Public School Is What You Make of It

Public Schools Week is March 12-16. Show your support for our nation’s public schools by sharing stories like the one below on how public schools have positively impacted your child’s life using #LovePublicEducation and #PublicSchoolsWeek.

On her first day of kindergarten, I dutifully loaded my precious five-year-old Ashley onto a big yellow bus to head to school. She was thrilled, carrying her new lunchbox and proudly showing off a backpack that was bigger than she was! She looked so small, and so brave, waving from the bus window. My eyes welled up with tears on the walk back to my house. When I walked inside I went straight to the envelope the PTA gave me to open when we attended orientation two days earlier. It said, “Open AFTER Your Child Leaves for School.” It was a bag filled with 3 things: a tissue, a tea bag and a cotton ball. The enclosed note read:

“Thank you for entrusting your child to us. We will do our best every day to keep them safe and help them grow in knowledge. After you have wiped your tears, make yourself a warm cup of tea. Hold the cotton ball in your hand and let it remind you of the gentle spirit of your child. We will be here to partner with you to grow them to their full potential.” The backside of the thoughtful note said, “volunteering in our school is a great way to be near your children.”

They didn’t have to ask me twice! If the doors were open, I wanted to be at the school—whether it was making copies, reading to different classes, playing on the ball field or serving as a lunch monitor. I quickly learned that lots of parents in my community felt the same way I did. There were so many parent volunteers at the school that they had to draw names for folks that chaperoned field trips and worked field day. PTA was booming there! I assumed every school was like that. I quickly learned otherwise.

For reasons too many and far too long ago to recount, my husband and I separated during Ashley’s kindergarten year. Our divorce was final that summer. We didn’t do everything right as divorced parents, but we both committed to ensuring that the girls knew they were loved and that this was not about them. At the beginning of each school year, I sent a note to the girl’s teachers, advising them that they lived with me, but that their Dad was an important and active part of their lives. They were free to contact either of us and were assured that any information given to one parent would be shared with the other parent. Their father and I attended teacher conferences together, and that shared commitment despite our divorce seemed to motivate the girls to excellence.

A couple years later, life changed. I met my husband, Jerry. When we decided to get married he wanted the girls and I to move to his home. That meant leaving the community where all our friends and neighbors were, and worse, it meant leaving the elementary school where the girls were thriving. I researched the school where they would relocate and didn’t see high test scores or graduation rates. There was also no evidence of a parent volunteer presence. I talked with Jerry about my concerns, and he said that if parent involvement was so important, an active PTA should be able to change everything.

He challenged me to practice what I was preaching and after our wedding, I enrolled the girls at their new school for the fall. Ashley was in the second grade, and Katie was beginning kindergarten. I started as a room mom and worked my way up to the President of their PTA. As I formed friendships with other parent volunteers, and the PTA grew in membership, I saw that school truly come to life! Parents filled the halls, and could be seen sporting spirit t-shits at every corner. We made community business partners and raised funds to compliment the learning in the kids’ classrooms. We built an outdoor classroom, supplied microscopes, hired the Chattahoochee Nature center to come do in class field trips about bats, echolocation, stalagmites and stalactites. We even helicopter-landed “Jake the Flying Tiger,” a beloved children’s book character, in for Read Across America week. The change was alive and evident. The results spoke not only in the test scores; the pride was evident in the community surrounding the school.

Both of my girls graduated at the top of their respective classes. While I am very proud of their accomplishments, I am even more proud of the network of love, support and encouragement that saw them through all their years at public school. More than money, that support network makes the biggest difference in the lives of our children.

Lisa-Marie Haygood is a member of the National PTA Legislation Committee.

Grief, Courage, Shame, Pride and Responsibility

GRIEF. My heart is heavy with GRIEF and anger over the all-too-common school shootings that cause families to experience unbearable loss and tear our communities apart. The recent shooting in our own PTSA school in Parkland, Fla. brought it close to home once again. Seventeen families lost their most precious loved ones on Valentine’s Day. As Florida PTA President Cindy Gerhardt wrote so well, “The heaviness of this horrific act has suffocated us with grief, sadness, hopelessness and hurt.”

