Racing forward with Today’s PTA

PTA_NascarOn Wednesday, August 14, 2013, I was standing in the school parking lot of Burton International School in Detroit, Michigan. Everything was very quiet on the side street of this small neighborhood, until suddenly, I heard the roar of an engine. The engine roared louder as I stood close to the school with children, parents, and teachers. As the #39 race car driven by NASCAR driver Ryan Newman came into view, a loud cheer erupted from the crowd. Quicken Loans had its logo on the hood of the car, but this week was a special week for PTA. The hood of the car read, “National PTA. Every Child. One Voice.” The entire car was decorated in bright colors like a crayon box with “National PTA” in several locations.  This was just one of many exciting days to come.

That Friday could not have been more perfect. With the help of Jonesville Community PTA President Sherri Groves, and the Principal Johanna Curson, 25 fifth-grade students and parents or guardians loaded a school bus and headed to Michigan International Speedway. I am sure they will never forget that ride, or that day. The day started with rides in the pace cars, racing around the track at 120 mph! Next, it was off to do a PIT tour and meet driver Ryan Newman. Ryan talked with the group about how important it was to stay in school, to work hard, and to follow their dreams.  As I sat in the back of the room observing all of the activities, it dawned on me how many dads were there with their daughters. I thought about how many of them, like myself, had taken the day off from work to attend this event.  I wondered if they knew how important these memories are to their children.

On Sunday,we arrived at Michigan International Speedway shortly before 9 a.m. We parked and headed to the Quicken Loan Suite to watch the race. I had never been to a NASCAR race before, so I was a little excited and anxious. The announcer introduced the drivers and their sponsors, and when they introduced Ryan Newman, I heard them say “sponsored by Quicken Loans and National PTA.” What a proud moment! I was proud and honored to be a PTA member.  I watched as the race cars went around the two-mile track 200 times. Each time #39 went by I had chills as the PTA logo sped by at 200 mph.

Teresa Marhofer is the President of the Michigan State PTA.

Cutting Physical Education and Recess: Troubling Trends and How PTAs Can Help!

Playground_1Since the 2001 passage of the No Child Left Behind Act, many schools have struggled to find ways to meet the act’s rigorous assessment standards. One avenue schools have been taking to find time for more academics is to cut out physical education classes and recess. Another approach has been to withhold time allotted for physical activity as a punishment for poor classroom behavior, or for extra tutoring time for struggling students. While estimates on cutbacks to school recess differ while accommodating a more vigorous academic curriculum, what is certain is that the trend is on the rise. With the troubling statistics regarding childhood obesity, health experts, educators, and parents are expressing concern that cutting recess will further contribute to weight and health problems without actually improving academic performance.

Recess, with its unstructured play time and the ability to allow students’ choices in the activities they pursue, is a particularly troubling cut that many argue actually has detrimental effects on students.  In its resolution on recess, National PTA outlined the numerous benefits of recess and physical activity, including “greater academic achievement and cognitive functioning; better classroom behavior; increased socialization, school adjustment and overall social development; and improved physical and mental health.” In addition to these positive outcomes, establishing an active lifestyle in childhood leads children to be more active adults. Because of the benefits of physical activity and unstructured play time, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends that students get at least 20 minutes of recess time every day.

National PTA is not alone in our concern over the drift towards less physical education and recess in school. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation reported in 2007 that only 36% of children receive the recommended amount of physical activity and stress that recess time is one of the best opportunities to incorporate physical activity into a child’s day; the American Academy of Pediatrics asserts that “recess is a crucial and necessary component of a child’s development;” and the National Wildlife Federation, in response to reports that children spend only minutes a day outside but as much as seven hours in front of a computer or television screen, has undertaken an initiative to get 10 million more American children outside.

