Meeting the Education Funding Needs of American Indian Children

National PTA’s Every Child in Focus campaign seeks to highlight every child in our education system, and November is the month of the American Indian Child. As a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, I advocated in Washington, DC for several years on behalf of my Tribe. During my tenure, no issue was more important than ensuring an equitable education for Cherokee students. Joining the National Indian Education Association (NIEA) in 2012 to serve all Native students, I now work to guarantee their needs are addressed at the federal level, as well as in state and local governments.

Unfortunately, while the 116,000 Native students in my home state of Oklahoma are more likely to be proficient or advanced in mathematics and reading than those in other states, Native students overall are only graduating high school at a rate of 77% as compared to 86% for the majority population nationally. Out of those who do graduate, preparedness levels are disturbingly low as only one in four high school graduates are college-ready in math and one in three are prepared in reading.

Working to reverse the disparaging statistics facing Native students is fulfilling, but often overwhelming. Not because our students underachieve, but because the federal and public education systems serving those students have failed to adequately address their academic, familial, and cultural needs. Those same systems will only continue to undermine our students as draconian budget reductions under sequestration disproportionately affect our communities.

While education policy reform must increase tribal and family engagement in Native-serving education systems, sequestration – or the $1.2 trillion in automatic across-the-board federal budget reductions – is the single most important factor currently affecting our people. Critical Native education programs that increase familial involvement and address other academic needs are getting their feet taken out from under them by the federal government.

Sequestration reduced Head Start programs by $414 million in 2013, with Indian Head Start programs losing approximately $12 million. Nationwide, Head Start cuts equated to 57,000 fewer children served and more than 18,000 staff members suffering pay cuts or the loss of their jobs. As a key early education program, Head Start is instrumental for increasing Native family engagement in the earliest years of a child’s education. Such reductions will only decrease the ability for Native families to engage and assist their child as they progress through school. Additionally, Impact Aid funds that often provide a majority percentage of funding (in some cases, as much as 80 percent of an overall budget) to over 710 schools serving Native students were reduced by $67 million.

As outlined in an October 2013 report from the National Association of Federally Impacted Schools (NAFIS), sequestration forced school districts to reduce staff, cut after-school programs, forgo necessary construction projects, and postpone vehicle maintenance, putting children at risk. While some tribes have the ability to supplement the budget reductions, not every community has the resources available, nor is it their role, to reduce sequestration’s impacts. Even as some communities invest to maintain funding levels, as sequestration continues, their ability to assist local budgets will decrease over the long term as short-term measures are exhausted.

As cuts increase, Native communities and schools cannot expect to reverse the trends highlighted in the Education Trust’s recent report, The State of Education for Native Students. The achievement gap will only widen as education programs and schools disproportionately reliant on federal funds have their budgets increasingly constrained. Native students – those who need equity in educational excellence most – will go unserved.

As political bickering in Washington continues over the 2014 budget and the healthcare overhaul, those focused on partisan sound bites are ensuring the troubling statistics regarding Native students will persist no matter how hard Native communities and advocates work to reverse them.  As an advocate for Native students, I call on all tribes and Native education stakeholders to strengthen our resolve and voice our anger over sequestration and the failure of the federal government to uphold its trust responsibility to Native education.

As PTAs across the country seek ways to engage Native families, I call on my fellow education advocates can help this effort by ensuring that Native students are highlighted in education reform initiatives during this year’s Native American Heritage month and each month thereafter. Only through our coordinated efforts will Washington hear our calls to protect America’s most vulnerable populations. We must work together to compel Congress and the Administration to make sure Native students have equal access to a fully-funded education system that prepares them to succeed academically and become the future leaders who will ensure that Native communities thrive.

Members of both National PTA and the National Indian Education Association can take action against the sequester cuts by visiting National PTA’s Takes Action website and sending a message to Congress! Help make your voice heard in Congress today!

Clint J. Bowers currently serves in Washington, DC as the Policy and Research Associate for the National Indian Education Association and is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, located in Oklahoma.