COURAGE. We ask it of our children as they leave for school each day and participate in active shooter drills. We ask it of our educators who carry out these exercises and work to make schools as safe as they can. When they watch the news, they must wonder how many students and teachers would have died if it happened at their school. Yet they show up every day. And would stand heroically between a shooter and their students and would help and protect their peers.

SHAME. I am ashamed of all of us adults who have been unable to find solutions that will keep our children safe. I am ashamed that we can too easily turn off the news, retreat from the discord over solutions and absolve ourselves from action because no one solution solves every problem. I am ashamed that the complexity of the issue causes us to be frozen in place.

PRIDE. We feel it in the articulate voices of our high school, middle school and even elementary students who remind us of what we ask of them every day when they leave for school. They are taking action and pushing for solutions and change. This is another wave of reckoning.

RESPONSIBILITY. As parents, the burden is on us to find our own clear and urgent voice to add to the student voices we so value. We must speak up and work together to solve the school shootings and other violence in our communities to keep our children safe.

National PTA celebrates a long history of advocacy for the safety of our nation’s children and youth. National PTA believes school safety is a critical priority and that every attempt must be made to reduce violence, especially incidents involving the use of firearms. Parents, educators, community members, and policymakers must prioritize this issue to ensure a safe learning environment for all students.

National PTA has advocated for the prevention of gun violence for more than 20 years, embracing more than a dozen policies that would make a difference. These include mandatory background checks, a federal ban on the sale and possession of military-assault weapons, federal investment to study the causes and effects of gun violence and prevention programming to create a culture of safety at our schools.

In light of the recent shootings, other solutions will need to be considered. No single solution will solve it all.

But let’s get started.

Back to COURAGE. When will Congress find courage to do anything, that will increase the chance that my child or your child, will come home alive from school?

Nathan Monell is the Executive Director of National PTA. 

STEM Nights Bring Families and Experts Together to Learn about Science

Just like children don’t stop learning when the final bell rings, great teaching doesn’t stop at the end of the school day. Across the country, teachers, parents, and community members are coming together more and more frequently to host STEM nights to get families thinking about science, technology, engineering and math through interactive, hands-on, engaging activities.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is proud to support many dedicated teachers who plan and lead STEM nights at their schools. Michelle Estrada, a kindergarten teacher at Desert Hills Elementary in Las Cruses, N.M. has been hosting STEM nights in her community for seven years.

She is a recipient of the Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching (PAEMST), the nation’s highest honors for K-12 STEM teachers, which NSF administers on behalf of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.

As a Presidential Awardee in 2010, Michelle was invited to Washington, D.C., to take part in the National Recognition Events, received a signed certificate from the President and left with a $10,000 award from the National Science Foundation. When she returned to New Mexico, her experience as an awardee motivated her to continue to improve her teaching, seek out new resources for her students, and engage her local community in more collaborative and effective ways than ever before.

Sensational Science Night

In 2009, Michelle applied for the Toyota Tapestry grant,  a partnership between Toyota and the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA) that provided annual grants to science teachers across the United States. Her proposal focused on the Rio Grande, which cuts right through Las Cruces, less than ten miles away from Desert Hills Elementary. She planned a collaborative and immersive series of events for her kindergarten class composed of field experiences, hands-on activities, demonstrations by local scientists and community educators, inquiry-based experiments, and a variety of cross-curricular studies. She was awarded $10,000 to fund her project, and Sensational Science Night was born.

At the first Sensational Science Night, 30 expert-volunteers from the community came to share their knowledge and inspire students and parents to be more curious about science. Since then, the event has more than tripled in size: in 2016, 30 organizations were represented by over 100 expert-volunteers, and more than 400 participants flooded the halls of Desert Hills Elementary. They all spent their evening exploring, designing, and thinking critically with one another.

STEM Nights are unparalleled opportunities to engage the community with the local—or even national—scientific community, and let students know what it looks like to be a scientist in practice. At Michelle’s event, students were able to interact with pharmaceutical students from the University of New Mexico, chemical engineering students from New Mexico State University, local museum curators with displays from their traveling collections, local firefighters teaching fire safety and fire science, and a local Astronomy organization which provided telescopes for student use.