Despite the alarming statistics on childhood obesity and the abundant benefits of recess, there are currently very few efforts at a national, state or district level promoting the adoption of policies supporting recess or physical education. This is disheartening because having a concrete policy on the books helps promote physical activity in schools and protects opportunities for physical activity. For example, the National Institutes of Health released a report which indicates that recess is more likely to be scheduled at schools in districts and states with a recess policy in place. PTA members are in an excellent position to “take action” towards correcting this deficiency by advocating for a number of policies supporting more physical activity for students in their states and districts. Some of these opportunities include the following:

  •  Nationally: PTA members can contact their members of Congress regarding the Fitness Integrated with Teaching Kids Act (FIT Kids Act), a measure recently reintroduced in both chambers of Congress that National PTA supports. The bill would strengthen physical education throughout the country by providing grants to schools working to implement physical education programs, and would also require state educational agencies to monitor and report on the amount of time students spend being physically active during the school day.
  • State-wide: PTA members and units can actively encourage their state legislators to support recess policies and programs that boost walkable communities. Promoting walkability in communities gives families more options for active modes of transportation, rather than using vehicles, and ensures that students have safe ways to walk to school. Walking also promotes academic success: a study conducted by the University of Illinois showed that students who walked at a moderate pace for 20 minutes in the morning before school increased their ability to pay attention in class and performed better on tests.
  • Locally: Local PTAs can encourage their schools and districts to adopt sensible recess policies and to keep physical education as a part of their daily academic schedules at all levels.  PTAs can also advocate their local leaders to design communities safe for walking and biking, and can encourage parents, teachers, and community members to lead by their own healthy examples.

Recess and other physical activities should be viewed as an opportunity to enrich the whole student, and not as a barrier to academic success.

National PTA has partnered with several organizations to launch nationwide programs encouraging students and parents to be more active. Beginning this fall, the National PTA undertook an initiative with the NFL, called “Back to Sports,” that will encourage students to join sports teams and get active, and in February of this year National PTA announced a partnership with Safe Routes to School National Partnership and Kaiser Permanente called “Fire Up Your Feet.” The enterprise challenges students, teachers, and parents to get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day while raising money for their schools, and is a recognized program of the Let’s Move! Active School initiative.

But working towards greater physical activity, while an important step, is only half of the battle in combating childhood obesity and increasing academic outcomes. Healthy food options for all students is also a necessity. Be sure to check back next week for a discussion on school nutrition, examples of success stories, and ways that PTAs across the country can promote and encourage healthy food options in their schools!

Tell us: Does your child’s school offer recess and physical education opportunities?

Snowflakes for Newtown: A Case for Empathy

BeckiYou could hardly blame me for thinking of the past two years as proof that humanity is doomed and deserves it. That’s what I told myself as I thought back on some of the horrors of recent months: schoolchildren massacred in Newtown, Connecticut. Movie watchers mowed down in Aurora, Colorado. Sikh worshipers murdered in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Gang rapes in broad daylight. Not to mention that after the bombings in Boston, people are afraid to go out to cheer for a marathon. I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

I’ve always been active in the cause of human progress. Over the decades I was part of two anti-war movements: to end the War in Viet Nam, and to prevent intervention in Central America. I was also part of the first anti-rape movement. And now I work as the Director of the Not In Our School program at Not In Our Town, an organization that spawned a movement to end hate, intolerance, and bullying.

Ending hate, intolerance, and bullying — these are monumental tasks!

In light of all the bad news I was hearing on a daily basis, I needed to see some progress for the human race. I needed to hear some good news, though I doubted I would. But to my surprise, and maybe to yours, I did!

After the Sandy Hook shootings, the National Parent and Teachers Association made a public appeal for paper snowflakes to cheer the students when they returned to school. The response was a literal blizzard from across the world. That little act of empathy got me thinking differently about things.

Then I read in the British newspaper The Spectator that 2012 was possibly the best year ever in human history. Why would they say that? The article said that 2012 saw fewer deaths from war, disease, and hunger than any previous year since we started to keep such statistics. That astonishing report certainly gave me pause and made me look deeper.

Here are some surprising facts I discovered:

  • War: The Oslo Peace Research Center reported fewer war deaths in 2012 than at any time during the last century. Steven Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, backs this up. Tracking the history of war, it shows that violence actually has declined dramatically, making today’s world the safest in history.
  • Poverty: In 1990, the United Nations set “Millennium goals” to cut world poverty in half by 2015. Did you know that we met that goal in 2008?

