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.

Are You Ready for the First Day of School?

Top 10 Back-to-School List for Parents

Back-to-school supplies have hit the store shelves reminding us that summer won’t last forever. Yes, the first day of school is on the horizon, and that means getting your children ready. Most schools prepare lists of essential school supplies that parents are required to furnish. Depending on the grade of the student, these range from notebooks to laptops. The average parent will spend $600 on school supplies, clothes, backpacks, and sports equipment.

Many parents will put a lot of thought into their children’s Back-to-School List. But preparing your kids for school is only half the battle to ensure a successful school year. Parents, too, have to be prepared, as full partners with the schools. From my perspective, it’s not enough to obsess about the list the school gives you. The list they don’t give you is equally, if not more, important. Here’s my list for parents, one that will serve you and your children well in the coming school year.

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

What We Can Learn from The Greece, NY Bus Monitor Matter by Douglas W. Green, Ed.D.

In this guest blog, Dr. Doug Green presents his perspective on the bullying of bus matron Karen Klein, and offers advice to parents and school officials.

By now you have probably heard about a school bus in Greece, NY where a 68-year old bus monitor was abused by four middle school students. This went on for 10 minutes and was filmed by a student who posted it to YouTube. The video soon went viral and a fund was started to send the monitor on a nice vacation. As of this writing the fund has unexpectedly grown to over $677,000.  The fund page ( contains a link to the video, which is approaching 8 million hits. This is sad for Greece, but all schools should be able to learn from what happened. As a retired principal who used to ride a lot of buses, I feel I’m in a position to offer some advice to schools and parents.

Bus monitors need training and tools. Either this district failed to properly train their monitors, or this one wasn’t following the expectations of the program. Neighboring districts should cooperate rather than having everyone invent their own program. Bus monitors are among the lowest paid employees and are seldom naturals at dealing with a group of children. This monitor basically did nothing and failed to report the incident.

Bus monitors need good hearing and reasonable physical skill. This monitor said she was hard of hearing. If that is the case, she doesn’t belong in this position. Perhaps she could be moved to job where her hearing wouldn’t be a safety issue. I’ve seen situations where ineffective monitors make situations worse by either inaction or by yelling and even needlessly putting their hands on students. This might be necessary to break up a fight. 

Ignoring this sort of behavior clearly didn’t work. I suspect that the other three students would not have felt emboldened to join in had the monitor effectively addressed the initial taunt. If I were there, I would have said something like “young man, you can either apologize for what you just said or face the consequences when I report your behavior to the principal.” If that didn’t work I would pull out my cellphone and start recording. I’ve done this as a substitute middle school principal many times and it has always worked. Monitors should have a cellphone for communication and recording. As an experienced educator, I could have engaged in a more complex conversation to defuse the situation, but you can’t expect that from a bus monitor.

Use this video for your anti bullying program. Show it to the students and have them work in groups to explain why this behavior is not in the best interests of anyone, especially the bullies. Ask: what would you do if you were the monitor and heard the first student start taunting? What would you do if you were there? What will others think of you if you do this sort of thing? Perhaps the final lesson is, if you do something bad, it just might end up on YouTube.

Dr. Doug Green has been an educator since 1970. After teaching chemistry, physics, and computer science, he became an administrator for the next 30 years with experience at the secondary, central office, and elementary levels. He has also taught leadership courses for The State University of New York at Cortland and Binghamton University and authored over 300 articles in computer magazines and educational journals. In 2006 he gave up his job as an elementary principal to care for his wife who had Lou Gehrig’s disease. After her death in March of 2009 he started a blog ( so he could use his expertise to help busy educators and parents engage in bite-sized daily learning. He can also be found on Twitter (!/drdouggreen). 

End of School Year Wrap-up

Guest Blog on 

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.

Why Parents Shouldn’t Take a Summer Break from Schools

In her K-12 Parents and the Public blog in Education Week, Michele Molnar wrote this week about the importance of parents staying engaged in schools over the summer. I couldn’t agree more. 

She wrote about my friend, Myrdin Thompson of Louisville, Ky., who is the regional director for the central states of the National Family Engagement Alliance. Myrdin is quoted as saying that she recently contacted a school board member in her own school system to find out if her district would be applying for Race to the Top funding in the new district-grant competition.

This is but one example of how she recommends parents stay focused on school issues even though it’s summer. She notes that summer is not the time to take a break from school involvement. If parents are shy about contacting district officials, they can always get in touch with their parent organization leaders.

As someone who spent countless summers working in central administration as a district official, I urge you not to be shy. I can assure you that administrators are in your school district and in your schools even though it’s July or August. Although there is much work and planning going on, it’s also a bit more relaxed for the most part without students and teachers. And that means administrators will be available to speak with you on the phone and meet with you in person.