ENGAGE! A Need for a Common Definition

DefinitionThis week, one of our state leaders contacted our office to ask for a simple definition of family engagement. This reminded me of one of the biggest challenges in this field: the lack of a common definition. Many people I worked with in the past defined family engagement as how many parents attended school events or volunteered in the school building. This type of “head count parent involvement” used to be the norm. Fortunately, a large body of research has opened our eyes!

We now know that the things families do at home with their children have the biggest impact on how well children do in school. It’s great if families can come to school and participate, and I hope that all of them do, but they can still be engaged even if they don’t! And in this day and age of hectic schedules and multiple jobs, some families can’t! That doesn’t mean they don’t care about their children or that they won’t do what they can to support their children’s education.

Our job is to promote a common definition so we can all work toward the same goals. The National PTA definition of family engagement is:

  • A shared responsibility in which schools and other community agencies and organizations are committed to engaging families in meaningful and culturally respectful ways, and families are committed to actively supporting their children’s learning and development.
  • From cradle to career, continuous across a child’s life, spanning from Early Head Start programs to college and career.
  • Across contexts, carried out everywhere that children learn – at home, in pre-kindergarten programs, in school, in after-school programs, in faith-based institutions, and in community programs and activities.

Once we are all speaking the same language, it will be even easier to help ENGAGE!


ENGAGE! is a weekly column on Family Engagement written by Sherri Wilson, Senior Manager of Family and Community Engagement at the National PTA. Sherri is the former Director of the Alabama Parent Information and Resource Center and is currently responsible for developing and implementing programs related to family and community engagement at the National PTA.

Every Child in Focus: Aiming the Lens in Chicago

As National PTA’s focus on the Urban Child for the month of October came to a close, there was one additional stop that we wanted to make on the information train: Chicago, IL. The Illinois PTA and Chicago Region created an opportunity for PTA leaders, parents and community residents and leaders to come together and have a dialogue focused on strategies for family engagement as a means to address the violence plaguing the city of Chicago. PTA National Service Representative Nore Hare was in attendance and says the event was certainly a success.


One Voice: Tell us a little bit about the event. What was it?

Nore: The facilities of Black Star Program hosted an open dialogue with parents, PTA leaders and the community as a whole to discuss strategies for family engagement and the impact it might have on the violence in Chicago. There was a predominately male board of panelists including our very own National PTA president, Otha Thornton. Having such a strong male presence was very encouraging.


One Voice: Describe for us the overall experience. How was the turnout of attendees?

Nore: The turnout was great. There was an opportunity for interested parties to RSVP, however, there was an overflow of people who did not RSVP but still made it to the event. In a space with the capacity of about 75-100 people, the place ended up pretty full with 60+ parents in attendance. There was definitely more patrons than we were expecting. In addition to the great turnout, the crowd participation was enlivening but the time crunch was quite paralyzing, which limited some of the topic coverage.


One Voice: What were the key messages presented?

 Nore: One key message talked about engaging more families in every facet of communication, school and communities. This helps bridge the gaps of misunderstanding. Another key message was making sure that the audience knew that PTA is a proven model to success in many ways. We also informed them about the Every Child in Focus campaign and its importance along with showing parents what family engagement looks like. Our last-and one of the most important-key messages was reinforcement of NPTA’s mission. It is imperative that they know what we stand for and what our goals are as an organization.


One Voice: How can these messages be implemented by those who were in attendance?

 Nore: They can join the PTA, volunteer and get engaged in kids’ schools. Parent and community involvement is the only way some of these problems that the children face are going to get resolved. Parents can also participate in other dialogues at the local levels and attend legislative events at the state level so that they can be informed about what is going on and take action on those things that are not quite right or unfavorable to the education and well-being of their child.


One Voice: How can other states and PTA units get involved with Every Child in Focus?

 Nore: The number one way they can get involved is to understand the vision and mission of ECIF. Once they are familiar with that and understand the purpose of the campaign, then can help host an event. There are numerous, creative ways to do that such as youth summits, parent cafes, etc. They just have to come up with ideas that cater to the audience they are trying to reach.


