organizations, many of which would be appropriate as an educational exercise for students.

For example: donations to CARE can provide school uniforms; contributions to Heifer International provide gifts of livestock and training to help families improve their nutrition and generate income, and Helen Keller International’s ChildSight program screens children for vision problems and provides eyeglasses. 

Don’t forget your local charities; it’s meaningful for kids to know they are helping those close to home.

Even if it’s too late to change your school’s culture now, start a discussion now – and maybe things will change next year. Engaging parents and children in choosing the cause and bringing it to fruition will infuse both kids and adults with the true meaning of giving

Happy Holidays!

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/04/opinion/sunday/kristof-gifts-that-say-you-care.html?_r=2&nl=todaysheadlines&emc=tha212