The National Honor Society chapter of a local high school took over an entire wing of the school and facilitated hands-on activities, launching paper rockets, creating bouncy balls and making ice cream in a bag. Michelle didn’t stop at inviting the local science community—she invited local food trucks which offered dinner options on the school grounds, donating a percentage of their sales to fund scholarships for Camp Invention, a STEM summer program at Desert Hills Elementary.

Over the years, Michelle says the name of the event has changed to keep up with its popularity. Once Sensational Science Night, the moniker shifted to Sensational STEM Night, and this year morphed again into Magnificent Sensational STEAM Night (reflecting her decision to include the arts). We’re excited to see what it will be called in 2018.

To learn about how you can honor great teachers in your community with a PAEMST nomination, please visit our website at paemst.org. Nominations for K-6 grade STEM teachers are currently open.

For resources on how to host a STEM night at your school, check out National PTA’s new STEM + Families webpage.

Dr. Nafeesa H. Owens is a Program Director of Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching Program Lead at the National Science Foundation.

It Takes a Village: Lessons on Developing the Whole Child

I know you’ve got a lot more on your plate than your next work deadline. You have to pick your kids up from swim practice; you are worried about that cough your dad had over the holidays; you are daydreaming about writing that novel. The same is true of your children—they also have more to worry about, and way more to contribute, than taking the next test.

As adults, we are able (most of the time) to strive for balance in our lives. But our children don’t have enough experience to be able to do that yet. In order for them to be successful, we have to be able to show them how to manage the stress that daily life brings.

That’s where social, emotional and academic development comes in. The Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development is spending two years talking to parents, teachers and students to explore how schools can develop the whole child. And on a site visit to Tacoma, Wash., last month, commissioners got some powerful answers.

I was there as a parent advisor to the Commission. Here are three strategies we saw in Tacoma that hold exciting potential for communities across the country:

  1. Leverage the Power of the Community

Schools have a pretty single-minded focus: educate our kids. But what leaders in Tacoma realized is that you don’t have to bend other organizations to your priorities in order to build a community effort around supporting students—you just have to let everyone play to their strengths.

Take Tacoma’s Science and Math Institute (SAMI) for example. This high school, set in the middle of Point Defiance Park, uses its working relationship with the city Parks Department to foster experiences that are truly hands on, and sometimes unexpected. My student tour guide at SAMI told me about a calculus test she recently took while seated by the aquarium’s shark tank. She said the dimness and serenity helped her focus. Students manage ongoing research projects, train to be docents at the zoo, and can work on internships that allow them to apply their learning in real-world settings.

  1. Listen to Students and Teachers

We all know teachers wear many hats. That’s why it’s critical to understand that focusing on students’ social, emotional and academic development doesn’t have to be burdensome. In fact, Tacoma teachers say the Whole Child Initiative has made them feel more supported and free to do their jobs. The initiative has slashed tardy arrivals and absences, boosted test scores and reduced discipline referrals across the district. During my visits to Tacoma’s public schools, I witnessed how teachers are valued as front-line experts and are given opportunities for leadership.

Tacoma also actively includes student voices. At each school I visited, it was clear that not only do students feel listened to, they feel empowered: empowered to resolve their own conflicts, to speak with authority and pride about their schools, and be active participants in shaping their schools’ cultures. For example, students at Jason Lee Middle School advise educators on improvements that can be made and are an active part of the rule-making process. The PTA motto of “every child, one voice” was truly on display in Tacoma.

  1. Don’t Be Afraid to Get Creative

Each child, classroom, school and district is different. What’s unique about your community? You may not have Point Defiance Park, but what about a creative partnership with that homeless shelter down the road?

Tacoma’s schools are flourishing under the Whole Child Initiative, but to replicate that success will mean stepping outside of our comfort zones of fall festivals and fun runs. It will mean focusing on how we, as parents and community members, can do that extra little bit to establish meaningful relationships with the world outside of the school walls.

Our children are complex. Let’s help make sure their educations develop all their potential.

Van Overton is the executive director of SpreadLoveABQ (an organization committed to developing creative fundraising solutions for child advocacy groups); the co-founder of Duke City Dream Lab (an organization that works to make the arts accessible to all children); a three-year member of the New Mexico PTA Board of Directors; and an active volunteer in Albuquerque schools. Van is a member of the National Commission’s Parent Advisory Panel.

