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!

Presidents’ Day and the President’s Educational Initiatives

OBAMASTAs we observe Presidents’ Day, we are reminded how our presidents have impacted our country. Last Tuesday, we saw presidential influence on display with President Obama’s State of the Union address. The President used his bully pulpit to advocate for several public education proposals. Here are his education ideas:

1.   The College Scorecard, now posted at, shows which schools offer the best value, “where you can get the most bang for your educational buck,” he said. Obama also asked Congress to change the Higher Education Act to link colleges’ federal aid to their “affordability and value.”

2.   Preschool for all children, he argued, would boost graduation rates as well as reduce teenage pregnancy and violent crime. “I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America,” he said.

On Wednesday, Obama visited a pre-school in Decatur, Ga., telling an audience of teachers, parents, and students that “education has to start at the earliest possible age.” Obama’s proposal would guarantee pre-school at age four for all children from poor and working-class backgrounds. He said also that he would support local initiatives to provide education for middle-class four-year-olds, as well as for infants and toddlers from low-income families.

3.   Higher rewards for high-tech education to prepare graduates for a high-tech economy. This non-specific initiative would “redesign America’s high schools” to prepare students with the skills and knowledge needed for today’s jobs. “We’ll reward schools that develop new partnerships with colleges and employers, and create classes that focus on science, technology, engineering, and math – the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill jobs,” Obama said.

He also seemed to indicate that every student doesn’t need to go to college if he/she can learn the appropriate technological skills in high school. He referenced “those German kids” who attend schools that provide the technological skills that equip them for a job when they graduate. He pointed to P-Tech in Brooklyn, where graduates leave with a high school diploma and associate’s degree in a high-tech field.

4.   Better school buildings could be among the priorities in his “Partnership to Rebuild America,” a plan to attract private capital to help with construction projects.

Sen. Marco Rubio’s response for the Republicans included: incentives for schools to provide Advanced Placement courses, more vocational training, and increasing school choice, especially for parents of children with special needs. He said also that financial aid should not “discriminate against programs that non-traditional students rely on – like online courses, or degree programs that give you credit for work experience.”

PTA Reaction to State of Union Speech

The National PTA was generally pleased with the State of the Union address, particularly his call for alleviating the impact of sequestration on education, ensuring school safety, providing early-childhood education, helping students become ready for college and careers, and engaging fathers in the lives of their children. But it was disappointed that the comprehensive reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was not mentioned.

This year, National PTA wants Congress to take bipartisan action to address changes to the law governing the federal role in public education. The organization is especially interested in promoting meaningful family engagement via federal mandate.

“Despite bipartisan consensus on the importance of family engagement in education, there remains no central mechanism to translate federal family engagement policies into general practice in states and local communities. Thus, there is little evidence that states, districts, and schools are implementing ESEA-NCLB’s family engagement provisions to meaningfully engage families in the education of their children,” according to the PTA’s 2013 Public Policy Agenda report.

Back to School Toolkit for Working Parents

It’s the time of year when parents who have school-age children are in back-to-school mode. But not only should we be thinking about preparing our children for a new school year, we should also think how we can best plan our own schedule.

As a fervent supporter of parent engagement in education, it’s very easy for me to say that all parents should be actively involved in their children’s schools, become active members of PTA, and attend board of education meetings regularly. We know that doesn’t happen. In fact, I have attended meetings where fewer than 10 parents were present – out of a potential 20,000!

Today’s parents are stressed and scheduled to the limit. Parents who work long hours are not available during the day, and may not be inclined to leave home in the evening. So what’s a concerned parent to do?

Cindy Krischer Goodman, a columnist for the Miami Herald, recently interviewed teachers to get advice about how working parents can remain engaged in their children’s education.

Here are some of their suggestions for the overburdened parent:

  • Communicating with your child’s teacher via email or phone.
  • Making every effort to attend parent/teacher conferences.
  • Setting aside one day or evening to be present, such as chaperoning a field trip or attending an evening program.
  • Checking your child’s work folder on a regular basis.
  • Reading with your child.
  • Reviewing your child’s homework every night.
  • Monitoring middle school students’ agendas and teachers’ websites.
  • Checking high school students’ electronic grade books regularly, and communicating with teachers if there’s a problem.

