Not Your Mother’s PTA

pta-meeting-parents-e1316549376678With the new school year in full swing, it’s a good time to emphasize the importance of parent involvement. This is the time to make a resolution to actively engage in your children’s education. One of the easiest and most accessible ways is to join and become active in the PTA.

Do you think PTA is synonymous with bake sales?

Think again — today’s PTA is about a lot more than cupcakes

We know that research indicates that students whose parents are actively involved in their schools have better grades, attendance, behavior, and graduation rates. But PTA membership is a personal investment you make not only for your child, but for yourself too.

Many opportunities await you at your next PTA meeting. Advocating for a worthwhile mission, having a positive impact on your schools, and supporting amazing events for students are the obvious benefits of PTA involvement. But I have also witnessed more subtle perks that may come to active parents.

Here are five things that you might not know about today’s PTA:

1. Volunteer and get access.

Being an active PTA member gives you legitimate reasons to have input and to be in your children’s school during the school day.  For example, do you want to have a say in booking a children’s author, a play or a music or science program for your children’s school?  Then join your PTA’s cultural arts committee. You will work closely with your principal and teachers to plan enriching events that PTA fundraising supports.  As a member of the committee, you will be able to attend programs to assess their success.

By becoming a known quantity to school staff, you will get a birds-eye view of what’s going on and principal, faculty and staff will know you by name. This will come in handy should you ever have a question or concern. Similarly, you may be asked for your perspective as a parent when issues occur. It’s sort of like the classic Peter Sellers movie, Being There. Because you are there, you may become a go-to parent.

2. Contribute and make friends.

You will meet like-minded parents who have children of comparable ages, with whom you will share similar concerns, goals, and hopes for your children. You will form close friendships and you will help one another through the sharing of ideas. If you are new to an area or your first child is starting school, PTA is a good place to meet people.

3. Give and receive much more.

PTA provides you with a wonderful outlet and platform for your passions. For example, if you are passionate about healthy eating, you can join the PTA’s health and wellness committee, and exert influence not only on the school lunch program, but also on classroom practices, such as giving candy for rewards.

If you are a parent of a child with special needs, you are probably already a strong advocate for special education. It is essential that you join SEPTA, Special Education PTA. There you will meet like-minded parents and professionals who will provide you with a support network, cutting edge information and strategies to help your child succeed. You will have the benefit of attending presentations by outside experts. And you will be able to forge positive relationships with district special education administrators, who attend SEPTA meetings. This will give you easy access to these professionals, should you have questions or concerns.

4. Be a player and get the “skinny.”

You will reap enormous benefits if you rise to the highest levels of PTA leadership. If you are the PTA president of your school or a member of your District PTA Council, you will meet with your Superintendent of Schools on a regular basis.  He or she will update you on news, issues and problems and ask for your support. If you are a person who likes to be in the know, you will be informed of everything from district accomplishments to drug busts. You will have the information first and will be the one to share it with your members.  The superintendent will also solicit your opinion and may ask for you to poll your members on various issues, such as proposed budget cuts.

As a key stakeholder, you may also be asked to serve on interview committees, citizens’ advisory committees, and task forces.  The superintendent may also recruit you to help plan district-wide events, and to request that PTA help sponsor them.

5. Hone your skills and show what you can do.

The more you give of yourself and the more you hone your skills, the more valuable you will become to your PTA, your school, your district and community.  The seeds you plant may bear fruit in unexpected ways. Is your main job CEO of your household for the foreseeable future? Then why not put your accounting expertise to work as a treasurer? Or use your organizing skills to plan events? Utilizing your background and experience can help close gaps in your resume. Continue to dazzle everyone with your generous contribution of your talent, time and energy, and your volunteer experience could lead to paid employment!

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Teacher Appreciation Week – A Celebration of Caring

This is Teacher Appreciation Week, and for me it evokes a floodgate of thoughts on teaching and learning.

For one thing, Teacher Recognition Day — as the single day dedicated to teachers used to be called – coincided with my first big success at school. I was in the third grade and my teacher was Mrs. Briggs, a large, smiley, cherubic woman who clearly loved her students, their parents – and teaching! She gave us an assignment to write something about Teacher Recognition Day.  I whipped up a poem and I could see from Mrs. Briggs’s beaming face that it was a winner. She had me share it with the class, then she shared it with the other teachers – and it was even published in the school newspaper!  It’s not at all surprising that my double ambition to be a teacher and a writer began back in the third grade.

Shortly after my poetry success, my father went back to school to become a teacher. He eventually landed a job teaching fourth grade in a school with many disadvantaged children.  A number of his students were immigrants and knew very little English. I was fascinated as we sat at the dinner table and he told us how, for example, he had taught Pedro how to say, “I have to go to the bathroom,” in English.

He then proceeded to teach my brother and me how to say it in Spanish. Later as a principal, he was instrumental in bringing a breakfast program into his school because he realized early on that kids couldn’t learn if they were hungry.

