Why I’m #PublicSchoolProud

My youngest son is truly my special gift. Tyler is a bright light, who makes our family and our world complete. He is smart, funny, warm, kind-hearted and autistic. He is enthusiastic about learning new things and inspires all who know him every single day. But he was also non-verbal until the age of six. I see the amazing person he is today and often wonder if Tyler would have made the same great strides without a quality public education.

What if his public school didn’t offer an outstanding program for students with special needs? Would he still be the thriving and productive young man that he has become? Would all of his unique emotional, cognitive, mental and emotional needs have been met in any other setting? As I ponder these questions, the only answer I can come up with is no, absolutely not!

His public school provided him with exceptional educational services and opportunities and opened doors to a wide variety of possibilities and inclusivity. We were blessed with a multitude of extraordinary educators and specialists who nurtured and shaped Tyler, who taught and guided him and who showed their complete devotion and commitment to his progress. They supported him, encouraged him, boosted him and helped him to achieve his full potential, as they helped him navigate through and overcome any obstacles that may have crossed his path along the way.

It’s been said that it takes a village to raise a child, but it also takes a team of educators, administrators and family members to mold that child into his or her very best self. Our team, in our Sachem Public Schools village on Long Island, is second to none! Tyler graduated from high school in 2018 with a New York State local diploma and I will be forever grateful for all they have done to ensure that his future is full of hope and promise.

Public education is our nation’s greatest hope. It is the promise that all children, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, learning abilities or disabilities, have a right to a free and appropriate education that will meet their diverse needs. It is public school that gives every child an equal chance to grow into a successful and flourishing member of society. A public education lays the foundation for a lifetime of opportunity and accomplishment.

Tyler is my reason to be #PublicSchoolProud. What’s yours? Read more about Public Schools Week and ways you can support our nation’s public schools.


Dana Platin is the vice president of New York State PTA.

David’s Law: A Texas PTA Story

Texas PTA first became involved in the work to reduce bullying in 2011, when we worked with legislators to pass a law strengthening guidelines for dealing with bullying in the schools. At that time, cell phones were still scarce in the schools, and administrators were reluctant to support laws that required schools to confront cyberbullying, but we saw where things were heading. We knew that while this legislation was a necessary first step, the issue was evolving, and we needed to stay on top of it. So, Texas PTA continued to monitor the prevalence of cyberbullying among students and developed programs to educate parents about the emerging phenomena and how to deal with it at home.

Then, in 2016, with suicide on the rise among victims of cyberbullying, Texas PTA began to plan a more focused bill. “David’s Law” honors the memory of David Molak, a 16-year-old student from San Antonio who committed suicide in January 2016 following relentless online harassment. David’s family was determined to do everything they could to eliminate cyberbullying. They formed David’s Legacy Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending cyber-assisted bullying by educating communities about the harmful effects of cyber abuse, providing support for victims, promoting kindness, and supporting legislation that prohibits cyberbullying of minors.

The Molaks led the charge to pass legislation strengthening the law passed in 2011, so that school leaders would have clarity on their responsibility in investigating allegations, informing both law enforcement and parents of suspected cyberbullying, and, when appropriate, disciplining the cyberbully. From nearly the beginning, Texas PTA joined forces with the Molaks—working side-by-side leading up to the legislative session to ensure passage of a new bill. This was no easy task. While it was clear that cyberbullying had become an epidemic, there was still opposition to the bill.

To gain the support necessary for the bill to pass, we spent many hours in meetings with legislators and advocacy groups and made a few changes to the bill’s language on their recommendations. Leadership within Texas PTA testified multiple times at committee hearings, prepared and distributed background information, participated in press conferences, and wrote op-eds and letters to legislators. Grassroot members participated in multiple action alerts to urge support for David’s Law. At Texas PTA’s Rally Day in February 2017, PTA members advocated for David’s Law in meetings and even on the steps of the state capitol.

The new law made many changes to how schools could and should operate:

  • Schools in Texas now have the authority to address cyberbullying that occurs off-campus;
  • They must notify a victim’s parents of the incident within three business days after it has been reported and notify the parents of the aggressor within a reasonable amount of time;
  • They must create procedures for students to anonymously report incidents;
  • They may expel students who engage in serious bullying, including bullying that encourages a student to commit suicide, incites violence against another student, or involves releasing indecent photos of another student;
  • They have strong protections from civil or criminal liabilities when reporting criminal bullying to law enforcement officials;
  • They must provide mental health education;
  • They must expand the role of school counselors to include mediating conflicts among students.

We hope that other state PTAs will consider working to support similar legislation to protect our nation’s most valuable resource—our children. Texas PTA was proud to work with the Molaks to pass David’s Law and we have continued with this partnership. The Molaks regularly present at Texas PTA conferences and provide information about David’s Law through PTA communications.

