This 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.
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.
`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
It’s the season for report cards and parent-teacher conferences. It’s also the time when parents may decide to confront problems their children are having in school. Or they may have come to the conclusion that their attempts to communicate with the school have just not been working.
Whether your child’s issues are emotional, physical, social, or academic, it’s not unusual for parents to become emotional and defensive when their children have a problem. One reason why your communication efforts may not be working is that school personnel may feel threatened and attacked by negative criticism. If you’re upset about something your child tells you, don’t jump to conclusions until you hear the other side. Try approaching school personnel in a respectful, calm and non-threatening manner by using an “I” message with the focus on meeting your child’s needs.
- Describe how the problem makes you or your child feel without being defensive. For example, say, “I feel helpless when my child comes home crying and tells me that children are making fun of her,” instead of, “What kind of uncaring teacher are you that you’re allowing all of the children to pick on my child?”
- Actively listen to what the professionals tell you, and then summarize, paraphrase, question, share information and brainstorm solutions. This is preferable to allowing yourself to become so emotional that you don’t listen and resort to yelling.
- Come to an agreement about a solution that meets your child’s needs. Remember it’s not about who is right or wrong. You want your child to be the winner. He’ll be the winner if school and home work cooperatively to help him succeed.
- If you’re still not satisfied, then bring additional people into the discussion. You may want to include your spouse or another relative to support you, and you may ask that the principal or assistant principal and/or the school counselor to join the meeting. Many schools have team meetings, where all the staff members who are involved with your child meet at once. You may ask to attend a team meeting.
- If you have totally exhausted all of the avenues at the school level, contact district administration.
What messages and what kind of pressure did these young people get that made them abandon common sense, ethics, and the law in the pursuit of stellar SAT scores they believed they were incapable of getting on their own? What beliefs did Jobs have that gave him the confidence to drop out of college and invent products that truly transformed the way that we live, learn, communicate and work?
I suspect the Great Neck teenagers felt pressure to achieve – from their peers and from their parents. They are certainly not alone in succumbing to that pressure. You have only to watch Toddlers and Tiaras to know that parental pressure has no age or geographical boundaries. Does anyone really believe that three-year-olds aspire to be beauty queens and actually enjoy having false eyelashes glued onto their faces?
The high school students who paid someone to take their SATs for them had swallowed a bill of goods that led them to believe that to be successful, they needed to attend a top tier college. Likely, they thought they would forever be defined by the college they attended and their prospects for future success would be set in stone their freshman year. They did not have confidence in their own skills or abilities, believing instead that the top tier schools they attended defined success.
It never occurred to them that they could distinguish themselves at a third tier school, or even that they could transfer from Nassau Community College after two years. Ironically, according to the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, about 775 U.S. colleges and universities – including some first rate schools — are now test optional. Some schools exempt students who meet grade-point average or class rank criteria, while others require SAT scores only for placement purposes.
Contrast the mind-set of these young people with the advice Steve Jobs gave to the graduating class of 2005 at Stanford University:
“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life.”
“You’ve got to find what you love.”
“Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
“Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition…”
What can parents learn from these words?
Stop pressuring your children to live up to some ideal standard. If they get a 93% on a test, don’t ask them what happened to the other seven points. If they want to and can get into an Ivy League school on their own power and desire, that’s great. But don’t keep telling them they have to go to Harvard or Yale. And please, don’t make them think they have failed if they can’t reach that goal – just because you want it. There are tens of thousands of high schools in the U.S. and each has one valedictorian and one salutatorian — and all are trying for the same nine top tier schools.
Encourage your children to live their own lives. Don’t pressure them to live out your dreams; let them have their own. Enable them to become the best they are capable of being, not the best your neighbor’s child is capable of being.
Help them find their passion and to pursue it. If they follow their interests, they will not only distinguish themselves but also be true to themselves.
Most of all, children of all ages need unconditional love, ethics and values from their parents. As hard as schools may try, they can’t teach character education without parental agreement and support.
Steve Jobs never finished college. And most successful people didn’t have perfect SAT scores. Without character, commitment, and emotional intelligence it really doesn’t matter where your kids go to school.
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.
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
- 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.
- You have the right to communicate with your children’s teachers, principal, and school nurse as often as you see fit.
- You have the right to easily access and understand information about your children’s schools, school district, teachers, administrators, facilities, policies, procedures, and programs.
- 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.
- 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.
- You have the right to attend all public meetings, including PTA, Board of Education, and committee meetings.
- You have the right to complain, without fear of retaliation, to teachers, building and district administrators, and Board of Education.
- You have the right to attend Board of Education meetings and address the board during the public audience part of the meeting.
- 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.
- 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.
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
- Know the names, phone numbers, and e-mail addresses of all your children’s teachers, principal, other school administrators, and school nurse.
- 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?
- 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.
- 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?
- Keep the school calendar in an accessible area and check it frequently.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.