100 Black Men of America Annual Conference: Ensuring Excellence for African-American Youth

National PTA President Otha Thornton poses with Michael J. Brown, president of 100 Black Men of America, Inc., and Curley M. Dossman, Jr., chairman of the Board for 100 Black Men of America, Inc.

National PTA President Otha Thornton poses with Michael J. Brown, president of 100 Black Men of America, Inc., and Curley M. Dossman, Jr., chairman of the Board for 100 Black Men of America, Inc.

I recently had the honor of participating in 100 Black Men of America, Inc.’s 28th Annual Conference in Florida. The focus of the event was Education in an Era of Change, Ensuring Excellence for African-American Youth. The conference brought together leaders from across the country from government, education, health and wellness, civic, and entertainment industries for empowerment and enrichment, to share best practices, and discuss issues facing youth, their families and the communities in which they live.

100 Black Men of America, Inc. is a volunteer organization of approximately 10,000 members and partners dedicated to making a difference in the lives of youth, improving our nation’s communities, and enhancing educational and economic opportunities for all African-Americans. The organization meets a crucial need by impacting underserved youth through mentoring, education and empowerment.

As part of the conference, a black-tie gala was held during which a number of awards were presented. I am honored to have been recognized with the 2014 Chairman’s Award for Parent Engagement. The award truly is a testament to our association and the efforts and dedication of all of our members to increase and strengthen family engagement in education and make a difference for the lives and futures of every child. In addition to the gala, I also participated in a panel discussion during the conference.

For more information about 100 Black Men of America, visit www.100blackmen.org.


Otha Thornton is president of National PTA.

Speaking Up for Child Nutrition Programs

 

National PTA Legislative Chair Stella Edwards and National PTA President Otha Thornton pose with Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

National PTA Legislative Chair Stella Edwards and National PTA President Otha Thornton pose with Debbie Stabenow, chair of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry

On June 12, I had the honor of bringing the voice of families and child advocates to Capitol Hill and testifying before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry at a hearing titled, A National Priority: The Importance of Child Nutrition Programs to Our Nation’s Health, Economy and National Security.

Congress passed the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act in 2010, which directed the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve the nation’s child nutrition programs. The Act requires that schools make updates to serve healthier food to students during the school day, including in a la carte lines, vending machines and school stores. In exchange, Congress increased the reimbursement rate schools receive for each meal served. The Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry currently is considering the reauthorization of child nutrition programs, which is due in 2015.

Strengthening programs that promote healthy school environments and ensuring that all children have access to critical nutritious food options has been a longtime priority for National PTA. It is essential that improvements continue to be made as high quality national nutrition programs are critical to the future of our children and also our country.

Following is the testimony I gave before the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry during the hearing:

Chairman Stabenow, Ranking Member Cochran, committee members, and my fellow distinguished panelists, I am honored to have the opportunity to speak before you today on behalf of the over four million members of the National Parent Teacher Association (PTA). With more than 24,000 local units, PTA flourishes in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Department of Defense schools in Europe. 

I currently serve as the President of the National PTA, an elected volunteer position I assumed in June 2013. In addition to my involvement with National PTA, I have been active in state and local PTAs in Georgia, Maryland, Texas, Michigan and Kaiserslautern, Germany. I am currently employed as a senior operations analyst with General Dynamics at Fort Stewart, Georgia and am a retired United States Army Lieutenant Colonel. Most importantly, I have over two decades of experience as a father to my two wonderful children with my wife Caryn – Candice and Tre. 

PTA was founded in 1897 and is the oldest and largest volunteer child advocacy association in the United States. PTA’s legacy of influencing policy to protect the education, health, and overall well-being of children has made an indelible impact in the lives of millions of children and their families.  This legacy includes the creation of kindergarten classes, a juvenile justice system, child labor laws, and mandatory immunizations for school children.  Our mission is to be a powerful voice for every child.

With regard to today’s hearing, one of the fundamental purposes of PTA is to preserve children’s health and protect them from harm. PTA has been at the table from the beginning – piloting a hot lunch program in schools in the 1920’s that led to PTA’s advocacy for a national school lunch program and each subsequent reauthorization of the Richard B. Russell National School Lunch Act.       