There are also board of education meetings over the summer. Important decisions are made in the dog days of summer, particularly in regard to hiring. If you can’t make it to the meetings, catch up with reports in your local media. Minutes of board meetings should also be posted on district websites. Remember, too, that the public elects board members and it is their job to represent you and report to you.

Depending on the district, principals typically work at least part of the summer. If you find out when your principal is at the school, it’s a good time to have a casual chat. You will notice that many principals are dressed down during the break — sans ties and jackets for men, and suits and pumps for women. So stop by the school in your shorts and sandals, and use the opportunity to find out the information you want to know as well as sharing your issues with your principal. These could include specific challenges your child has, such as health and learning concerns, or the status of particular programs in regard to budget cuts.  Good principals are visible and accessible, both during the school year and the summer.

Towards the end of the summer, many teachers will be in school setting up their classrooms. It’s a great time to introduce yourself and your child, and find out about the teacher’s plans and expectations.

Contact your PTA or PTO leaders during the summer not only to get information about your school and district, but also to volunteer for the coming school year. Getting involved is not only the best way to learn the ropes of your school and district, but also to help your child succeed.

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.

A Test for Parents

It’s the season for standardized testing, and throughout the country kids of all ages are being subjected to this stressful exercise.

Unfortunately, these tests are being used for very high stakes decisions. For example, in New York, 40 percent (in Florida, 50 percent) of a teacher’s evaluation will be based on test scores. The pitfalls in standardized testing were recently exemplified by a ridiculous question on a New York State about a pineapple racing a hare!

Standardized testing, and its concomitant problems — such as teachers being forced to teach to these tests — is a huge concern in education today. Parents need to keep informed about this as well as many other school issues.

How informed a parent are you? Here’s a pop quiz for parents. There are no trick questions!

1. How would you characterize your relationship to the professionals in your children’s school(s)?

(a) I know the names of my children’s teachers, principal, and central office staff, but do not interact with them.

(b) I have a cordial relationship with them, and am comfortable contacting them about issues or problems.

(c) I resent their salaries and benefits.

(d) I don’t interact with them.

2. How would you describe your involvement in your PTA and district?

(a) I attend PTA and Board of Education meetings and take an active part.

(b) My spouse attends some meetings, talks to the PTA president, and keeps me informed.

(c) I’ve been to a couple, but think these meetings are a waste of time.

(d) I have no idea when meetings are held and never attend them.

3. How do you get information about your school and district?

(a) I check school and district websites on a regular basis.

(b) I read local newspapers and online media, check school and district websites, and speak to teachers, administrators, and Board of Education members.

(c) I am generally too busy to keep informed, but if there’s an issue I speak to my neighbors.

(d) I don’t get involved in politics and have no idea of what’s going on.

4. How involved are you in the 2012-2013 budget process?

(a) I have been following issues in local media, and plan to vote.

(b) I have regularly attended budget and Board of Education meetings.

(c) I haven’t been involved, but I don’t like the excessive spending.

(d) I can’t be bothered and I want to move to North Carolina.

5. How satisfied are you with the quality of education in your school district?

(a) I am very pleased with my children’s teachers, but am concerned about cuts to educational programs.

(b) I moved here because of the district’s reputation, and my children are flourishing.

(c) My taxes are rising and I’m not so sure it’s worth it.

(d) I am dissatisfied and disillusioned.

6. If your child were a victim of bullying in school, what would you do?

(a) I would speak to my child’s teacher and brainstorm solutions and strategies.

(b) I would check the school’s bullying policy, and would ask for a meeting with the teacher, principal, and guidance counselor.

(c) I would complain to my friends.

(d) I would do nothing, and hope that it would stop.

Answer Key: 

If you answered mostly a’s and b’s, Congratulations — you are an involved parent!

If your answers were mostly c’s and d’s, it’s time you got more involved in your children’s education. Research indicates that the more parents are involved in their child’s schools, the more successful their child will be.

A child’s best advocate is an informed parent.

Joining the New Blogging Team at ParentNet® Unplugged

I’m honored to let you know that I have joined the new blogging team at ParentNet® Unplugged, a site that invites parents, educators and community leaders to participate in frank conversations about family engagement in education. As you know, parent engagement in education is my passion and I am thrilled to connect with other experts, who share my commitment and interest in exploring and learning about this important subject.

Research indicates that positive family-school-community partnerships promote children’s social, emotional, and academic learning and development. I am joining a distinguished group of professionals and parents, who practice and write about the importance of parent engagement, school-family partnerships, and related issues and concerns.

My article this month is Parent Power: Be Engaged in Your School District’s Budget Process.

Here is a list of recent articles by the members of the blogging team.




School Districts Sound Sour Note to Cut Costs

A report this week by the U.S. Department of Education paints a dreary picture of arts education in the nation.

A casualty of budget cuts and an increased emphasis on math and reading, the report noted that fewer public elementary schools are offering visual arts, dance and drama classes.  Although music classes in most elementary and secondary schools remain constant, they have declined at the country’s poorest schools.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan decried the situation saying, “It is deeply troubling that all students do not have access to arts education today.”