Disease: Deaths from lung cancer and breast cancer were down by one-third in the last 40 years, and life expectancy is up across the globe.

  • Rape: The U.S. Justice Department has reported that rapes have plunged 85% since 1970, which was when I became involved with others in starting a rape crisis center, one of many that sprang up in that decade. In Better Angels, Pinker points out that rape has long been considered a standard feature of war and conquest. Now concern about ending rape has become international, as thousands of women and men protest rape in the U.S. military, brutal rapes in the Congo, and recent gang rapes in Delhi, to name just a few examples.

What is making the difference?

One factor is the human capacity for empathy.  Economist Jeremy Rifkin explored this theme in a 2010 TED (Technology, Education, Design) talk. “To empathize is to civilize,” said Rifkin.

He described us humans as being biologically programmed for empathy. Empathy has evolved through different stages in history, each time extending a bit more as humans organized themselves as clans, city-states, nations, and now globally. And while the planet has seen violence and bloodshed each step of the way, over the years, we have stretched our empathy to more and more people as we have reached beyond the boundaries of blood ties, religion, nation, and ethnic group. There is no questions that people are still people fighting for clans, land, and national sovereignty today. Now, however, as our connections become more and more global, we continue to embrace others who are different from ourselves. We are even extending empathy to the entire planet, not only to people, but also to the natural world. This capacity to be both globally empathic and more global in our thinking is spurring a growing number of world citizens to also expand their horizons. I agree with Rifkin that global empathy is ultimately is the hope for the future of humanity.

This is progress!

So now, when I look back at the horrific events of the past two years, that’s not all I see. I see progress in the making.

I see people rising up in empathy against small and large acts of violence, hate, and bigotry, and in favor of kindness and acceptance. People around the world responded to support the Sikh community after the massacre in Oak Creek. People in towns and in schools across the world are taking a stand against bullying and are reaching out to those who are excluded, now that millions have viewed the movie Bully. The tide of US public opinion has turned in support of gay marriage, as an important step toward social equality. Performer and anti-rape activist Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising, mobilized of people across the globe to dance on Valentine’s Day, to end violence against women.

Small things matter too:  Richard, the owner of a Virginia auto-body shop, fixed a car for free for a college student that had anti-gay slurs keyed into it. Grace, a 13-year-old Canadian girl with Asperger’s syndrome who had been bullied for years, started a bullying prevention effort at her school. John, a Special Olympian, sent a letter of protest when President Obama was called a “retard,” explaining why we should not use that word and thousands supported him. These are just a few examples I know of. You must know of many too.

We still have a lot to do to end raw violence, all types of rape and also its subtler forms, such as when violence turns inward as the result of depression or other mental health conditions.

I see all this evidence of progress as an invitation to expand our efforts to extend empathy across the globe. If you have been discouraged by the daily news reports of hate or violence, know that your efforts will eventually bear fruit. Join with Not In our Town to bring your community together to end bullying and create inclusive communities. Work to end income inequality. Work to get assault weapons banned and off the streets. Extend empathy to our planet and turn the tide of climate change. Work in your community to make everyone feel safe and included.

Or do what you are already doing, whether it is seeking better care for the elderly, running a marathon to raise funds for cancer research, or teaching a child to read.

I refuse to see only the bad news. I know from my own experience that when people get together to help one another, accept one another, learn from one another, they create a force that is stronger than violence and hatred.

In their “snowflake” appeal for Newtown, the National PTA received enough snowflakes to cover the entire town.  It’s all our actions together that will move us toward the “empathic civilization” in a global blizzard of “metaphorical” snowflakes.

Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed. D. is currently the director of Not In Our School (NIOS). She has spoken on the subject of how to combat bullying at conferences, schools, and universities across the United States. Becki’s new book,“Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn,” co-authored with Dr. Dorothy Steele was published by Corwin Press. Prior to working at The WorkingGroup, she spent over 35 years in public education in California.