Additionally, Goodman offers tips that have worked for her on her Work/Life Balancing Act blog. Here are some of them:

  • Merge the school calendar into your work calendar so you can plan ahead for days off and half-days.
  • Take your vacations during school holidays and use personal days for special events at school.
  • Stock up on extra school supplies at the start of the school year so you won’t have to make emergency shopping visits after a hard day on the job.
  • Get rid of the clutter as soon as it comes into the house.
  • Establish a simple system by the door to assist you in remembering what is needed for each day, e.g., musical instrument for lessons, sneakers for gym. Have a receptacle there so you can leave the items you need in plain sight.

To be engaged, working parents also need to know what’s going on in the school and in the district. Here is my list:

  • Become intimately familiar with your school, school district and PTA Websites.
  • PTA Websites should give you the names of the PTA officers, meeting and event information, and issues for which the PTA is advocating.
  • PTA presidents are a great source of information, so keep in touch with them if you can’t attend meetings.
  • School and district websites should give you the names and contact information of all the important players from teachers to board members. You should be able to find important dates, time schedules, meeting information and minutes, policies, procedures and news.
  • If you want to find out about the burning issues and controversies in your district with all sides represented, learn whether there are local weekly newspapers or online media outlets such as The Patch that cover your schools. They generally send a reporter to every board meeting and write about it.

Is Public Education Really Free?

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

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

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

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

What Can Parents Do?

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

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.

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!

Profile of a Parent Advocate Par Excellence

Myrdin Thompson (part 1)

Both educators and parents espouse parent involvement in their children’s schools. Research indicates the more parent involvement, the better the school and the more successful the student. But parents nowadays are so stretched in so many directions that being actively involved is easier said than done. What can we learn from parent role models?  Periodically this blog will feature parents who are exemplars of parent advocacy and engagement.

My first profile is of Myrdin Thompson of Louisville, Kentucky, an extraordinary role model whose everyday life revolves around her commitment to education and schools.

Myrdin Thompson

Believe it or not, I met her through twitter (@MyrdinJT)! A delegate to Mom Congress, she is an avid tweeter, who is immersed in education policy, programs, and news. She also attends meetings, participates in teleconferences, and confers regularly with parents, teachers, education officials, and politicians. Her blog, Roots and Wings,, discusses her views on parent engagement and education issues.

Married for 19 years and the mother of three (Seth, 13, Jonah,10 and Finn, 6), Myrdin received her BA in English Literature from the University of Arizona and her MA in Renaissance Drama from California State University, Fullerton. She’s worked as a Marketing Director/Volunteer Coordinator at the non-profit Visual Arts Association, as well as an adjunct faculty member teaching English literature at a local community college. For the past nine years she has been a full-time volunteer in the public schools.

How and why did you originally become involved in your child’s school?

Seth started a half-day pre-school program when he was four. I must admit I was reluctant to send him off into the world, so I offered to be a room parent. I didn’t stay every day that he was there, but when I wasn’t helping in the classroom I was volunteering with the PTA. I was fortunate to be able to be a partner in not just his educational experience, but to really help the teachers and work with his classmates.

Within the last nine years I’ve held every position on a PTA board except treasurer! I just never thought I wasn’t supposed to be involved. While I don’t have a degree in education, I have always had a connection with teaching and learning. It just made sense to me to offer my assistance. And thankfully through the years, all my children’s teachers as well as the schools they’ve attended have been very supportive of parent engagement/involvement.

What inspired you to become so active and vocal?

Well, when you are born Woodstock weekend and your parents are both artists, it seems to have been in the DNA! I don’t think there has been a time in my life when I haven’t been active and vocal about something that I passionately believe in. I believe in our public schools. I believe in our teachers, principals, support staff, administrators, school board members. I believe that we all want what is best for the children in our communities, but at times we don’t know how to connect with one another in order to make that happen. I believe that one person can make a change, but that several of us working together on the same goal can make a movement.

How did you get involved on a state/national level?

