Engage! Speaking Up for My Child

Sherri_WilsonAs a parent, there isn’t much that means more to you than your children. You want them to be happy, healthy and one day able to put you in a nice nursing home with an oceanfront view! We all know that it is harder and harder to find a good job without an education and the lack of a good job makes everything more difficult. As parents, we understand the value of a good education, but sometimes it’s hard to know what to do when you see your child begin to struggle in school.

I began my career working in a Parent Training and Information Center (PTI) in Alabama. I was trained to help families who have children with special needs to advocate for the services to ensure their children receive a free, appropriate public education. I worked with families from all over the state who had children with every type of disability. I trained groups of parents throughout the state.  I helped them to understand what the federal laws were and how to access the state regulations. I went with them to meetings to model effective communication skills. In spite of all my experiences and all of the families I helped, I still wasn’t prepared when my child was identified as eligible for services.

My son struggled with attention problems and was ultimately diagnosed with ADHD. We also discovered through the testing process that he had learning disabilities in written expression and math. The evaluations didn’t tell me anything I didn’t already know. Every night I saw him struggle with those challenges and tried to help him. I knew that his challenges were not his fault and that there were services that could help him, but trying to articulate that to his teachers was often very frustrating. Before his evaluation, I was told he was not motivated, that he didn’t try hard enough, and that he just needed to pay more attention. Finally getting the evaluation was like a Christmas miracle because at last I had something to point to and say it’s not his fault, let’s stop trying to blame him and talk about how we can support him!

Even with the diagnosis, the evaluations, and the Individualized Education Plan (IEP), I had a hard time getting help for my child. It was hard to schedule meetings and then they often seemed rushed to get me out and get the next parent in. The services would be in his IEP but I’d find out they weren’t being provided in his classroom. I feared I was being labeled as the “problem parent” because I was asking for too many meetings to try to address the services that weren’t being provided or weren’t working. I didn’t want to push for too much because I was always afraid there would be repercussions against my son.

Ultimately, I realized it is really, really hard to advocate for your own child all by yourself. I really believe that most of the educators in my son’s life wanted him to be successful but were overwhelmed or under resourced. I was most frustrated by the times I was not treated as a partner in his education; when teachers acted like I hadn’t spent years with this child taking him to doctor’s appointments, sporting events and birthday parties or when the principals acted like I hadn’t been to a hundred other IEP meetings where they told me not to worry because they didn’t need to put it all down on paper since we were all in agreement.

I believe that every parent wants the best for their children, even if they aren’t sure how to articulate it or what it looks like. I also believe that educators decide to teach because they care about children and want to see them do well. I hope one day we all recognize that in each other we can really embrace a true partnership where we help each other to help our children succeed.

Arts Education Is Critical for Students with Disabilities


At VSA, our mission is to ensure that people with disabilities—specifically students in grades K-12 and emerging artists up to age 25—have opportunities to learn through, participate in, and enjoy the arts.  We believe arts education is critical for students with disabilities.  You, as a parent, guardian or caretaker, should invest in, advocate for, and participate in the arts education of your child. Here’s why:

Arts education develops critical 21st century skills such as creating and innovating, listening to and building on the opinions of others, practicing problem solving, and developing empathy. These skills are crucial for academic and professional success.  In the arts, these skills are conveyed through engaging learning experiences where the student’s voice, intuition and feelings are valued.  For many students with disabilities, these creative experiences provide opportunities to exceed expectations through the expression of unique perspectives.  And the collaborative nature of many art forms encourages students to learn to work with peers, form relationships and solve problems.  Thus, the arts offer students with disabilities unique opportunities to demonstrate understandings in ways that they may not experience in more traditional academic settings.

