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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PRESIDENTS’ WEEK VACATION – ANOTHER CASUALTY OF SANDY?

Hurricane Sandy’s aftermath continues to wreak havoc on families impacted by its wrath. As the emotional and physical recovery continues into the foreseeable future, a venerable vacation tradition may become yet another casualty of the super storm – the weeklong February vacation.

As reported by NEWSDAY, most Long Island districts are expected to cancel three to five days of the February vacation, which begins on Presidents’ Day and continues throughout the week. This year it takes place from February 18 to 22. The goal of the cancellation is to try to make up lost time due to Sandy and the nor’easter that closed some schools for up to two weeks. New York City schools have already cut the vacation back to two days; students will attend school from February 20 to 22.

According to the NEWSDAY story, 66 of Long Island’s 124 school districts have already announced that they are cancelling or are considering calling off all or some of the midwinter vacation. While some district officials say they may restore the vacations if the state grants waivers from the mandated 180-day school year, the February vacation is the logical place to restore lost learning time.

Districts are in danger of losing state aid if they do not comply, although the state education commissioner can grant districts waivers of up to five days to cover “extraordinary” circumstances. But Commissioner John B. King Jr. has already emphasized that districts must use up vacation days before they are eligible for exemptions. There is also legislation pending that gives districts an additional five days of waivers, but the state legislature does not reconvene until January 1.

With news of the impending cancellations, there are complaints from students, parents, faculty and staff, many of whom have made vacation plans well in advance and stand to lose thousands of dollars – and priceless memories.  It’s likely that a sizeable number of families will go ahead with their vacation plans anyway and attendance will be down – and that’s an individual family decision.

But that’s not a good enough reason to keep schools closed for everyone. Every district has already used up its store of emergency days and it’s only November! Those days are usually set aside for snowstorms.

Off the record, educators have long questioned the February vacation for its timing and value. Coming approximately seven weeks after the Christmas break, it interrupts the flow of learning in the middle of the school year – the prime time for education. Many regions in the country do not close school for the entire Presidents’ Day Week; perhaps this is the appropriate time to question the wisdom of this weeklong break. What do you think?


End of School Year Wrap-up

Guest Blog on Parenting.com 

Last week, I attended my grandson’s pre-school “graduation” and it reminded me that students of all ages will be embarking on new school careers in the fall. If your child will be attending a new school come September – elementary, secondary or pre-school — check out my guest post on Parenting’s “Class Notes” 

Blog: Tips for Transitioning to a New School. Whether you are moving to a new neighborhood or your child is “moving up” to a new level, there are steps you can take right now to ease the transition. 

Curbing the Enthusiasm of Graduation Guests 

Speaking of graduations, it’s the season for high school graduations and according to the Associated Press (AP), some schools are showing no tolerance for loud and sustained cheering by guests.  For example, a mother was handcuffed at one school on a disorderly conduct charge. At another school, the principal admonished four graduates for the excessive cheering of their family and friends — and meted out consequences to the students! Although they have already fulfilled all of the graduation requirements, they now must perform 20 hours of community service to receive their diplomas. 

Is it fair to curb the enthusiasm of guests celebrating this important milestone? What do you think about punishing graduates for the behavior of their friends and family?

Sobriety Tests for Prom Attendees 

Another rite of passage that goes hand in hand with high school graduation is the prom. An increasing number of school districts have implemented sobriety tests to cut down on pre-prom drinking. In addition, they have purchased alcohol-detection devices in an attempt to keep students safe. 

According to a Newsday report, staff members have been trained in sobriety testing of students in at least 11 Long Island school districts. These include: Smithtown, Cold Spring Harbor, Connetquot, Hewlett-Woodmere, Islip, Long Beach, Northport-East Northport, Rockville Centre, Shoreham-Wading River, Three Village and West Islip. 