Sequestration and Your District: The Actual Impact and How to Raise Awareness

As schools start looking towards gearing up for their new school year, many are forced to confront a drastic reduction in federal funding due to the sequester cuts that took place this year on March 1. While these cuts did not take place instantaneously, the Department of Education’s budget was among those non-defense discretionary funds that took an automatic, 5%, across-the-board spending reduction, to impact schools beginning with the 2013 school year. According to the Department of Education’s blog, the sequester cut Title I funding by $725 million, which affects 1.2 million students in disadvantaged schools and risks the jobs of about 10,000 teachers and aides. $600 million was cut from the IDEA program, which means states and districts now have to cover the cost of approximately 7,200 special education teachers, and aides. The Head Start program also took a hit, potentially affecting nearly 70,000 students in the program. The Department’s blog also includes a state-by-state breakdown of the cuts, released by the White House, as well as a look at how it impacts the 100 largest districts in the country. All told, there is a loss of nearly $5 billion education dollars.

While all of these numbers can seem abstract and difficult to realize at a local level, in practice what they mean are larger classroom sizes, fewer teachers, a reduction of elective courses, cuts to after-school programs or student enrichment opportunities, and less access to quality early education. The National PTA has created a Sequestration Toolkit page to help you effectively advocate against the sequestration cuts. In addition to background information, National PTA has prepared templates for writing letters to your local and regional newspapers and your members of Congress to highlight the impact of sequestration on your district and regional schools. Utilizing the sequestration “invoice” available on our toolkit page, you can take some time to talk to your district leaders about how sequestration will affect your local schools during the 2013-2014 school year then rally your local PTA unit and community members to “take action!”

While it may seem like it is too late to change the sequestration cuts because the law took effect in March, the upcoming school year is actually a great time to remind Congress of the law’s damaging effects to education!  The cuts have the potential to stay in place for 10 years if not reversed, so parents, families, and community members must continue to voice their opposition to the cuts. State and local PTA units can take the lead in advocating to end the sequester funding reductions. Be sure to share your sequester stories with PTA in the comments section below!

For state-specific information on the sequester’s education budget impact, you can check out the National Education Association’s state-by-state impact assessment. To gain an understanding of the sequester’s effect on the budget as a whole, check out the video below from NDD United.

Erica Lue is an Advocacy Coordinator for the National PTA in Alexandria, VA.  Contact Erica at

Youth Leaders Spread NIOS Message to PTAs Nationwide

Reposted from the Not In Our Town Blog

Education Secretary Arne Duncan (center) with youth presenters and Becki Cohn-Vargas (far right)

Youth leadership is a key part of Not In Our School anti-bullying initiatives, an aspect of our work that is showcased in our films and impressed the National PTA, who invited us to share promising practices for standing up to bullying at their National Youth Leadership Summit in June. We invited two Ohio students who appeared in our films to join us at the summit in Cincinnati.

Alana Garrett is a former high school student who led a student mentoring program in a local elementary school in an East Cleveland, OH inner city school district. Shawyawn Sekhavat is a student from Pepper Pike, OH who led a mapping activity at his school, which helped him gain confidence to speak up and stop bullying.

Both had been filmed in 2009 and I had never met them, nor did I know if I would even find them. The good news is that I found both Alana, a sociology major at Baldwin Wallace University, and Shawyawn, studying pre-med at Ohio University, and both were very enthusiastic about participating.

The Town Hall

The summit was part of the National PTA Annual Conference, which began with the filming of a Discovery Town Hall about bullying, the second of a four-part series that will be posted on the Discovery Channel Website.

The Town Hall featured a panel with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Kari Byron, co-host of MythBusters, together with Alana, Shawyawn, youth leader Tharon Trujillo from California, and Brent Burnham, a school counselor from Utah. Kari Byron outlined some of the myths of bullying and the youth shared their perspectives.

The final word was offered to Secretary Duncan, who turned and passed the opportunity to Alana. She made an eloquent plea to not approach bullying from a legalistic or punitive perspective, which would lead to stigmatizing and labeling students. Zero tolerance policies will not end bullying, she explained, but would instead lead to negative consequences particularly for black and brown students. She called for an approach that helps students learn from their mistakes and promotes love and creates empathy.