A growing body of research demonstrates positive life-long outcomes for students who have rich arts experiences. Music education and skills acquisition is linked to greater executive functioning skills, theater education is linked to verbal and literacy skills, dance education improves fitness and health, and the list goes on and on. All you need to do is Google “value of arts education” and you will find a veritable treasure trove of literature supporting the assertions above. Here’s one link I’ve been sharing recently:

Music: http://ed.ted.com/lessons/how-playing-an-instrument-benefits-your-brain-anita-collins

But we should also advocate for arts education for its own sake. Singing a song in three-part harmony brings a particular sense of joy.  What else feels like dancing but dance?  And the first time a child makes a mark on a canvas that represents her unique perspective, she knows power.

At the Kennedy Center’s Office of VSA & Accessibility, we offer arts education opportunities for students with disabilities in theater, visual arts, and music.  We also provide resources for teachers and parents to provide art experiences at home, enter a competition or online exhibition, or connect with experts in your community who are passionate about arts education for students with disabilities.

Students with disabilities deserve opportunities to develop their creative voices, individually and collectively.

By investing in your child’s arts education today, you are developing her capacity to embrace and shape her future.

We want to be your resource.  Reach out!

Here’s our website:  www.kennedy-center.org/education/vsa/

Or connect with us via email: vsainfo@kennedy-center.org

Sonya Robbins Hoffmann is Manager of VSA Programs at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.  


This Year in National PTA Social Media

Social media is now an integral part of our day-to-day lives. It has also helped National PTA create memorable moments and awesome social media campaigns (pun intended). Let’s look back in 2014 and see some of our social media favorites!

  • ReflectionsVideoReflections Art Program — We kicked off 2014 strong with National PTA’s oldest and most recognized program getting the most viewed YouTube video and most read blog of the year! Reflections students presented their artistic interpretations for the theme “Believe, Dream, Inspire” at the U.S. Department of Education Jan. 14.
  • 41,285 Likes — We recently reached more than 41,000 Likes on Facebook, which is a huge milestone! Our increase rate jumped 25.5%, the highest it’s ever been!
  • Teacher Appreciation Week — 2014 PTA Teacher Appreciation WeekSM was a huge hit. The Facebook cover photo was shared 343 times with 239 Likes—naming it the “National PTA Cover Photo of the Year!” Another fun fact: National PTA’s Instagram account was born on May 5. The first 10 pics, of course, were dedicated to #TeacherAppreciation.


  • Tips for Teachers on Family Engagement — Did we mention that we’re on Pinterest too? This is a cool tool for businesses and nonprofit associations such as National PTA. Our most pinned item happened to be this. Looking for more visually fun photos, ideas, tips and educational resources? Follow us and pin away!
  • TweetoftheYearFlu shots anyone? — National PTA has always been an advocate for ensuring a healthy lifestyle at school and home. According to Twitter, this is the most Retweeted tweet of the year. #GetAFluVax today!

2014 LifeLock_ShareAwesome Carousel

A lot of great things happened this year on social media and we look forward to more Twitter chats, contests and videos next year. What were some notable social media moments that you remember from National PTA’s platforms? Share your special PTA moments on your profiles.

Happy Holidays!

Catherine Llamido is the digital communications specialist at National PTA.

The Emergency Lunch Fund: What it Means for PTA and Students

Emergency Lunch FundDistrict policy in my area states that students – all students – are to be given a lunch. What I failed to realize was the quality of the lunch is far more important than being able to state, “every child will receive a lunch”.

Imagine my surprise upon discovering the number of students at my school, Samuel Tucker Elementary School, that have gone without a hot lunch on a consistent basis. If the students do not have the funds in their account to pay, then their lunch is taken and exchanged with a cheese sandwich. If a student had a negative balance–even a few cents–they again are given a cold cheese sandwich and milk. This was happening every day to too many of our students.

On top of the denigrating process of the hot lunch being exchanged for a cheese sandwich, parents of these students were still charged for the cheese sandwich lunch!  Families have to bring their account current before eating a hot lunch again. Thus, the same $5 that would buy a weeks’ worth of lunch before the negative balance, may now only last a day, if at all.

Once the PTA board became aware of the situation, we decided to take action and worked diligently with our principal to reach a solution. PTA board members met with our Principal and cafeteria staff to coordinate the creation of a PTA Emergency Lunch Fund (ELF), funded strictly by donations, which will pay for any student’s lunch when they are unable to pay and also prevent the student’s account from becoming negative.

