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.
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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 http://www.schoolkidz.com. 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.

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.

The Hidden Costs of Public Education

About 15 percent of American households were living in poverty last year and that number is increasing as the median household income drops, according to newly released statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau.

That means the official poverty rate has reached its highest level since 1993. That translates to a total of 46.2 million people – the largest number since the government began tracking poverty in the 1950s. And because the poverty level for a family of four begins with an annual income of less than $22,314, many experts believe that a family of four needs to make twice that to feel secure.

Unemployment is predicted to remain above 9 percent for the foreseeable future, and parents are increasingly concerned about expenses and inflation. In last May’s school budget vote, most districts mindful of taxpayers’ pocketbooks 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 they do not have to contribute to their children’s education. Here are some of the extras parents are typically paying for:

  • School Supplies: The average parent spent $600 this year equipping their children with back to school clothing and supplies. Most schools prepared lists of essential school supplies that parents were required to furnish. Depending on the grade of the student, these ranged from notebooks to laptops.
  • 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 garments: T-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: birthdays, holidays, special events

What Can Parents Do?

  • For back to school, PTAs can contract to provide boxed sets 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 http://www.schoolkidz.com. 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 with a limit of $25. Also, parents should request that they be informed at the beginning of the school year of 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.

Beware of the Tiger – Parents’ Bill of Rights

When my brother was in fifth grade, he had persistent nightmares about his teacher Mr. X. In his dreams, Mr. X. was a huge tiger that was attempting to devour him. Uncharacteristically, my mother made an appointment with the principal to discuss the matter. I don’t know what transpired during that meeting, but my brother was immediately transferred to another class – and the nightmares stopped.

It was unusual for my mother to complain – about anything. Indeed, 50 years ago it was rare for any parent to voice an opinion about what went on in their children’s schools.  Most people had the attitude that the school was always right. This has changed somewhat over time. When my kids were in school, some parents spoke up, but the majority still implicitly trusted their schools. Conventional wisdom was that if you complained, you might be considered a nuisance and this would reflect poorly on your child.

Surprisingly, I still encounter parents who are afraid of retaliation against their child if they have a grievance.  Actually, the opposite is true. In my official capacity, I have seen time and again, that the parent who advocates for his or her child gets better results than the parent who remains silent.

As we begin a new school year, the first thing to remember is that you need not be shy when it comes to advocating for your children. It is your right and your responsibility. You know better than anyone that this is your child’s only chance to experience kindergarten or sixth grade or 12th grade. You want your child to have the best possible experience in that particular grade despite budget woes, logistical problems, or personnel issues. Here’s a Parents’ Bill of Rights to help you be a better advocate for your children in school.

Parents’ Bill of Rights

  1. You have the right to be your children’s best advocate and to expect that their unique and special needs are met by the schools in a safe and supportive learning environment in each grade in each school year.
  2. You have the right to communicate with your children’s teachers, principal, and school nurse as often as you see fit.
  3. You have the right to easily access and understand information about your children’s schools, school district, teachers, administrators, facilities, policies, procedures, and programs.
  4. You have the right to have access to your children’s educational records, information regarding services offered by the schools, and expectations about your children’s instructional programs, grading criteria, attendance, and behavior.
  5. You have the right to be treated with respect, fairness, and understanding, free of discrimination and prejudice, by all staff, faculty, and administration in your children’s schools and school district.
  6. You have the right to attend all public meetings, including PTA, Board of Education, and committee meetings.
  7. You have the right to complain, without fear of retaliation, to teachers, building and district administrators, and Board of Education.
  8. You have the right to attend Board of Education meetings and address the board during the public audience part of the meeting.
  9. You have the right to know official complaint procedures within the school, school district, and outside agencies, and to pursue them if necessary, without fear of retaliation.
  10. You have the right to ensure that your children are learning in safe, healthy, and caring schools, free of discrimination, prejudice, bullying, and harassment, and that their physical, emotional, social, academic, and special needs are met on a daily basis.

Back-to- School List for Parents: No Trips to Staples Required

The Back-to-School List – I admit I still shudder when I hear it. My most desperate memory was banging on the door of a locked Staples store minutes before 6 p.m. on Labor Day because my son needed a scientific calculator. The staff insisted it was already six 0’clock and that the store was closed. I begged, but to no avail. Fortunately, we all survived that trauma, purchasing the calculator later in the week. My son went on to graduate from high school and even college, but the memory of that ordeal remains.

The average parent will spend $600 this year per child on school supplies, clothes, backpacks, and sports equipment. And I suspect that many parents will be as intense about their children’s Back-to-School List as I was. Will the correct backpack heighten or lessen a child’s self-esteem, and lead to success? We really don’t know. But what I do know is that 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. And no trips to Staples are required!

Top 10 Back-to-School List for Parents

  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 districtwide 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.