Most recently, PTA and our coalition partners fought for passage of the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, which, as you know, made significant updates to our nation’s school nutrition programs. PTA viewed this as both a win for kids and parents because parents knew that – for the first time – no matter what our kids purchased in the cafeteria, it was going to be good for them. And as the primary decision-makers in our kids’ lives, it also provided us – parents – a stronger role through Local Wellness Policy development, implementation and evaluation. And as I always say, “if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.”

I mention these past accomplishments not only to underscore PTA’s commitment to the well-being of our nation’s children, but also to provide a historical context for where we are today.  We have made a commitment to our children for over 70 years to do right by them in the cafeteria, and we cannot turn our backs now.  I know some of my fellow panelists will address the reality our nation’s obesity crisis as it relates to our overall health and national security, so as a PTA leader and father, I am here today to tell you that parents and families are committed to working together to ensure the continued success of our nation’s child nutrition programs.

So where are we today? Schools are making exceptional progress in the nutritional quality of the meals they are serving to our kids. There have been challenges along the way, but that’s to be expected. We’re parents after all! When is the last time you changed up the rules for your kids in the interest of their well-being and your kids were happy about it? Anyone?

And I truly believe that way we approach school meals will not only instantly impact our kids, but also our families.

As partners in the school building, PTA and parents understand that there are certain challenging realities – there’s never enough time, seldom enough money and often times minimal resources. But that has never and can never be a free pass to not do what is best for our kids. For parents, it means that we need to step up to the plate and support our schools – the board, the administration, the school food service, the teachers and the students -  to make sure that school meals are successful.

And that means having a seat at the table and finding solutions to the challenges. Do we need updated kitchen equipment to serve fresh foods? Well – how are we going to secure funding? Do we need volunteers so breakfast can be served in the classroom? Well – let’s get some parents or grandparents together. Do we need to taste test some new items? How can we help? Do we need to adjust our fundraising practices? Let’s do this. Our kids don’t have enough time to eat lunch?  How can we solve this problem? We can do this – together. It may take a little bit of time and a lot of effort, but we can do this. 

In closing, I respectfully ask all committee members to keep in mind that we make decisions in every other part of the school based on what is best for our students’ success – and the cafeteria should be no different. I commend the committee for looking into these programs and understanding their critical importance for doing the right thing for all of our students.

After all, the nutritional needs of our children remain the same whether they live in Iowa or Georgia.  It is impractical to force parents to fight for access to healthier school foods one school at a time, reinventing the wheel while facing the same obstacles at each and every turn. High quality national nutrition programs ease this burden, while still allowing for a great deal of local control over the implementation of the programs. 

Once again, I would like to thank the committee and all of the other panelists for engaging in this topic, which is critical to the future of not only our children, but our country.  Make no mistake, the decisions made during this reauthorization will impact our schools, our hospitals, our economy, our military, our homes and, most importantly, our kids. 

PTA members and families play an important role in helping schools implement improved meal and snack offerings. Working together at the federal, state and local levels, we can find solutions to the challenges to support our schools and ensure the continued success of our nation’s child nutrition programs, which is critical for students’ success. If you would like to reach out to Congress about supporting nutrition guidelines for school meals, visit our PTA Takes Action page today: http://cqrcengage.com/npta2/app/write-a-letter?9&engagementId=52674.

To view a recording of the Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, visit www.ag.senate.gov/hearings.


Otha Thornton is president of National PTA.

Dr. Maya Angelou: Remembering One of the Most Influential Authors, Teachers of Our Time

Maya AngelouOn May 28, the world said goodbye to one of the most influential poets, authors, teachers and philanthropists of our time, Dr. Maya Angelou.

National PTA had the honor of having her as a speaker at the association’s 2008 National Convention. Her passion for education, and the wellbeing of all children, was remarkable and steadfast.

Dr. Angelou was known for her countless works of literature that told not only her own life stories, but uplifted and inspired people around the globe. In addition to being an author for such poems as “Phenomenal Woman,” “Still I Rise” and numerous books, she was also an actress, professor and humanitarian. President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2011.

I can remember reading her autobiography, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” as a child and the lasting impact her story made on my life. I also will never forget watching her in the American epic, “Roots.” She was an awesome actress who always played positive and invigorating roles.

It is with a saddened heart that everyone at National PTA says farewell to the true epitome of a phenomenal woman, Dr. Maya Angelou.


Otha Thornton is president of National PTA.