Getting the Lead Out: An Illinois PTA Advocacy Story

 

When it comes to PTA advocacy, it’s important to remember a few things. First, pay close attention to what your state legislature is doing—it’s up to you to be a watchdog for all children. Next, finding an issue that resonates with your membership is important—making a difference requires a surprising amount of grunt work, so it’s important to stay passionate. And finally, even a handful of PTA advocates can make a big difference. Those are the lessons Illinois PTA learned in 2016.

Senate Bill 550 (SB 550) began as a technical change to the Nuclear Facility Safety Act and wandered through committees for over a year until an amendment in May 2016 completely changed the bill. The bill was now one that would require testing every unique drinking water source in all Illinois public, private, charter and parochial schools for lead. Illinois PTA noticed the change and filed online witness slips in support of the bill. SB 550 passed the Senate on May 31, the last day of the legislative session, and headed to the House where it was assigned to the Rules Committee—a place where bills languish and die from lack of support.

Advocacy Day 2016

Illinois PTA decided to reboot our Advocacy Day in 2016 by moving it to Nov. 16, the first day of the fall veto session. We focused our advocacy on three topics:

  • Adopting a state budget, as Illinois was in the second year without.
  • Supporting a bill to ban the sale of energy drinks to minors based on a PTA resolution.
  • Supporting SB 550, now known as the Lead in Drinking Water Prevention Act.

About a dozen people showed up for Advocacy Day in Springfield, and few were able to get meetings with their actual legislators, so we visited as many legislative aides as possible. As we visited, it became apparent that just about every advocacy organization and lobbyist in Springfield that day was talking about the budget. Mention the budget, and the aide’s eyes would glaze over, and they would just nod along.

But when we mentioned SB 550 and testing for lead in school drinking water, they perked up. We shifted our pitch from focusing on the budget to advocating for SB 550, and by the end of the day, we had personally spoken with 79 legislators and staff. Something else happened that day as well—by that evening, SB 550 had suddenly picked up three new co-sponsors.

Leveraging Voter Voice

Illinois PTA knew that traveling to Springfield would be difficult for some people, so we had also run a “Virtual Advocacy Day” on Nov. 16 using Voter Voice to encourage those who were unable to attend to contact their legislators.

We followed up the next day on our blog, One Voice Illinois, encouraging members to continue to contact their legislators. Throughout the veto session, the bill continued to add co-sponsors, passed through committee with a “Do Pass” recommendation, and had its second reading in the House (all Illinois bills are required to be read on three separate days). There, the bill stalled at the end of the veto session. In a normal year, that would have been the end, but the legislature planned to come back for a lame duck session in January just before the legislators elected in 2016 were sworn in.

So, Illinois PTA decided to really push on SB 550. A blog post on the issue prior to the holidays also went out in our Weekend Update email blast. Contacting legislators in support of SB 550 was one of our four New Year’s resolutions for PTA leaders. A new call to action through Voter Voice had a huge response from our members, and a whopping 78% of our members responding to the call were first-timers.

During the lame duck session, SB 550 added over a dozen new co-sponsors, though an amendment that scaled back the lead testing to schools up through grade 5. The amended bill passed the House with only one no vote and one member voting present, and the Senate concurred with the amended version unanimously. The governor signed the bill into law on Jan. 17.

Results

So what has been the result of SB 550 becoming law? School districts across the state have been testing lead levels and begun dealing with those drinking water sources with dangerously high levels that have been harming children for decades. Illinois PTA highlighted news reports from just a few of the districts that were taking action.

There’s still more to be done—Illinois PTA would like to see mandated testing at the middle and high school levels as well—but with the passage of SB 550, families are being notified when high lead levels are found, and many school districts are already undertaking that testing in middle and high schools on their own.

My Parent, My Advocate, My Hero

The 2018-2019 National PTA Reflections theme is “Heroes Around Me”. As time goes on, with all the drama and strife in the news, there is an ever-increasing need for our children to have a hero in their life. Someone who they know and believe will be there to root for them, even when all odds are stacked against them. As an association, we advocate to make every child’s potential become a reality. Our members are children’s heroes—our parents, our teachers, our administrators and our community leaders.

Those that advocate for children are heroes. Advocates of our children and students are passionate and will fight with everything they have, till their last breath if they must. My hero, at least, did this for me. She advocated for me because of that belief in my potential, even when countless others did not. My hero is my mom, Rebecca Thomas, who is a former Advocacy Partner for the New York State PTA, past-president of the Monroe Woodbury SEPTA in Orange County, New York and the proud mother of a son with autism.