One Voice: What tools and resources were provided?

Nore: We provided an urban dialogue plan of work that each family can use to set plans and goals for their home to improve family engagement. There was “Why PTA?” information available about the association and all that is has to offer. We also provided membership card so people had the ability to join the PTA right there on the spot. Other resources included information about how to engage where you are and attendance of essential community members such as police officers, business owners and an alderman to answer any questions they may have.

Don’t Let the Holidays Derail Your Healthy Lifestyle

Healthy_LifestylesNovember is a great time of the year, with the leaves changing and our attention turning to the hustle and bustle of the holiday season.  This month is also National PTAs Healthy Lifestyles Month – a time when PTAs are encouraged to celebrate health and wellness in their schools and communities.

Many PTAs may think: “How can I possibly think about promoting healthy eating and physical activity during a time of year that brings families together to eat lots of delicious food, watch football, and stay warm and cozy inside?”  Families may think: “It’s simply not possible to eat healthy or have time to exercise until after the New Year.”  And, everyone may think: “Healthy food tastes bad and exercising is too hard.”

Being committed to health and wellness doesn’t mean being the food or exercise police, serving tasteless meals, or depriving your family of the treats that make the holidays so special and fun.  It means creating an environment both at home and at school, every day, that makes the healthy choice the easy choice for our kids.  It’s about balancing our calories and moving our bodies.

PTAs across the county are showing their commitment to health and wellness by participating in Fire Up Your Feet, organizing community turkey trots, and hosting healthy cooking classes for families, to name a few.  How can this commitment be continued on Thanksgiving, a day dedicated to overeating and napping on the couch in a turkey slumber? The answers may be easier and more enjoyable than you think, and can be applied to everyday, not just the holidays.

  1. Before you head to the grocery store, plan your Thanksgiving meal together as a family.  Try to follow the My Plate  guidelines, where half of your plate is fruits and vegetables and the rest will be divided between protein and whole grains.  Here’s a great side dish recipe.
  2. Once dinner is ready to be served, set up all of the food in the kitchen versus having all of it on the table. This helps prevent people from “grazing” or getting another plate full of food when they’re already full.
  3. Before you watch football on TV, play a game of touch football outside as a family.  If it’s snowing, build a snowman.  If you’re stuck indoors, have a dance competition.

For more ideas for how to celebrate Healthy Lifestyles month, visit

I am so thankful for all that you do to keep our kids healthy and safe, and I wish you a very happy holiday season.

Heather Parker is the Senior Manager of Health & Safety for National PTA in Alexandria, VA. Contact Heather at

ENGAGE! What Do Lexington, KY and Rochester, MN Have in Common?

UrbanNetworkThe answer? Urban Network Teams!

In October, I was fortunate to attend meetings conducted by two of our National PTA Urban Family Engagement Network teams. My first stop was the 16th District in Lexington, KY. The Lexington team is led by James Brown and includes representatives from local PTAs, the United Way, Fayette County Public Schools, Head Start, NAACP, and the Urban League. After getting to know the team over delicious Hot Browns, we went to the local library to meet the parents participating in the program. At the event, parents learned about the value of engaging males in education and leadership. During the event, the team shared a video that really connected family engagement to student success. The parents decided that their two top concerns were engaging more families and advocating for more diversity among teachers.

My next stop was Rochester, MN. The team, led by Deborah Seelinger, includes representatives from the area council PTA, Rochester City Schools, United Way, Head Start, and the local diversity council. They are implementing their project in partnership with the local Head Start and we joined them at the local Boys and Girls Club to meet the families participating in their program. The topic of the meeting was parent rights and responsibilities and, although all of the parents attending were Head Start parents, many of them had kids who were also attending local schools. During the session, parents learned about how to have effective parent teacher conferences. They actually role-played a great conference with the local district’s curriculum director! Parents also learned about the chain of command and how they can use it to solve problems at school. The entire group participated in problem-solving, using a real-life situation that one parent was having with their child’s bus driver!