The 60th Anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education: Remembering When Parents Stood Up for Change

Otha_Headshot_SMIt started as a whisper. But the injustice taking place in 1954 to African-American school children in Topeka, Kan., didn’t stay quiet for long. It took Oliver L. Brown, a welder for the Santa Fe Railroad, to stand up and call out an education system that wasn’t integrated and wasn’t fair. His request was simple: He wanted his 7-year-old daughter Linda to attend a nearby school designated as white-only instead of being bused across town to an all-black Monroe Elementary School. He instead created a movement that reverberated all the way to the Supreme Court and culminated with the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision, which declared “separate but equal” education unconstitutional.

PTA was there, immediately taking a stand supporting school integration, a move that cost the association some three-million members. Unfazed, these courageous mothers put pressure on all states to integrate. They called it unification. They were ridiculed for their position, but knew that history would be on their side. A few years later, PTA merged with the National Congress of Colored Parents and Teachers Association (who had also taken a lead role in supporting Brown and others fighting across the country for school equality) to form what we now know as National PTA.

Today, 60 years later, as the first African-American male president of America’s oldest and largest child advocacy association, I continue to look back in awe at the example set by PTA then and now.

The anniversary of the Brown decision is an important time to reflect on education today and redouble our nation’s efforts to ensure equality for all students across the country. While progress has been achieved in the years following the ruling, inequalities continue to exist in American schools. It is critical that parents, teachers, administrators, elected officials, and business and community leaders work together to make meaningful changes to ensure that all children have access to a high quality education and that every child has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

That means not diverting public funds currently spent on public K-12 education to private or sectarian schools. At the federal level and in states across the country, legislation is being considered that would do just that—depriving students of rights and protections they are awarded in public schools. These desperately-needed resources should continue to be invested in public schools that serve all students regardless of economic status, gender, religion, prior academic achievement, disability and behavioral history.

Equality for all students means supporting state initiatives like the Common Core State Standards, which would raise the bar in all schools and will go far in helping every student receive a high quality education that prepares him or her for success upon graduation from high school. The Common Core State Standards increase rigor in every school and provide consistency across the country, no matter a student’s zip code or socioeconomic status. With the standards, we have a tremendous opportunity to ensure that a high school senior in Alabama receives the same quality education as a senior in Colorado and that both students graduate prepared for college or the workforce and are able to compete in the global economy.

I have continued National PTA’s legacy of speaking up to ensure that all students are treated fairly and have access to learning opportunities that support their success. In the fall of 2013, National PTA launched a campaign, titled Every Child in Focus, to celebrate the achievements and identify the disparities within diverse populations. As the demographics of our nation’s schools continue to shift, each month National PTA spotlights the educational challenges surrounding a particular group and provides resources and advocacy tools to help school communities embrace diversity and inclusion as well as understand and address the unique needs of every child. National PTA also works with our country’s leaders to help tackle issues facing each highlighted group.

In the 1950s, PTA was at the forefront on questions of nationality, race, culture and group relations in all sections of the country and the adverse impact divisions between groups had on children and youth. Now, the association is standing up for investments in public education and higher, consistent academic standards, and it continues to champion the importance of equal opportunity for all children.

The Brown v. Board of Education decision was a turning point in the history of our nation. And this turning point was the result of a parent who spoke up for a truly equal chance at quality education for all children, and associations like PTA that supported his fight.

Educational inequalities helped spur the Civil Rights Movement, and it continues to be the civil rights issue of our time. With the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, it is critical to reaffirm our commitment to speak up and take action to ensure that every student receives a world class education that enables him or her to reach his or her full potential.


Otha Thornton is president of National PTA.

A Parent’s Praise for Common Core

The following blog post was originally posted on Foxnew.com on May 9, 2014. To view the original article, click here.

Otha_Headshot_SMPicture this: you are a seventh grader whose father is in the military. You and your sister have gotten used to moving every couple of years, based on your father’s assignments. You do your best to fit in at a new school and make friends. But your parents wonder whether the school you left provided you with an education equal to your new one.

As a retired Army officer, I know what it’s like to have to research the quality and competitiveness of a state’s educational offerings. Now I serve as the president of National PTA (Parent-Teacher Association), and I can definitely say that lack of consistent educational standards and accountability are doing a disservice to our children.

I support the Common Core Standards. It has been very disappointing to read criticisms from Erick Erickson and a host of others who are reacting to parts of the program instead of looking at its entirety.

The fact is, experts from 48 states were involved in drafting the standards, which were also shaped by more than 11,000 public comments. The standards address only the core competencies of English and math and are in no way meant to encompass all of the subjects we expect schools to teach.