My father, as a teacher and as a principal, was my inspiration not only for my own career in education, but for my doctoral dissertation. It studied how caring principals promote a culture that enables children to succeed.

As a lover of current events, politics, and history, I got my Master’s Degree in teaching social studies from Columbia Teachers College.  The department faculty there was inspirational and truly excited about teaching. We learned about the inquiry method – where students were given the tools to be social scientists and construct their own knowledge from original sources.  Sound familiar? Years later, this same method was dubbed DBQ – Dated Based Questions. I couldn’t wait to try out all the wonderful things my teachers at TC taught me.

I hit the jackpot when I was hired to teach American History and Government at Schreiber High School in Port Washington, NY. My colleagues were on the cutting edge of educational theory and practice; together we brainstormed, discussed, and created our own teaching materials. It was wonderful to teach social studies. But we all knew that we weren’t just teaching a subject; we were teaching young people.  To be successful, we needed to know where our students were coming from, and we made it our business to find out. We hung out with students during our free periods, we talked to other teachers and guidance counselors, and we were in touch with parents.  The administrators were visible and accessible to students and staff. In other words, we cared about kids.

In my dissertation, I studied principals who promoted an ethos of caring in their schools – principals who consistently went above and beyond to meet the needs of children, and to meet the needs of teachers and parents as well. Not surprisingly, these principals built faculties of caring teachers.

Later, as an administrator, I verified time and again the conclusions of my dissertation. What matters most in schools is a caring environment, which addresses the needs of every child. Those are the schools where students are most successful. All of the current emphasis on standardized testing totally misses the mark. Teachers need to be able to meet the varying needs of their students, and exercise their creativity, judgment, and professional expertise.  There is not a magic bullet for education that can be imposed from the outside. Caring teachers, led by caring principals, have been and continue to be the solution.

More than a half-century later, I still remember the poem that I wrote for Teacher Recognition Day, and I am still writing and learning! Thank you to all my teachers and my colleagues!

Teacher Recognition Day

Is for us to recognize,

Our teachers, who in the United States

Are so highly prized.

All the teachers deserve this day

Not just a few

So my dear teachers

May God bless each one of you.


How to Be in the Know if You Can’t Be There

Patricia Heaton, who as Frankie Heck on “The Middle” is intimidated by officials in her children’s schools, recently confessed in a TV interview that she wished she had more time to attend PTA meetings for her own four children but finds it difficult because of her career.

I know and I empathize, both with Patricia Heaton and the many other parents who are stressed and scheduled to the limit. You work full-time and want to be home with your children in the evening; you have a newborn; your husband gets home at 9 p.m.; you’re a single mother. There are so many reasons that parents are unable to attend both daytime and evening meetings. 

In a perfect world, all parents would attend PTA and board of education meetings regularly and stay on top of all the school news that way. But 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! 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?

First, 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 him or her if you can’t attend meetings.  In many districts, the PTA president meets regularly with the superintendent and has an inside track on the latest developments. PTA presidents consider it their responsibility to share what they know, and are often frustrated that so few parents attend meetings. So be sure to stay in contact with your PTA president.

If school and school district Websites are good – and nowadays many are – they will provide you with a wealth of information that will be easy to navigate. I should warn you that some are not user-friendly, but with some effort you can usually find what you need to know. For example, you should be able to access the names and contact information of all of the important players from teachers to board members. Additionally, you should be able to find important dates, time schedules, meeting information and minutes, policies and procedures, and news.

It is in the area of news that school Websites present a one-sided view, focusing on the accolades and accomplishments that enhance the district’s reputation. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! As the Public Information Officer and PR person in two prestigious Long Island districts, it was my job to spin the news in a positive way — and that’s what you’ll find on your school district Website. It’s the school district’s job to present itself in the best possible light.

As a result, 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 that cover your schools. They generally send a reporter to every board meeting and write about it. In addition, there may be editorials and letters to the editor that offer other points of view. Some stories rise to the level of coverage by a daily newspaper, such as Newsday, or a TV station, such as Cablevision’s News12.  In the last couple of years, the Patch, the AOL-owned hyper-local on-line newspaper, has been covering news in many communities across the country. It presents comprehensive news about the school districts in its coverage area, as well as the opportunity for readers to comment on stories.


Parent-Teacher Conferences – Do You Need A Bribe?

It’s the season for parent-teacher conferences and I urge every parent to embrace this opportunity to sit down with your children’s teachers, no matter if your kids are in kindergarten or high school. 

This is your opportunity to find out specifically how your children are doing, and generally what’s going on in their classrooms and in their schools. I have to admit I was a bit disheartened when I recently came across a NEA (National Education Association) article advising teachers of tactics that they might want to use to “lure” parents into attending parent-teacher conferences. I’d be interested in knowing whether you think the parents in your school need to be cajoled into meeting with their children’s teachers, or whether they understand communicating with them is one of the best things they can do to help their kids succeed.  