Celebrate Take Your Family to School Week All Week Long

Take Your Family to School Week (Feb. 11-17) is more than just a one-night event, it is a weeklong celebration of family engagement and the great work PTAs have done to support the school community.

This year we came up with an easy way for every family to participate in celebrating PTA—Daily themes!

Maker Monday: Celebrate the arts in your school community.

  • Showcase the artwork of your 2018 Reflections participants by creating a display in the school entryway. Share pictures of students, teachers and parents enjoying the display using #PTAProud.

Try-It Tuesday: Help create healthy eating habits by encouraging families to try a new food or recipe.

  • Pick a fruit or vegetable to be an honored guest! Set-up tasting stations throughout the cafeteria where students can try your featured ingredient prepared in different ways. Share the recipes that you used with your school community.

Writer Crush Wednesday: Share your love of reading!

  • Set up an area before or after school for students to read classic love poems and to write their own. There is no better valentine then one that comes directly from the heart! Check out this list for some school appropriate poems.

Techie Thursday: Use this day to highlight the “T” in Stem

  • Share an interview with the school technology administrator or robotics coach and ask them what things they wish the greater school community new about the technology opportunities within your school. Even better, set-up an online chat where parents or families can ask the questions live!

Family Celebration Friday: Celebrate all the families in your school community!

  • Use this day to take the time to thank everyone for celebrating with us this year!

With these themes every PTA member and school can participate in Take Your Family to School Week. We cannot wait to celebrate the founding of National PTA with you all week long! Remember to use #PTAProud to show how you are celebrating Take Your Family to School Week on social media! And, Make sure to share your events with us!

Alyssa Montchal is a Programs & Partnerships Program Manager at National PTA.

4 Reasons to Attend the 2018 Legislative Conference

At our core, National PTA is an advocacy association working to improve the lives of children and families. Attending the National PTA Legislative Conference (LegCon) March 13-15 is a great way to enhance your advocacy skills to be more effective in your community. I have attended LegCon before, and each year I still find myself learning something new, or hearing a perspective I never would have encountered otherwise.

This year’s theme is “Get in the Game” to celebrate the Olympic spirit. We are excited to showcase how you can incorporate the spirit of sports, teamwork and sense of accomplishment into your advocacy work during this year’s conference.

LegCon will be bigger than ever this year! There are the top four reasons you should attend:

  1. Workshops that will help you influence education policy

At LegCon, participants will get a chance to learn from PTA leaders and experts who have used advocacy skills to improve public education in their communities, states and at the federal level. Participants will engage in interactive skills-building workshops to improve their own advocacy abilities and will go home with best practices to share within their PTA network.

  1. Discussions and networking to better understand how PTA advocates shape public policy

At last year’s LegCon, I was able to network with a lot of great PTA advocates from around the country from Alaska to Puerto Rico and even some from Europe who work with our military families. It was interesting to hear from them about their challenges in their communities and share ideas on how to improve our kids’ education. This year will be no different. I am excited to join other PTA members and learn how we can advocate more effectively in our school districts and states.

  1. Meetings on Capitol Hill with your Senators and Members of Congress

My favorite part of each LegCon is the opportunity to speak with federal policymakers about issues facing our schools and families during National PTA’s Capitol Hill Day. I was very excited to discuss these issues with members of Congress and their staff and to have them hear from us—America’s parents, teachers and community leaders—about ways to improve education. They want to hear directly from people like you who know their schools and communities best.

  1. Improved Capitol Hill Day Schedule

This year, Capitol Hill Day will be on Wednesday instead of Thursday. This new schedule will allow us to debrief and have follow-up workshops with each other on Thursday morning. The goal is for PTA advocates to walk away with even more skills and understanding on how to impact policies in their communities.

I can’t wait to “Get in the Game” and continue PTA’s legacy of advocating for every child to have the opportunity to reach their full potential. I hope you will join me and hundreds of other PTA advocates and me at this year’s LegCon.

Register here to attend the National PTA Legislative Conference.

Marques Ivey is the Vice President of Advocacy, Chair of the Legislation Committee, and member of the board of directors for the National PTA. He is married to Stacey, an educator for almost 19 years and together have three children.