School administration staff will monitor ELF use and take appropriate action to notify the parents if necessary and/or make appropriate referrals for families in need. Instead of a simple notice being relayed from cafeteria staff to parents through students, we created an effective notice system that removes the child from being in the middle.

The estimate to sustain the program is $900 per school year. That is the redline or the negative monthly balance of our students last year. So far, we have received several donations from staff and parents. Several Tucker students organized a “Bake Sale” during a local community yard sale, with proceeds going toward the ELF. The school’s Brownie troop presented the PTA board with a check as well to contribute. Several other families have also pledged donations and all help is greatly appreciated.

We write to share this program with you, to encourage you to ask your schools what is being done for the students that just do not have enough money to eat. These students deserve a good meal in the middle of their day.  These students deserve not to be embarrassed by having to walk holding the “free lunch” tray even though their parents are being charged for the hot lunch. Why should any child suffer that humiliation if it can be avoided?

Meet Cashel Gardner, One Of The Ambassadors Of “Everyone Matters”

Cashel Gardner is on my mind, so I thought I’d write about him.

Cashel is extremely disabled, about as disabled as one can be. He can only move a finger. He can’t breathe, eat, move, or talk on his own.

Cashel created a video (with help from his parents, of course) for Everyone Matters, the campaign I launched two years ago to advocate for EVERYONE’s right to be who they are, as they are – without shame, judgment, attack or censure.

Pretty heavy duty stuff for a kid.  But kids have a rough time today, which is one of the reasons you may be even reading this.

It’s not always a given in our society that we are all entitled to common courtesy and respect – and especially if you are disabled, someone with special needs, or don’t fit in with some narrow band of what’s comfortably acceptable.

We have been adopted in nearly a hundred schools that dynamically engages with kids with the dual message about acceptance of OTHERS as they are – and acceptance of OURSELVES, as we are.

In our campaign, we take a personal, visceral, highly-engaging approach. It’s an affirmation in a personal way about ourselves – saying, “Hey world, I’m me, and this is who I am.”   Everyone gets into it, and the teacher posts the pictures or videos (above a certain grade level) on social media, as further validation with the #IAM selfie of affirmation.

Another of our programs is “The Everyone Matters Tree,” in which EVERYONE in that school eco-system traces their hand on paper, writes their name or something about themselves, and posts it on an enormous paper tree in a public space.  When kids see that tree with hands of teachers, kids, kitchen staff, maintenance, secretaries, IT , and even a UPS deliverer – it sends a powerful message that EVERYONE matters in a way that is unique and unforgettable.

We have other activities, but you get the point.  It also tackles the thorny issue of bullying and judging but in a pro-active way, by affirming in various ways that each person is entitled to his or her personhood and feelings, and by extension – the other person.

Telling a bully to stop doesn’t necessarily stop the action.  But addressing the object of bullying, and emphasizing in visceral ways that they have the right to be who they are, and stand tall, without being shamed, gets at the same problem in a proactive, affirming – and hopefully, life-changing way.

Back to Cashel.  He is someone who has every reason to feel a sense of despair and brokenness, yet on camera he tells us, with an electronic voice, how he celebrates life, and is happy with himself as he is.  He tells us:  “Please feel complete and perfect for who you are.”

And that’s what we try to show the kids with our project and movement– every child of all physical abilities, body types, skin color, skills, personalities and ethnicities.

HeathCliff Rothman is founder of the big-tent inclusion, dignity and empowerment movement, Everyone Matters.  The social entrepreneur and former journalist’s previous campaign was a youth-engagement,  issue-oriented video competition, Film Your Issue, which was supported by major tech companies as well as Barack Obama, Walter Cronkite, Tom Brokaw and others.  



Holiday Safety: Deck The Halls And Play It Safe

DeckTheHallsJamie Schaefer-Wilson is the Executive Director of The Safety Institute.

Before you deck the halls this holiday season, take a moment to ensure you are celebrating safely.