National PTA has Urban Network teams in 15 cities. These local teams are passionate and deeply committed to improving the educational outcomes of all children through effective family engagement. For more information on the Urban Network, please visit

ENGAGE! is a weekly column on Family Engagement written by Sherri Wilson, Senior Manager of Family and Community Engagement at the National PTA. Sherri is the former Director of the Alabama Parent Information and Resource Center and is currently responsible for developing and implementing programs related to family and community engagement at the National PTA.


Give it Time: Common Core Results

CommonCore_Blog2It is very discouraging to me that states are currently considering and debating on reversing their decision to adopt and implement the Common Core State Standards. Many people are speaking out against Common Core State Standards, but most of the critics are not in classrooms and have never been in a classroom. To gain a true understanding of whether the Common Core Standards are effective and provide our students with a rigorous education, teachers and other education professionals should be consulted.

Teachers are on the frontlines implementing and assessing the standards day in and day out, and as an educator, I have seen the positive effects of the standards. We have become a nation that expects immediate gratification; wanting positive results now. All eyes have been on Kentucky because we were the first to adopt, implement, and assess the standards and our test scores dropped in the first round of tests (which was expected due to the increase in rigor). It is very encouraging to see the upward progress of test scores following the second round of testing, but we also have to realize that positive increases in achievement will take time. It will take several years before we will see the true, long lasting benefits of Common Core State Standards. Students have to be given a fair chance to learn and master standards to show proficiency and this will not be done in one year. As educators and parents, we know that rushing a child does not make them accomplish tasks faster or accurately.

As a teacher, I have noticed improvements in student achievement. Through formal and informal data collection and analysis, I have observed student growth after implementing Common Core State Standards. I am a firm believer and supporter of Common Core; not because I am a Republican or a Democrat, but because I see that the standards are best for our students.

Utilizing the standards allows educators to do what they went to college to do: teach. One of the oppositions to the Common Core is that teachers are being told what they have to teach. But this is not new; teachers have always been given state standards to follow and must address those standards throughout the year. The Common Core Standards are the same; they do not tell teachers how to teach, but rather what to teach. In fact, under the Common Core Standards teachers have even more freedom in their classrooms. Educators are no longer locked into teaching from a box or to a multiple choice, standardized test.

Common Core State Standards are NOT curriculum; they do not come in a box, they do not come scripted in lessons. The Common Core State Standards are standards; they clearly state what students should master by the end of the school year. Teachers are allowed to address the standards in ways that meet the needs of the students within their classroom. The resources and curriculum that one teacher uses may not be the same resources and curriculum that a teacher in the next state, next county, next school, or even down the hall uses to bring students to mastery. As a result of this individualized approach, students are receiving best practice instruction that is tailored to their learning needs.

Consistency is the key; constantly changing standards will only make our education problem worse and increase the amount of time that will be needed to bring about positive growth. Collaboration and support is what is required to increase student achievement. If the time spent arguing, debating, and politicizing  the Common Core State Standards was spent on supporting teachers, collaborating with parents, and locating resources to increase achievement, every student across the country would benefit and we would begin to realize the larger increases in student achievement that we are currently arguing over.

Heather McGovern is a teacher with Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville, Kentucky. As part of her job, Heather works closely with school administration and classroom teachers to use Common Core State Standards and researched based interventions to increase student achievement. She also serves on the 15th District PTA Kentucky Core Academic Standards team as a teacher representative to educate parents about the Common Core Standards. She has a Bachelor’s degree in elementary and learning and behavior disorders education from Bellarmine University, and is currently working on her School Counseling Master’s degree at Liberty University.


PTA Generating New Energy with Urban Child Focus

National PTA President Otha Thornton greets Rose Marie O’Neil at a recent Every Child in Focus event in Chicago.

National PTA President Otha Thornton greets Rose Marie O’Neil at a recent Every Child in Focus event in Chicago.