It’s PTA in Pop Culture Week!

“I just saw PTA referenced in “American Housewife” on ABC!”
“Did you know that movie “Bad Moms” was about the PTA?”
The Simpsons” rerun about the PTA was so funny!”

Does any of this sound familiar? I bet you’ve heard similar coffee-talk at your PTA meetings or while chatting with other parents. PTA pops up in all sorts of places!

A few months ago, National PTA’s Executive Director, Nathan Monell, found a PTA reference in a movie. I mentioned it at a meeting and people quickly began sharing their own “PTA finds.” Before I knew it, I had a monster list of PTA references in movies, music and television shows. And thus, PTA in Pop Culture Week (Dec. 18-Dec. 22) was born.

Before we dive into our favorite clips, let’s be clear—most references are not accurate reflections of the Parent Teacher Association. (Can you tell I’m sugar-coating here.) Most dramatizations of nutty bake sales, controlling moms and iron-fisted PTA councils are purely for entertainment purposes. They’re trying to make us laugh. And sometimes, they might even be taking a tiny dig. In the end, we can take it. We’re thick-skinned here. And the PTA can totally roll with the jokes. We love a good laugh too!

Let’s begin by going back in time to the “Harper Valley PTA.” It’s probably the most notable PTA reference in Pop Culture because not only does it span a few decades but it also spans a few mediums. It first hit the radio airwaves as a song in 1968 by Jeannie C. Riley. This country megahit was re-recorded by artists like Dolly Parton (1969), Billy Ray Cyrus (1996) and Martina McBride (2004). It’s a song about scandal, miniskirts and a really tough PTA!

Not only did it make a good song, it made a good movie. In 1978 Barbara Eden (“I Dream of Jeannie”) starred in the motion picture version of “Harper Valley PTA.” (FYI, if you have 90 minutes, we found the entire movie on YouTube.) And it didn’t end there. The movie was spun off into a TV sitcom in 1981. So who thinks it’s time for a “Harper Valley PTA” reboot in 2018?

Television has definitely embraced PTA throughout the years. There was “Everybody Loves Raymond” in the ‘90s when Debra decided to reveal her updated, edgier style at a PTA meeting. (Forward 1:00 into this clip for the funniest part.) In 1974, Carol Burnett channeled a diva-tempered PTA mom as she battled for a spot in the Annual PTA Show auditions. And then in 1957—before most of us were born—Uncle Bentley juggles a PTA meeting and a date with a Hollywood starlet in a “Bachelor Father.” (Skip to 12:00 to catch the PTA part!) Can you believe that reference is 60 years old?

It’s been a real blast producing PTA in Pop Culture Week. We hope you enjoy all our finds and we encourage you to share your own using #PTAPop on social media. And while it’s fun to see PTA pop up in movies, music and television, it’s even more satisfying to know that it’s the good work PTAs around the world do that’s truly what puts us in the spotlight. Enjoy PTA in Pop Culture Week and have a wonderful holiday season!

Scott Meeks is the Communications Manager for National PTA.

Nominate a PTA or PTA Advocate Today for the 2018 Advocacy Awards!

Shirley Igo was a model of public service and volunteerism throughout her life. She was an impassioned and compassionate leader, dedicated to moving PTA forward and committed to ensuring that others would follow. In honor of her legacy, the National PTA Shirley Igo Advocate of the Year Award is presented to an individual PTA member, who through their leadership and advocacy efforts, affected federal, state or local policy priorities within National PTA’s annual public policy agenda.

As the 2017 Shirley Igo Advocate of the Year Award winner, it was my honor to attend the 2017 National PTA Legislative Conference where I spent three days in our nation’s capital.

At the conference, I was able to hear from Washington, DC influencers and get face-to-face advocacy training from experts to make my voice heard more effectively back in my community. With other advocates of the New Jersey PTA, I also had the opportunity to speak with federal policymakers about issues facing our schools and families for National PTA’s Capitol Hill Day. I was very excited to discuss these issues with members of Congress and their staff and was honored to be a part of such an historic legacy of advocacy.

This past year as I have continued my advocacy efforts on behalf of PTA, I have met so many selfless individuals and PTA groups that set out each day to move PTA forward. They work on behalf of all our children and deserve to be acknowledged for their strong commitment to PTA.