  • Before using your holiday lights, inspect them carefully looking for loose connections, frayed or bare wires, and broken or cracked sockets. On most holiday lights available at retailers, lights with holographic green UL labels are for indoor use only, while those with holographic red UL labels can be used both in and outdoors.
  • Never throw wrapping paper into the fire. Fires started with wrapping paper can ignite suddenly, burn rapidly and intensely, and create a bigger fire.
  • A dry Christmas tree can be a potential fire hazard. Add water to your tree every day and keep it away from heat sources such as fireplaces or room heaters.
  • Be careful and follow instructions when using artificial snow spray on windows or other surfaces. These sprays can irritate lungs if inhaled.
  • Don’t let your child touch holiday lights. In many cases, electrical cords contain lead, which can rub off on your hands and shouldn’t be handled by children. You should also wash your own hands thoroughly after you handle your light sets. Additionally, don’t overload electrical outlets or run extension cords under carpets, across doorways, or near heaters.
  • Use precaution with candles. Keep candles, matches and lighters out of your child’s reach. Place them in a non-flammable holder at least a foot away from other materials. Never leave a burning candle unattended.
  • Check all toys for age appropriateness. Don’t let your toddler play with toys he receives as gifts unless you are sure they are age appropriate. Check them to confirm there aren’t any small parts or pieces that can separate and become a choking hazard.

For more information on holiday safety, recalls, safety alerts, and to answers for more of your safety questions visit the National Youth and Consumer Safety Council at www.thesafetycouncil.org

Promoting Healthy Lifestyles at Home and at School

HealthyLife2Promoting healthy lifestyles at school and at home is important, and PTA leaders can play a pivotal role in making sure that this is a continuous focus within our school communities.

At Monterey Highlands School, we worked cooperatively with the principal and other key stakeholders to establish our vision of improving healthy lifestyles at home and at school.  We then determined our objectives relating to our vision–What are the healthy lifestyles that we wanted to promote? What should we do to help promote these lifestyles? And, what programs and resources can we create, improve, and utilize to strengthen healthy lifestyles both at home and at school?

We made sure that our focus remained constant.   We incorporated healthy lifestyles at home and at school into every meeting, newsletter, agenda, minutes, communication, and activity we conducted or participated in throughout the school year.

We had some outstanding events and made great improvements.  We made a humungous salad bowl and invited our entire school community to share a healthy bite.  We conducted a school-wide jog and walk-a-thon where everyone was welcomed to attend.  We had a certified nutrition specialist present who answered questions during our PTA meeting.  We updated our safe school plan with strong community input, and we enhanced our emergency preparedness by refreshing, storing, and distributing emergency supplies both centrally and in classrooms.  We increased and improved our communication in multiple languages about the available school and community resources to help support our goal of promoting healthy lifestyles both at home and at school.  We invited all stakeholders to local and district workshops on various topics such as bullying, internet safety, and newly revised volunteer and safety procedures.

PTA leaders should make a concerted effort to work with the school administration and all stakeholders within a school community to promote healthy lifestyles both at school and at home.  PTA leaders can and should assist in making our students both healthier and safer.

George Shafer is the 2013-2014 PTA President of Monterey Highlands School, a 2014 School of Excellence. George is a husband, a dad, a full time teacher, a part time graduate student, and a PTA volunteer at the school where his children attend.  He currently serves as the PTA Parliamentarian, a member of the School Site Council, and as a District Advisory Council representative.

Does Your School Community Live Unified?

Andrea L. Cahn, Senior Director of Special Olympics Project UNIFY

texasWhen you walk through the hallways of your child’s school, does it feel as if all students are part of the fabric of the school? Is it a place of respect and appreciation for individual differences? Do all students feel a sense of belonging, have friends, and are excited to go to school every day? I have found that in most schools, while physical inclusion and curricular inclusion cover the academic needs of students, social inclusion and the engagement of all students on personal levels is still a frequent challenge. And studies show it is just as important for a student’s success. For the past six years, Special Olympics Project UNIFY has worked to address this challenge, and provide schools a powerful avenue to social inclusion.