A spokesman for Advanced Safety Devices, the Chatsworth, Calif., company that sells the Breathalyzer brand tester, told Newsday that it was unusual for school districts to purchase these devices in the past, but in recent years sales have increased to schools throughout the country. 

While school administrators claim the tests are effective and have made a difference in preventing drinking, critics question whether educators should be administering sobriety tests to students. 

Nine LI Budgets Pass in Revote 

In a last hurrah to the school budget season, nine Long Island districts held revotes on Tuesday. In the first vote on May 15, seven of those districts had attempted unsuccessfully to override the two percent tax cap that became law in New York State this year. Eight of the nine reduced their budgets for the second round, this time adhering to the two percent tax cap. 

Only one district – Elmont – submitted a 4.9 percent budget increase to the voters. A bit more than the required 60 percent of voters approved the budget, enabling the district to exceed the cap. 

Clearly, New York State districts have entered a new era in school budgeting. How will the tax cap continue to impact Long Island schools, which pride themselves on being among the best in the country? During this budget season, a number of schools were closed, teachers were excessed, class size was increased, and educational programs were reduced.

What will be on the chopping block next year? Stay tuned.


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.


MLK Day: Beyond the Anniversary

We’re well into the 21st century but two recent news items should make us wonder how far we’ve actually come in this, the 83rd anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birth and the 58th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. 

The first is an article by Katherine Schulten in The New York Times that notes that on last year’s National Assessment of Education Progress exam, only 2 percent of U.S. high school seniors were familiar with the civil rights struggle of the 1950s.  Students could not identify the wording from Brown v. Board of Education, the US Supreme Court decision that knocked down the “separate but equal” doctrine in public schools. 

Ms. Schulten reported also that after a comprehensive review, the Southern Poverty Law Center concluded that civil rights history is often avoided in schools. 

Much more disturbing, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that parents in one Georgia school district were enraged by math worksheets that contained questions about slavery. Among them: “Each tree had 56 oranges. If eight slaves pick them equally, then how much would each slave pick?” Another: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in one week?” 

Parents are demanding an apology as well as diversity training for teachers and administrators.

Parents should be demanding a lot more than that! They should ask about the teacher(s) who gave the test. Where was the sensitivity to the African-American students? They should know the context of the math test. Was this an integration of math and history? If so, were these the best examples that could have been used? They should ask if this was an ad hoc blooper or a carefully crafted piece of the curriculum. Finally, who is responsible for supervising the teachers and the curriculum in the school and district – and where were they? 

Both parents and teachers need to be vigilant in preventing prejudice and in celebrating the diverse and tolerant country we say we are. That begins with Martin Luther King Day, but doesn’t end there. 

In honor of MLK Day, the NEA called upon teachers to “help students put in perspective Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life, his impact on the Civil Rights Movement, and his significance to American culture and history.”

Martin Luther King Day is observed this year on Monday, January 16. As the magazine PTO Today wrote, this day is an opportunity for parent groups to “help focus students’ attention on the civil rights leader and to reinforce his message of racial justice and equal rights.” 

In the second decade of the 21st century, students have to know more than anniversaries. The history behind the anniversary tells us who we are as a people and what we aspire to be. The lessons of Dr. King’s life and legacy must go beyond one day in our schools. How the civil rights movement is taught or how Martin Luther King Day is observed, while important, is not the whole story. What is important is that we teach our children that we are a society that respects and celebrates differences. 

http://learning.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/06/how-do-you-teach-the-civil-rights-movement/ 

http://www.ajc.com/news/gwinnett/norcross-parents-upset-by-1292851.html 

http://www.nea.org/tools/lessons/mlk-day.html 

http://ht.ly/8i1Ao

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TV Parents: What Values Do They Convey?

During the holiday break, I confess watching a few episodes of TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras, a reality show that features actual parents (mostly mothers) preparing and entering their small children in kiddy beauty pageants. The mothers are depicted inflicting on their tiny daughters coaching lessons, spray tans, heavy makeup, false eyelashes and hairpieces – all for the privilege of winning a crown or a small monetary prize for their child’s physical appearance.