The Summit

Youth participants came from many states and varied backgrounds. During the four-day summit, they heard a motivational speaker, and engaged in leadership skill-building. As part of the Summit, we conducted a workshop where attendees  viewed Alana and Shawyawn on film, interacted with them in person, and learned about the activities and impact of NIOS campaigns.

The summit attendees worked in small groups to design and present a model anti-bullying campaign for their schools. It was inspiring to see how, in such a short time, the youth were able to absorb and innovate, drawing from what they experienced. A team of judges selected the top two groups to present to the National PTA Board.

Ideas from all the youth presentations will be used to develop models and planning guides that will be shared with PTAs across the country, who can move them into action.

It was an honor for NIOS to participate in this effort that highlighted our principles of student-led initiatives working with the whole community to address both bullying and intolerance in sustained efforts. It was also wonderful to meet Alana and Shawyawn who are both continuing to grow as individuals and leaders, committed to making the world a safer and better place.


Becki Cohn-Vargas, Ed. D. is currently the director of Not In Our School (NIOS). She has spoken on the subject of how to combat bullying at conferences, schools, and universities across the United States. Becki’s new book,“Identity Safe Classrooms: Places to Belong and Learn,” co-authored with Dr. Dorothy Steele was published by Corwin Press. Prior to working at The WorkingGroup, she spent over 35 years in public education in California.

August Recess Advocacy: Reach Out at Home

Newly appointed Legislative Committee Chair Stella Edwards spoke eloquently in her introductory letter about the need for PTA leaders and members to come together and effectively advocate for the mission of the PTA. In keeping with the spirit of Ms. Edwards’ call to action, it is important to take advantage of the many opportunities for advocacy. PTA members should look for ways to “Take Action.” One important way for members to Take Action is to establish and maintain relationships with their elected leaders, including their Members of Congress.

PTAMinneostaFranken While it may seem like August is not the “right” time to reach out to Members of Congress because they are not in Washington, it actually presents PTA members with a wonderful opportunity to form a relationship with their government leaders right at home.National PTA, as the largest child advocacy organization in the country, has a unique ability to reach out to Congress to promote its goals, but it takes the assistance of all our members to make a true impact.
FloridaPTAMurphy Utilizing Congressional recesses to make a connection with your federal representatives in Congress can go a long way in garnering support for PTA’s legislative priorities.This August, meet with one of your legislative leaders while they are on August recess. Meeting with Congressional members in their district offices presents an occasion for both state leaders and local PTA members to establish themselves as a knowledgeable local voice for parents, teachers, and children.
NDPTAHeitkamp If you cannot set up a meeting with your member, attending a town hall meeting is another great way to make a connection with your elected official. If you’re a new PTA leader, it gives you a chance to introduce yourself and PTA and establish a relationship right from the start.National PTA offers its leaders and members many resources for providing effective advocacy. You can visit our advocacy page to find information on PTA’s federal public policy.

The advocacy website has resources related to the Common Core standards, including an advocacy training link and articles of interest, and the Government Affairs department has prepared an advocacy toolkit to help members and state leaders maximize their local grassroots organizing efforts. Be sure to subscribe to our PTA Takes Actionnewsletter and our action alerts! Also check back on this blog every Thursday for great ideas on building grassroots support for our PTA priorities. Feel free to reach out to National PTA’s Advocacy Coordinator, Erica Lue, with any questions or to get some advocacy tips for your local or state PTA, at

From One Upstander to Another: Working Together for a Common Cause

Reposted from the Not In Our Town Blog

Shawyawn Sekhavat and U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan

Shawyawn Sekhavat played a leadership role in the Not In Our School anti-bullying campaign at Orange High School in Pepper Pike, OH. Their campaign was filmed and shown at the White House and is featured in the BULLY Educator DVD & Toolkit.

After graduating from high school in 2011, Shawyawn is now a pre-med student at Ohio University. He was one of two students who joined Not In Our School at the National PTA’s Youth Leadership Summit in Cincinnati this June. Here, Shawyawn shares his experience joining other leaders and encouraging students to be upstanders.