It may surprise some of you to know that Special Olympics is much more than an event; it is an organization that uses sports to improve the lives of people with intellectual disability by creating programming that involves people of all abilities, and includes everyone. I have been at Special Olympics for 25 years, and believe me, we have evolved! Special Olympics Project UNIFY is the hallmark of this effort in the U.S. school system. We offer a social inclusion model that combines students with and without intellectual disabilities on school sports teams (Unified Sports), and broadens the experience through inclusive student clubs and school-wide initiatives. Project UNIFY creates an environment where each student is included and accepted for who they are. These students play unified by being involved in sports together, experience winning and losing together, and live unified by sharing leadership, eating lunch together, and modeling acceptance for the entire school. There is indication that this kind of activity pays dividends toward all our education goals.

Unified-Photos-1775Our evaluation reveals that students without disabilities credit Project UNIFY with helping them learn to be more patient, to compromise when working together, and to understand how their emotions and attitudes affect others around them. According to the Center for Social Development and Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston, 85% of students without disabilities stated that involvement in Project UNIFY was a positive turning point in their lives; and administrators and teachers acknowledge the role that Project UNIFY has played in reducing bullying and teasing, and creating a more inclusive climate in the school, in which students are open to and accepting of differences. Students with disabilities are making new friends and getting to try new things. Project UNIFY has helped many feel like they are truly part of the school for the first time.

How can you get Project UNIFY started in your school? Connect your school with Special Olympics. Each state and the District of Columbia has a Special Olympics Program with a support staff in place to help schools implement Project UNIFY. Below you will find links to a variety of free resources to assist you on this journey. You will discover so much more than sports. It is a way to live – unified.




Special Olympics Contacts: www.specialolympics.org/program_locator.aspx

Coaching Unified Sports Course: www.nfhslearn.com

Social Inclusion Course and Guidelines: www.socialinclusion.org

Unified Sports Resources: tiny.cc/unifiedsports

Get Into It Lessons: www.getintoit.specialolympics.org

NASSP Social Inclusion Webinar: tiny.cc/NASSPwebinar

National Association of State Boards of Education Journal,

The Standard (Social Inclusion Theme): tiny.cc/NASBE

Social Inclusion course and background: www.socialinclusion.org

Andrea Cahn has been with Special Olympics International for the past 25 years, where she currently leads Project UNIFY, the youth engagement and activation strategy that promotes school communities where all young people, as well as adult leaders, become agents of change. The program currently is in 45 states and more than 3,000 schools and reaching 3.4 million students with messages and activities that promote inclusive youth leadership and social inclusion.

Photo credits:

Couple – Unified Sports Basketball teammates, Special Olympics International

Group shot – Members of the Special Olympics Project UNIFY National Youth Activation Committee. Will Schermerhorn, Special Olympics International


My Child Has Special Needs: When Do I Start The Transition Process?

Blog_WalkingIntoSchoolAre you asking the question is it time to start thinking of where your child will go next year? When should I start this discussion? What do I need to do? Who do I talk to, where do I start? This can truly be a very scary, frustrating and intimidating time for parents.  The most important thing you can do is take yourself out of the equation and think, “WHAT IS BEST FOR MY CHILD?”

You are the best advocate for your child. As a parent of a child with special needs, you are the one person who knows your child the best. You are the one who knows what makes your child tick, the one that knows your child’s strengths, weaknesses and even what frustrates them.

Most parents of children with special needs are unaware they have a huge part in the transition of their child for the next year as well as the next milestone in their child’s life.  As a parent, you are well aware of the transition your child will make once they are leaving the high school levels or aging out of the system; but many parents are not made aware of the transition periods that take place well before your child reaches that milestone.  As a parent, you are an extremely critical piece to transition when your child moves from early start to preschool, preschool to kindergarten, and elementary to middle/junior high school, and middle/junior high to high school.  In fact if a child with special needs will be leaving one school for another school, a transition meeting should be called.