But I strongly disagree with his assessment of the Common Core based not just on my own research but from the feedback National PTA has gotten from millions of parents and teachers.

In fact, recent efforts by our association that reached 3 million parents electronically and included face-to-face conversations with 60,000 more parents indicate that 87 percent of those we spoke with support the Common Core.

National PTA represents millions of children in the United States and at Department of Defense schools abroad, and we are uniquely positioned to interact daily with hundreds of thousands and parents and educators. What we hear from both groups is overwhelming support for the Common Core because students are gaining a more substantive understanding of what they are studying.

There is consistency not just among school districts but throughout states – and students, parents and educators all have confidence that high academic standards extend beyond state borders. Finally, we can have assurance that a high school senior in North Carolina is receiving the same quality education as a senior in Colorado.

The most commonly repeated myth about Common Core is that the standards were developed in secret and forced onto the states. This is completely false. The federal government had no role in developing the standards. Forty-five states adopted the standards in a manner consistent with state laws, which are generally developed by state Boards of Education.

Last December, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development released the results of its 2012 worldwide testing of 15 year-old students in mathematics, science and reading literacy. The United States scored slightly above average in reading, average in science, and below average in math. This is clear proof that whatever “standards” were in place before Common Core were not working.

As a nation, we have very high expectations for our children. We expect that their grade-school and high-school educations will provide them a foundation for success in their lives.

We do our children a disservice not to couple those high expectations with meaningful assessment and accountability measures. The Common Core standards are not a curriculum – they are benchmarks that every state-developed curriculum must meet.

I recently heard from one of our members, a veteran first-grade teacher in Ohio who has taught under both the former method and Common Core.

Her experience with Common Core has been significantly better for her students. As she related, the Common Core standards do not force her to teach in a way that might not be beneficial for young learners. Instead, she has the flexibility to design lesson plans instead of being restricted to pre-planned lessons.

During February, her students wrote about significant African-American historical figures using narrative writing – a high-reaching goal for such young students but one in which their teacher said they excelled. In fact, this teacher said her students are writing better pieces now than they ever have due to the high standards and flexibility of the Common Core.

My children received an excellent education in all of the schools they attended. With Common Core, all parents can be assured that their children will receive similar excellence in their schools. The many critics of Common Core focus on myths that have no basis in reality. To paraphrase what we all learned in kindergarten, if you can’t speak the truth, then at least stop spreading misinformation.

Otha Thornton is president of National PTA and a member of the Georgia Partnership for Excellence in Education.

 

Why I Appreciate Teachers

Otha_Headshot_SMThis week is Teacher Appreciation Week. It is a time to appreciate and celebrate those teachers in our lives who go the extra mile.  It means so much to parents when educators take special interest in their children’s success, and give the time and attention necessary to see them reach, and surpass, their goals. We know that it is not always an easy feat, but it is definitely necessary. This week, and every day of the year, we thank you for all of your hard work. Without you, the academic success of our youth would not be possible.

I had the honor of attending a special White House ceremony last week in which President Obama announced the National Teacher of the Year. And while there was technically only one winner—Sean McComb from Maryland—in my eyes, they were all winners. We can all be proud of the distinguished leaders that made the final cut. They reaffirm my belief that America’s public school system is the absolute best in the world and is in great hands with passionate, bright energetic teachers leading the way.

As National PTA president, I have also used this week to think and reflect on teachers who have made a difference in my life. One in particular that immediately came to mind was my eleventh grade Advanced Placement European History Teacher, Mr. Ed Thiel. He indeed was one of the teachers that had a profound impact on my educational experience. His passion for teaching and skillful manner in educating our young minds impacted generations of young men and women. His methods transcended the boundaries of a small town and helped us to see our large world from our small town in Elberton, Georgia. He was an encourager and sought the best in every student.

Even to this day, I can hear his voice after I attempted to answer one of his thought-provoking questions. “So, Mr. Thornton, why is that so?” he would ask. “Do you accept that fact as the truth in history, or is it someone else’s version of the truth?” he would follow. His Socratic and philosophical approach to teaching influenced generations of students to dig deeper and think broader on history and the impact that it had on our world.

Mr. Thiel made a very powerful impact on my life. He would spend the first 10-15 minutes of each class discussing current events, which I used during my tenure as an assistant professor years later at Michigan Technological University. His approach of challenging our young minds and questioning everything that we were ever taught helped us eager learners foster critical thinking skills. This gift of cultivating minds to think critically and look at history from different perspectives was priceless in our education.