He noted that children who come from disadvantaged families are most impacted by these cuts because their parents cannot afford private music or art lessons. In addition, involvement in the arts may provide motivation to attend school and excel in other areas.

This is doubly disturbing in light of a new National Endowment for the Arts Research Report.  It indicated that although high school students on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder tend to not do as well in school as children from more comfortable families, those who participate in the arts achieve as well or better than their wealthier counterparts. They have higher than average grade point averages, are more active in school activities, and enrolled in four-year colleges at higher rates than their peers who did not participate in the arts.

A report on the CBS Evening News Tuesday reinforced these findings. Band Director Alvin Davis at Miramar High School is Florida’s Teacher of the Year. For four years in a row, 100 percent of his band students have gone on to college; just 10 years ago, the school was listed as failing. Alvin Davis is proof that one music teacher inspiring his students can make a difference.;contentBody

There are other reasons why arts education is important.

  • In a world where children are tethered to technological devices, we desperately need to provide them with vehicles to unleash their imagination and creativity.
  • The arts encourage youngsters to see the world in new and inventive ways and to find different ways of solving problems and expressing themselves.
  • Involvement in the arts is associated with gains in math, reading, cognitive ability, critical thinking, and verbal skill.
  • Arts education can also improve motivation, concentration, confidence, and teamwork. According to a 2005 report by the Rand Corporation, the arts “can connect people more deeply to the world and open them to new ways of seeing.”
  • In a diverse society, the arts can transcend language and cultural differences, and promote experiences of empathy.
  • Arts education teaches ways of thinking unavailable in any other discipline, fostering imagination. Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge”.
  • Creativity is essential in every discipline – medicine, business, technology, science, etc. The world needs creativity to progress. Arts education fosters the creative spirit.

Be sure to tell your school district that arts education must be preserved!

March Madness: School Lunch, Pink Slime and National Nutrition Month

The coincidence of a spate of stories decrying the wide use in school lunches of what critics call “pink slime” (ammonia-treated ground beef) appearing during National Nutrition Month got me to thinking about what school children eat for lunch each day.

While healthier eating has become a passionate cause among parents in many districts, it was shocking to recently learn that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had planned to purchase 7 million pounds of ammonia-treated beef for use in school lunch programs. But after a public outcry, the USDA announced that school districts that participate in the government’s school lunch program would be allowed to reject beef containing the “pink slime” filler and select filler-free meat instead.

Several U.S. school systems, such as New York City, said they would change their cafeteria menus when the move takes effect next fall. Others, including Boston, decided to remove the ammonia-treated meat immediately. Just this week, production was halted at three of four plants that manufacture the by-product.

The irony of the “pink slime” fiasco breaking during National Nutrition Month makes the issue all the more troubling. Despite years of parents’ lobbying for healthier school meal choices, the USDA was prepared to feed kids meat whose safety was questioned by some microbiologists (other experts contend it is necessary to kill bacteria such as E. coli). On the other hand, Nutrition Month® is a nutrition education and information campaign sponsored annually by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The campaign is designed to focus attention on the importance of making informed food choices and developing sound eating and physical activity habits. I wonder how many parents would choose “pink slime.”

So how does a parent make informed school lunch choices?

There are two ways. One is to keep after your school district to serve healthier options. But keep in mind that the bottom line in food service programs is making a profit. If the healthy options don’t sell, the program will be in the red. A number of districts have instituted healthy lunch programs. An exemplary program is the one in the Port Washington, N.Y. school system.  The menu is filled with healthy choices including whole grain pastas, bread, brown rice, baked sweet potato puffs, yogurt, fruit and vegetable salads, turkey, home made soups, tuna, and pita and hummus, to name a few. If your district is not this enlightened, there’s another choice – pack your child’s lunch yourself.

I remember my elementary school lunch. My mother invariably packed a sandwich and a piece of fruit – an apple, orange, or pear in the winter, and a peach or plum in the warmer weather. I remember eyeing my classmates’ goodies – Twinkies, Hostess cupcakes, chips and chocolate chip cookies – with envy. I had no idea my mother was so avant-garde!

Nowadays, with insulated lunch bags and more varied offerings, you can make your child’s lunch healthy and appealing.  Here are some tips:

  • Be aware of food restrictions in your child’s school, e.g. nut allergies, and respect them.
  • Fill your child’s lunchbox with colorful foods from all food groups — proteins, fruits & vegetables, and whole grains. Consider items such as hard-boiled eggs, berries, grape tomatoes, sugar snap peas, carrots and hummus.
  • Use whole grain breads and crackers.
  • Stay away from foods high in sugar and additives.
  • Cut things in cubes, such as chicken, cheese, veggies and melon.
  • Remember finger foods and dips if you think your child can handle them. News