Even though these are uncertain times for you and your child, you can go into these meetings prepared by asking questions and voicing your concerns.  Always feel comfortable with writing your questions down and having space for the answers, and asking to visit various school sites and observe various teachers and their programs.  You need to feel comfortable with the transition as you are the one who will make your child feel safe and at ease with the move.

NOW is the time for you start if you haven’t already. Transition meetings should get started by early March so you have time to meet several times, visit sites, and get all the answers to your questions and more questions.  Everything should be set and Transition IEPs should be held so that you can start working with your child and preparing them for the changes to take place, especially if you have students moving on to either middle/junior high school or high school as they have schedules and transition visits to do.

Every phase of transitions through your child’s life are always difficult but some more than others.

Early Start to Preschool will be the first time many parents experience transition.  This can be the most difficult transition of all because parents and infants have an IFSP (Individual Family Service Plan), which is completely about the child and the family with all services coming into the home. Now they will transition into preschool where all services will happen at the school and not in the home.

Preschool to kindergarten transition is another transition for parents and their children as they now will go to school longer days if not all day depending on where you live.

Elementary to middle/junior high school transition can be one of the hardest for your child as they are not only changing schools with all their friends, but the familiarity of their surroundings have changed.  Also many middle/junior high schools start class schedules.

Middle/junior high school to high school transition can be overwhelming at times as the school campuses are so large.  Scheduling, classes, after school programs, clubs, and PE are all things that many students have not experienced.

This is the time you need to start looking four to five years out, two to three years out and one year out before your child leaves the district.

High school to post-secondary transition is really looking at what services are available and where your child should attend to complete the next phase of education.  Do they do a fifth year at the high school or does your child’s school district offer a post-secondary education on another campus?

As a Special Education technician that works closely with parents, I see the frustration you go through with the uncertainty of “Where will my child be going next year?” As well as from the students who come through my office as young as preschool age asking, “Why can’t I stay at my school?  I am so afraid.”

Please always remember YOU ARE THE BEST ADVOCATE for your child but you are not alone in venturing through life.  You have so many people there to help you maneuver the rollercoaster of ups and downs. You have your child’s teacher, school nurse, school psychologists, the principal, the program specialists, the Director of Special Education in your school district, but most importantly you have your family and your child.

For more information: National PTA’s Special Education Toolkit includes a guide to getting information for transitioning families of children with special needs from preschool through graduation.

Corinne Sanfilippo worked as Special Education Technician for Santa Clara Unified School District Special Education Department and now works as Administrative Secretary to the Superintendent of Santa Clara Unified School District.


Our Children Talks to Steve Perry about how to Close the Achievement Gap

OC_DecJanA product of third generation poverty, celebrated Principal Steve Perry talks about the important role that PTAs and parents play in helping to close the achievement gap among students facing educational odds. What exactly is that achievement gap? “It is an active gap, not an inherent limitation of minority and male children. Those kids who are most in need of what a great school has to offer are the least likely to have access to a great school.”

He stresses the importance of parent involvement for minority children who may go to less-than-stellar schools. “You have to support the school’s objectives by ensuring that the children come to school prepared to learn, which means doing an audit of your time and resources. Your kids value what you value, and if you value studying and preparing for school, then they will as well.”

Also in Our Children, we highlight the 46th anniversary of the National PTA Reflections program.  Since 1968, Reflections has created a stage for children in all grades across the world to express their creativity through dance choreography, film production, literature, music composition, photography and visual arts. In celebration of arts education, we showcase 46 ways to support student success in the arts.

Want to know more about the next generation of arts standards? Our Children interviews members of the National Coalition for Core Arts Standards leadership team to find out why arts education is an important part of the every child’s learning experience. “The next generation of arts standards will provide new pathways for today’s students to develop their artistic literacy and track their performance.” They share everything you should know about each arts discipline (dance, media arts, visual arts, music, and drama/theatre) in a special section of the article.

Also in this issue: Improving PTA with bylaws revisions; how Common Core literacy standards will help your kids, and spotlighting a unique Special Education program in Delaware.