Among the strategies recommended in the article are student-led conferences, in which students actually prepare and participate in the conference. The article said that feedback on this type of conference was “overwhelmingly positive,” and that there is a growing trend to encourage parents to bring their children to conferences. Other teachers had students prepare and present Power Point presentations to show their parents what they were learning. This tactic reportedly ensured record attendance. 

Not that there’s anything wrong with involving students and giving them a chance to be present, but I’m not sure that quite fits the definition of a parent-teacher conference. It seems to me the parent-teacher conference is one of the few chances you get to sit down with your kid’s teacher — adult to adult — and discuss what’s best for your child. 

Then there were the “bribes” to entice parents to meet with the teachers. These included: extra credit for students whose parents showed up, personal invitations, raffle tickets, a dessert bar, and goody bags. Finally, it was reported that some teachers go on home visits to meet parents who cannot get to the school. 

It’s commendable that some teachers go to such lengths to accommodate parents, but I would think parents would prefer to see the teachers’ creative energies going instead to inspiring the students. 

The article didn’t mention adjusted hours for working parents, which should be pro forma nowadays in all schools and something that parents should insist upon. Similarly, if your work schedule does not allow you to get to school on a particular day, request an alternate date or a phone conference.  

Here are 7 tips for a successful parent-teacher conference:

  1. Come prepared with questions and take notes. Always ask how you can support your child’s learning at home.
  2. Don’t be passive. If you have a particular question or concern, don’t be afraid to bring it up. Be specific. 
  3. Discuss your child’s social and emotional development as well as academic performance. Be sure to let the teacher know if there is anything going on at home that may impact your child’s behavior and performance in school, such as divorce, illness in the family, or a new baby.
  4. If there is a problem, describe how it makes you or your child feel without being defensive or negative. Actively listen to what the teacher says. Come to an agreement about what is best for your child.
  5. Schedule follow-up meetings or telephone calls to be sure the plan is working.
  6. Find out how the teacher communicates with parents, e.g., online, newsletters, agendas, etc.
  7. If you are not satisfied with the conference, you may ask to meet with an administrator.  

Try This: The New Parent-Teacher Conference  

http://www.nea.org/home/40927.htm#.Tpiih8U_Alo.twitter


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.

The Scourge of Bullying –What’s a Parent to Do?

There was national outrage last week over the suicide of Buffalo, N.Y., teen Jamey Rodemeyer, who took his life after more than a year of relentless anti-gay cyber-bullying. Even Lady Gaga weighed in by initiating a campaign, Make A Law for Jamey, that would make bullying a hate crime. 

Police have opened a criminal investigation into the case, even though there are no anti-bullying laws in New York State. That may change with the announcement this week by State Senator Jeffrey Klein that he plans to introduce legislation to make cyber-bullying a crime. Recently, New Jersey joined several other states in enacting an anti-bullying law.  . 

Coincidentally, last week the U.S. Department of Education hosted a two-day Second Annual Bullying Prevention Summit to Stop Bullying, demonstrating that bullying is a widespread concern throughout the country. 

As an educator and a parent, my heart goes out to the Rodemeyer family and to all who are bullied. It’s a fact that for students to succeed in school, they must feel safe and supported.  But bullying happens, even though school officials certainly do not sanction it. 

When I dealt with bullying incidents, I remember how painful and frightening it was for the victims. Their main fear was retaliation if they reported that they were bullied. 

There are school district policies, administrative regulations and guidelines that spell out the consequences for bullying.  But because bullying often takes place during less structured times of the school day – lunch, recess, going to and from class, and on the bus – it is incumbent upon students to report it.  Principals, teachers and other school personnel typically take bullying reports very seriously. 

Not so long ago, schools took the position that they were only responsible for what happened at school. If a fight took place on Friday night at the mall, school districts used to say it was not their concern. Now if the impact spills over into the school day and affects students, school districts will take action.  

Another game changer has been cyber-bullying. In the last several years, social media has created and enabled a new platform for bullying, and cases are proliferating.  As a result, schools must now investigate and impose consequences for cyber-bullying, in addition to face-to-face bullying. 

According to cyber-bullying statistics from the i-SAFE Foundation, more than one in three young people have experienced cyber-bullying. Unfortunately, more than half of these students do not tell their parents. Thus, it is crucial for students who are bullied or cyber-bullied to immediately report it to an adult – parent, teacher, administrator or guidance counselor. When bullying is reported, the school will act on it. 

Parents should speak with their children about bullying and cyber-bullying to make sure they are not engaging in it. Discuss how hurtful it is, and emphasize that what is online stays online forever. Emphasize that online misbehavior could affect your child’s future.  It’s equally important to encourage your children to tell you if they are bullied off or online.  Reassure your child and make sure to remind school personnel that retaliation cannot be condoned. Be sure to discuss Internet safety with your children, and monitor what they are doing online. 

By all means, parents should inform schools if there is bullying, and join with schools to promote bullying awareness and prevention programs. Remember October is National Bullying Awareness Month.

Here are some resources on bullying from the Learning First Alliance: 

 


Not Your Mother’s PTA

With 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!