It got me thinking about whether TV parents reflect our values or help to shape them. And what, exactly, are the values that we want our schools to teach our children? 

Have you seen Robert Young in re-runs as Jim Anderson in Father Knows Best, a popular 1950’s situation comedy?

Jim set
 standards for his children — Betty, Bud, and Kathy — and constantly differentiated right from wrong.

Or do you remember June Cleaver as the mom in Leave it to Beaver? She was always in the kitchen with her shirtwaist dresses and pearls
dispensing milk and cookies, while her husband, Ward, gave their sons,
Wally and Beaver, weekly lectures in the proper way to behave.

The baby-boomer generation and their parents thought these were the perfect families, and while they were glorified lily-white versions of reality, there was no question that the parents’ primary responsibility was to impart values, such as fairness, honesty and caring, to their children. They also sat down as a family for daily meals, during which they discussed the day’s events.

In later decades, the Cunninghams, Howard (Tom Bosley), a hardware store owner, and his stay at home wife, Marion, attempted to set their children and family friend, “the Fonz,” on the right path in Happy Days.

On The Cosby Show, the Huxtables — Cliff (Bill Cosby), a physician, and Clair, a lawyer, African-American 
parents of five — also modeled and taught the values they wanted their children to live by.

While all these parents were idealized versions of real mothers and
 fathers, they provided a benchmark against which actual people could
 measure their actions. And they supported the notion that American 
parents were the repositories of wisdom, knowledge and integrity, and 
were supposed to pass these values on to their children.

Fast forward to 2012. We don’t hear too many lectures on ethics from
 television parents. But we do hear about social and emotional 
intelligence, and schools’ attempts to teach character education. 
Values such as respect, kindness, empathy, and giving back are needed 
more than ever in our society, and there are many programs in our
schools that attempt to develop nice human beings and good citizens. 
But it’s naïve and unrealistic to expect schools to do this alone. 
Parents are key partners in inculcating values in their children. All 
the lessons and activities in the world will not succeed without
 parental support.

What are we learning about values from today’s fictional TV parents? 

Cam and Mitchell, the same-sex parents of Lily on ABC’s Modern 
Family, are over-conscientious and ever-present to their daughter’s 
needs. Being present is key to success and an important value. Parents 
can’t influence their kids at all if they are not physically,
 emotionally, and mentally present. This includes: engaging in
conversation, attending school and other events, and modeling values.

Frankie Heck, played by Patricia Heaton on ABC’s The Middle, should 
also be commended for parenting three rather odd children and
allowing each of them to be whom they are. Enabling children to
 discover their own interests, find their purpose and pursue their own 
dreams is a key to happiness.

In total contrast, the mothers on TLC’s Toddlers and Tiaras live
 vicariously through their children. They spend thousands of dollars to
 have their daughters — some less than a year old — compete in beauty
 pageants. It is painful to watch toddlers crying and fighting their mothers as they get them ready to “compete.” Equally disturbing is the intense disappointment of both parent and child when the aspiring mini-beauty queens fail to win a crown. While some of the children say they like to
 participate, their parents are forcing their own passions on their
 children! One mother admitted that she had a baby so she could enter
 her in pageants. Another did not have the daughter she wanted, so her
s on is now one of very few boys competing on the pageant circuit.

As we enter the New Year, it’s crucially important for parents to be
 strong partners with their children’s schools in building character. 
For better or worse, TV parents, then and now, provide a framework of 
what and what not to do. Here are some tips for 2012:

• Be role models for honesty, integrity, kindness and caring.

• Let your children know what your standards are in word and in deed.

• Teach your child to respect and celebrate differences.

• Be present for your children, and show up physically, mentally, and
 emotionally.

• Model the importance of giving to others.

• Eat dinner together as a family.

• Allow your children to discover their own interests, and to find 
their own purpose.

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