The Youth Leadership Summit sponsored by the National PTA was a phenomenal way for student leaders to share their stories to help inspire youth to act out against bullying. As one of the student leaders, this was a great chance for me to showcase what my school, Orange High School in Pepper Pike, OH, has done with the Not In Our School program.

At the summit, we were able to talk about how our own life experiences helped shape how we view and deal with bullying. Student leaders, along with other PTA staff, helped encourage younger students to take a stand and make a difference at their school. Through numerous workshops and activities students were able to exercise their problem solving skills and help come up with their own campaigns to be used in their respective schools.

This youth summit has helped show me and many other youth that there is strength in numbers. When you can have multiple people working toward a common cause it is remarkable what you can accomplish, which was easily seen during one of the workshops where students came up with their own anti-bullying presentations in a matter of hours.

If hate has come to your town or school it is important to involve as many people as you can. It’s not only on the students, but teachers and staff as well. Students may have a fresh perspective on the issue; however, it does take some figures of authority to really help some of these plans come to life. Addressing the problem is one of the most powerful things a community can do because more often than not the issue is the public’s lack of the knowledge of the subject.

Getting people informed about the problem and showing how prevalent it is will help people identify when something is going wrong. Repetition is also important, whether it is a Powerpoint, speech, or presentation. These demonstrations have a positive impact on people, but the effect may die down after some time so it is key to keep these issues hot.

I strongly encourage any young students or younger adults who would like to take a leadership position to try and become involved in Not In Our School as I did and in their school’s PTSA. The summit was a fantastic learning experience for not only the students, but those involved in leading it. I know the summit was just as much of a learning experience for me as it was for the  students who attended.

Check out how Shawyawn and his classmates at Orange High School mapped their campus to locate the spaces where bullying takes place. After identifying the “bully hotspots,” including the cafeteria, media lab, and locker rooms, students created a flash freeze demonstration to raise awareness about bullying, and opened the conversation about how to create a safer school.

Note from Legislative Committee Chair: Stella Edwards

sedwardsMy earliest memory of parental involvement in PTA advocacy began in second grade. I accompanied my mother to PTA meetings at my segregated elementary school, and listened to groups of parents, teachers and principals organizing at our next door neighbor’s home after school. Over the years I would come to understand that we had a great school, great teachers, and great food freshly prepared on site every day, because of the efforts of adults who cared enough to be the voices for all children. These adults, who were members of the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers Association, demanded updated new textbooks (not the old books that were being thrown out from other schools), opportunities for upper elementary age students to work at the school during the summer, fulltime crossing guards, and probably many other advantages that we never realized. One lesson that has stuck with me is that a rigorous and world-class education has always been legislated, and that children deserve their human right to high quality education.

The founders of the National Parent Teacher Association established a mission that has transcended class, ethnicity, national origin, and endured for more than a century generations. It is incumbent on members to provide the leadership and direction to advocate for the realization of that mission every day. As the chair of the legislation committee, I am honored to work with a great team of PTA professionals, who share their talents and skills to ensure PTA remains the premiere child advocacy organization in the country. During the next two years we will promote the work of our 54 congresses, increase the advocacy education and training of our members, enhance two-way communications with Federal Legislation Chairs and legislators, develop a collaborative relationship with all committees, and provide states and members the resources they need to be an effective voice for all children.

We are here to serve you, our members. You can send me an email anytime at

Stella Y. Edwards, Chair – Virginia

Stella Y. Edwards is mother, wife, teacher, community organizer, education activist, education consultant, radio talk show host, and former United States Army Officer. Mrs. Edwards has served at many levels within PTA, including President of a local PTA unit, Council President, District Director, Virginia PTA Board of Mangers, State  and Federal Legislation Chair,  various capacities through her eighteen years in the Virginia PTA, and  Member Representative on the National PTA Board of Directors. In addition to her role as National PTA Legislation Committee Chair, she continues to serve her local unit and district. The Legislative Committee serves between 2013-2015.