Kudos to the idea of the National PTA celebrating “Every Child in Focus,” particularly for the celebration of the urban child and President Otha Thornton’s visits to support this effort. I had the pleasure of attending a dialogue on education issues in Chicago recently, sponsored by Black Star Community PTA and the Illinois PTA.

The panel was impressive, including Otha Thornton and Illinois PTA President Peg Staehlin, Phillip Jackson of the Black Star Project, Rafael Yanez of the Chicago Police Department, Ron Lawless of the Illinois PTA Legislative Committee, and Rev. Dr. Leon Finney Jr., pastor of Metropolitan Apostolic Church.

But the real inspiration came from listening to the wisdom of elders, 85-year-old Rose Marie O’Neil who captured everyone’s attention with her heartfelt plea for greater community involvement with schools. This was not just a case of sentimental nostalgia but a realization that we have lost the sense of community where mothers – and fathers – chastised misbehavior and praised achievement of children, others as well as their own, where children could hardly walk down a block without protective eyes on them and a willingness of the neighbors to send back a report card of behavior. It was that proverbial village that we hear so much about now. Mrs. O’Neil spoke for so many others about a longing for a sense that we’re all in this together and not locked in our individual homes and apartments, struggling with our problems alone.

Later, I saw a dynamic demonstration of just that kind of community energy. Joyce A. Chapman, head of Far South Community Action Council, spoke at Corliss High School about the bragging rights she had because of the visit by the National PTA.

PTA is an old institution with a long and venerable history (one that too few know about) but also an institution with new ideas, reaching out to communities that need a solid foundation but one that allows for new energy – and new faces.

I got a text message from a founder of a community PTA, a former school teacher making strong inroads into neighborhoods to develop community PTAs, glad that I’d sent her a reminder of Otha Thornton’s visit. This is a lady who’s already very involved in getting parents engaged and she was energized by the effort National PTA is putting into a focus on urban children as we all work to get back to that sense of community that Mrs. O’Neil remembers and we all want so much.


Vanessa Bush Ford is the former secretary of the Black Star Community PTA and is the current Chicago team leader of the Urban Family Engagement Network.


ENGAGE! in Effective Parent Teacher Conferences

Sherri_WilsonThis October, #PTchat discussed parent teacher conferences with special guest Dr. Heidi Rosenberg from Harvard Family Research Project (@HFRP).  HFRP has developed a set of tip sheets for parent teacher conferences and are currently working on updating the tip sheets to work with after school programs. You can access them here.

The key takeaways from the chat were related to communication and relationships (of course!). The perfect parent teacher conference consists of two-way conversations where parents feel valued as equal partners in supporting student learning. The conference also ends with clear action steps for the parent and teacher to take that build on the student’s strengths, while addressing any challenges. Parents can prepare for the conference by reviewing their children’s homework, tests, and projects and then create a list of questions to ask the teacher about their child’s progress. Teachers should be prepared to tell parents what they can do at home to support what their children are learning at school! Teachers should create a picture of the whole child, which conveys to parents that they don’t see their child as a set or numbers or grades. Teachers can also help parents understand the role of out-of-school time learning in supporting student development.

Administrators can help facilitate effective parent teacher conferences by ensuring that teachers have access to high-quality professional development on family engagement and communication. They can also provide families with ongoing access to student data through parent portals. Administrators should also check-in with families after the conferences–through surveys, focus groups or 1-on-1 interactions–to see what went well and what could be improved.

After the conference, follow-up is critical! Teachers should send home thank you notes that reinforce the follow-up plan and any action steps that were agreed upon. Parents should do the same!

If you want more information on improving parent teacher conferences, here is a podcast on why parent teacher conferences fail and how to make them better. The archive for the #PTchat can be read here.


ENGAGE! is a weekly column on Family Engagement written by Sherri Wilson, Senior Manager of Family and Community Engagement at the National PTA. Sherri is the former Director of the Alabama Parent Information and Resource Center and is currently responsible for developing and implementing programs related to family and community engagement at the National PTA.