So today, I salute Mr. Ed Thiel for his impact and exceptional example in the teaching profession along with the countless other teachers around the world who have made it their mission to educate our children.


Otha Thornton is president of National PTA.

Families – An Essential Ingredient for Student Success and Excellent Schools

Otha_Headshot_SM

National PTA President Otha Thornton

Researchers Keith Robinson and Angel L. Harris recently released the results from a study on family engagement. The findings of the study appear to challenge the traditional view of the importance and positive impact of family engagement on children’s academic achievement. Actually, the findings highlight a lot of what is already known about effective family engagement. It’s the type of engagement that matters the most when it comes to student achievement.

Robinson and Harris assert that family engagement activities including observing a child’s class, helping students choose high school courses and helping children with homework do not improve student achievement. Existing research, however, demonstrates that children do best if parents play a variety of roles in their learning. When parents engage a number of ways, students attend school more regularly, earn better grades, enroll in higher-level programs, have higher graduation rates, and are more likely to enroll in postsecondary education (Henderson, A., & Mapp, K. (2002). A new wave of evidence: The impact of school, family, and community connections on student achievement).

In a 2010 study on school improvement, illustrated in the book Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, family engagement was identified as one of five essential supports for school turnarounds. The seven-year study specifically evaluated school improvement in low-income elementary schools in urban Chicago. The researchers found that elementary schools with strong family engagement were 10 times more likely to improve in math and four times more likely to improve in reading than schools weak on this measure. The study demonstrates that, for school improvement to be successful, family engagement must be an integral part of the process.

Existing research also shows that no matter a family’s income or socioeconomic background, family engagement is an essential ingredient for student success.

The Impact of Family Engagement

Family engagement is not limited to helping children with homework, attending meetings at school and checking in with teachers. It also encompasses advocating with local school boards and state and federal government to ensure schools have the resources they need to provide a world class education to every student.

As the leader of the nation’s oldest and largest child advocacy association, I have spoken with parents, teachers and administrators across the country and seen firsthand the positive impact of family engagement on children’s academic achievement.

“Nobody knows my son better than I do, and I can advocate for him and be the support and the voice that he needs. Working together with his teachers, we make a stronger team on his behalf. I want to know what is going on in my son’s classroom, and I think it is important that his teachers know what is going on at home. Together, we provide him with the support he needs to excel,” said parent Jenni Brasington of Chandler, Ariz.

“Parents, school staff and students working together have moved our school from a C rated school to a B rated school. And our PTSA provides resources and programs, like a Career and College Night and Teen Safe Driving Program, that have changed students’ lives. We can’t do what we do without positive family engagement in our school,” said Kathie Green, parent and co-president of Northrop PTSA in Fort Wayne, Ind.

“When parents have the information they need to navigate complicated educational systems, support their child’s learning outside of the classroom and feel like a valued partner with educators, children grow and are successful. We’ve also heard from teachers who have a renewed energy for the profession when they successfully connect with families and build positive relationships,” stated D’Lisa Crain, administrator for Washoe County School District in Reno, Nev.

Building Effective Family-School Partnerships

Even Robinson and Harris agree that some forms of family engagement do have a positive impact on children academically; it depends on the ways in which families are engaged.

Recognizing the important role families play in student achievement and school improvement, the Department of Education recently released the Dual Capacity-Building Framework for Family-School Partnerships. The framework is designed to support schools and districts nationwide in effectively engaging families. The model encourages schools to link student learning to family engagement through meaningful activities that are tied directly to curriculum or student achievement efforts.

It is critical that meaningful partnerships are established between families and schools in every district and every school. The National PTA Standards for Family-School Partnerships provide a clear path for what parents, schools and communities can do together to support student success.

And it is important that family engagement strategies are tailored to meet the unique needs of every family.

I believe in the power of family engagement and the importance of family-school partnerships to help every child succeed academically and reach his or her full potential. It is my hope that even more parents take the time to get involved as it is proven to make a difference for children, schools and communities.

Otha Thornton is president of National PTA, a nonprofit association dedicated to being a powerful voice for all children, a relevant resource for families and communities and a strong advocate for public education. In addition to leading National PTA, Thornton is a senior operations analyst with General Dynamics and a retired United States Army Lieutenant Colonel.