If you know of an outstanding youth or individual PTA advocate, or know of a local unit or state level PTA that has done great advocacy work, nominate them to receive an award for their efforts from National PTA! Winners will be announced in January and will get the opportunity to receive their awards at the 2018 Legislative Conference in Washington, DC and have an incredible experience like I did.

As in previous years, advocates may self-nominate themselves in the youth and individual categories. Nominations must be for efforts made in the last year and are due by midnight on Dec. 18. For more information about the 2018 Advocacy Awards, visit PTA.org/AdvocacyAwards.

Apply today and join a legacy of PTA advocates who have changed the lives of millions of students and families.

Rose Acerra is the 2017 Shirley Igo Advocate of the Year Award winner and the president of New Jersey PTA.

How will your PTA change the lives of children in 2018?

The school-year kick-off is past and holiday craziness is on the horizon. Right now it’s time to grab a pumpkin spice latte, sit back and take stock.

Did the membership year start off with a bang? Maybe a mid-year drive is in order. Plan to start right after the holidays when potential members refocus on school. What value has your PTA already delivered? What value do you plan to deliver in 2018? Call attention to your success and ask for support for the future. Position membership in your PTA as a way to support students and PTA.  Ask people to join a successful movement to improve your school community.  People want to be part of successful teams. They want to know that their dues dollars have impact. Tie PTA membership with positive results.

Will your PTA meet its goals? Now is a good time to acknowledge successes and plan next steps. No goals? It’s not too late. Gather the board and decide what can be accomplished in 2018. Focus on empowering families to support student success.  Find a community agency or organization to partner in hosting a family event. Research your school’s goals and brainstorm ways to align PTA’s efforts to achieve goals together. Concentrate on making an impact and providing value to your community.

Are a few overworked volunteers trying to do the work of many? Consider how you ask for help: “Come be part of our success” vs. “We need people” and “400 children and family members had a blast in 2017. We’re aiming at 500 this year. Help us build an even better 2018 Spring Fair” vs. “We need volunteers for the Spring Fair.” Tie volunteer opportunities to outcomes, tell people they will be part of successful events, and help volunteers feel their volunteer hours have an impact. Break down opportunities into small jobs and find ways people can help from home or with their families—look for ways to help people say, “Yes” to the opportunity.

Candy canes will soon replace candy corn and PTA thoughts will take second place to planning family gatherings and holiday celebrations. Now is the time to make plans to jump start the New Year. How will your PTA change the lives of children in 2018?

Deborah Walsh is a National PTA Service Manager. 

Update from Florida PTA: All Children are Our Children

The following was shared by Cindy Gerhardt, President of Florida PTA.

Resilience.  That is our word for this year.  We are showing the capacity to not only recover quickly from the damage and chaos that Hurricane Irma brought to our communities, but we are being propelled back into the role of caregiver and advocate.  Only 10 days after Irma made landfall, Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.  While we know that many students from the Florida Keys, where schools have been extremely damaged, have been relocated to schools in Miami-Dade, we are now seeing hundreds of families from Puerto Rico migrating into areas in Central and South Florida.  We know that they are coming with very few possessions, scarce documentation and some with little mastery of English.

Here’s our call to action.  If your school is receiving these displaced families, please be mindful of what they have been and are still going through.  Most have lost everything.  If you can, put together a welcome package with basic toiletries, school supplies, spirit t-shirts, etc. – something that will help them feel some sense of normality.  Work alongside guidance counselors and other school staff to help meet other needs that may arise.  Some may be staying in short term housing, some in shelters, some with local family members.  If possible, let’s reach out and see how we can help with food, clothing and other necessities.

In the next phase, we will be working with district personnel and state decision makers to ensure that our schools are set up for success as they absorb these new families.  We’ll encourage common sense waivers and accommodations as we move forward to navigate the day-to-day curriculum and achievement expectations already in place for our schools.

Please stay tuned for more updates as we send them, and more importantly, please keep us posted on ways you and your volunteers are helping to provide a smooth and less distressing transition for these families and their children.  We will show them that our words are true, when we say ALL Children are OUR Children!

Cindy Gerhardt
President
Florida PTA