When I was elected to be the 15th District PTA President, I was responsible for reporting to the Kentucky PTA on activities and initiatives happening in our community. Because our school district is so large (155 schools with a student population of 100,534) our PTA feels it is important to be engaged at not just the local level (by attending the bi-monthly school board meetings and participating in-district and community initiatives), but also to attend education sub-committee meetings at the State Capitol and National PTA Legislative conferences (where we also have the opportunity to visit with our elected officials) as well as National PTA conventions. By attending all of these meetings, events, and workshops, I was able to gain knowledge and a greater insight on how the legislative process works, about how to be a stronger advocate, and how to take the information I had and effectively share it with not just our local school PTA/PTSA leaders, but to all our families and community members.

During my time as the District President (2009-2011) I was  named the Parenting Magazine Mom Congress delegate for Kentucky and was recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change.

Mom Congress Seal

These roles have also connected me with other parents from across the nation who are working in their own communities on various initiatives (whether it is the Books Make it Better campaign, advocating for stronger school communities, or healthier school meals). By using my social media sites I have been able to keep my fellow delegates and friends connected with issues such as the recent ESEA hearings in Washington, D.C., how the Common Core State Standards are being (or not being in some instances) implemented, or how Congress recently decided that pizza sauce is a vegetable (I call that one “Tomatogate 2011”).

I also try to connect the people that I know with other groups or organizations that are doing similar work so that everyone can share best practices. I recently stepped down from my leadership roles in PTA (but still am a PTA member at both my children’s schools and at the district and state levels) in order to be more engaged in advocacy with Mom Congress as well as to continue the work I have been doing here in Louisville on behalf of KaBOOM! All the work I do is as a volunteer.

At the end of the day if a parent decides he or she doesn’t want to act on information I’ve provided, I’m okay with that. But I never want someone to say that had they known they would have done something. So I provide the knowledge, the action is up to them.

Describe Mom Congress.

Mom Congress — a parenting initiative with Georgetown University — is here to help you make the changes you want in your local schools and for kids nationwide. Each and everyday I am awestruck by the passion and commitment of an incredible group of women who represent each of the 50 states — and the District of Columbia! Parenting Magazine hosts a “contest” every January, where a mom is encouraged to nominate herself to be a part of this movement. I was selected to be in the inaugural class in 2010 and then invited back in 2011 as the arts advocate (both of my parents, my brother, and all three of my children are artists).

The “action plan for change” that the 2010 class created was featured in both the fall issue of Parenting Magazine as well as in the companion book to the documentary Waiting for Superman. Mom Congress meets at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., and affords the moms selected the opportunity to not only connect with one another, but to connect with groups such as Reach Out and Read, Reading is Fundamental, Save our Children, PTA, the Gates Foundation, Kindercare, and Jamie Oliver of Food Revolution (to name a few, it’s quite a long list!). We also have had the opportunity to meet with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his department staff to better understand the role of the DOE in our nation and to support parent engagement initiatives.  For more information, your readers can go to

How many hours a week do you spend on research and advocacy and why do you do it?

I just had a conversation with a friend about this! On average it’s a 40-hour work week. Once I drop my children off at school I return home to my “office” and start researching, reading, blogging, tweeting, posting on Facebook, answering emails, making phone calls, attending a conference call, participating in a webinar, attending a community meeting. When I’m not at home (or out and about) doing all that, I try to volunteer at my children’s schools, either by attending a field trip as a chaperone, or by serving on a committee, if needed. I try to keep current with all that is happening, either locally in education, or on a state and federal level (because that does impact our local decision making process) not just for my community, but for my friends who live in other locations as well.

I believe that by connecting parents with the resources and information that is out there, it better enables them in their decision-making processes about education. At times it may not seem that something happening in Connecticut will have a resonance here in Louisville, but often I find that a discussion taking place about what makes a highly qualified teacher (for example) in another state will have some impact on a discussion in my state. As these debates play out on the national level, we must also be aware that there is going to be local impact. I believe that a parent educated about education issues/concerns is better able to make an educated decision. It doesn’t have to be the same decision I make, and we can respectively agree to disagree, but at least he or she has the information needed to make that decision. And, yes, it’s all voluntary!

End of Part 1

Next time: Part 2 – Lessons for Parents and the Future of Public Schools