My mom’s advocacy efforts for families with students with special needs began over a decade ago when I was not receiving the adequate services that I needed as listed in my Individualized Education Plan (IEP). She directly advocated for improved services for me by calling and writing letters to members of the school board, the district superintendent and the state’s department of education.

Indirectly, after seeing how her advocacy benefited her child, my mom joined the local PTA because she wanted to help other parents learn how to become advocates for their own children. She served as an officer in the local PTA, as well as on the district’s council and the regional board. In 2008, she became an active member and leader with another organization, Parents United Learning the Special Education System (PULSES), to help parents navigate the special education system and advocate for services for their children.

I am now attending college online at Southern New Hampshire University and pursing a degree in Human Services because of the advocacy efforts of my mom. In addition, I am serving on the Illinois and National PTA Board of Directors where I continue her work to advocate for all children, especially those with special needs. I do this knowing the level of impact advocacy has had on my own life.

By advocating for my education, my mom has also become an advocate for every child to receive a high-quality education. She believes, as all PTA members believe, that with a high-quality education, all children can lead a meaningful life, regardless of what challenges they face. I feel that the work she accomplished through the PTA has helped give me the foundation and support critical to succeeding in not just school but in life. Now, who is your hero?

Why is #PTALegCon so Important and How Does it Impact You?

The 2019 National PTA Legislative Conference (#PTALegCon) is your opportunity to improve the lives of children and families. This year our theme is PTA Takes Action for Kids! and we will do just that when we march on Capitol Hill to demand that the Federal Government do more to support, develop and protect our nation’s youth.

Held just steps away from Washington D.C., you will have the opportunity to network with fellow PTA advocates, meet with policymakers and learn how to shape public policy on Capitol Hill and at home. Don’t miss this chance to expand your knowledge and have your voice heard!

As a constituent, your on-the-ground perspective is invaluable to legislators and their staff. During our #PTALegCon Capitol Hill Day, Wednesday, March 13, you will be able to inform lawmakers about which federal programs are serving our children well and which ones are failing our children. Federal policymakers work to improve the lives of children and families and they want to hear directly from the people they represent. We all want to improve education and now is the time to let the 116th Congress know how you want them to take action.

Attending #PTALegCon is also about improving your advocacy skills. You will have the opportunity to hear from policy experts during our #PTALegCon Workshops, which will cover pressing topics such as special education, school funding, school data reporting and school safety. These experts will guide you through the policy landscape and equip you with the knowledge and tools necessary to effectively advocate on these issues. You will leave better prepared to engage in policy discussions with lawmakers, advocates and members of your community.

During the conference, you will also have ample time to network and hear advocacy success stories, so you can be more effective both on Capitol Hill and in your community. All of the learning opportunities at #PTALegCon are designed to help you take what you learn and share it back in your community, so you can turn more people into PTA advocates!

Advocacy is at the core of our association’s mission. For over 120 years, National PTA has led the way in improving the lives of children in education. Through our members’ persistent commitment to advocacy, National PTA has played an integral role in landmark federal education legislation and policies. At this year’s #PTALegCon, let’s continue to lead the nation towards making every child’s potential a reality.

Join us! Register here to attend the 2019 National PTA Legislative Conference.

New Partnership Equips Parents to Advocate for Safer Schools

I can still remember the fear and guilt that washed through me when I first heard a gunman entered my daughter’s elementary school.

Fear because only two months earlier, at a parent-teacher conference, I made comments to my husband about the flaws in the school’s security system. Guilt because I buried the pit in my stomach, despite knowing my child’s safety was in danger, and dismissed my concerns altogether. Guilt because I remember thinking the words, That would never happen here.  Not only did it happen a few months later, my daughter, Emilie, would be one of the victims who would not survive.

After the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, I vowed to never silence my voice again.  This was the beginning of my journey towards becoming a school safety advocate and co-founding Safe and Sound Schools.

As I travel across the country sharing my story, I am always approached by parents, just like me, who are concerned about their child’s school and feel completely lost about what to do. School communities everywhere were lacking in resources for parents who also wanted to get involved in school safety, and I knew from personal experience how intimidating the process could be.

Safe and Sound Schools is proud to have National PTAs support in helping to launch the Parents for Safe Schools program.  This program is designed for parents who want a more hands-on approach to school safety, from learning more to getting involved, or even becoming an advocate for school safety. Parents for Safe Schools can guide you and members of the PTA on how to get started, and empower you to play a role in protecting your children.

Over the years, I have seen how incredibly powerful the voices of parents advocating for their child can be. There is so much to be done, and Safe and Sound Schools invites you to join our mission. Together we can make our schools safe and sound.


 

Alissa Parker is Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools and a national school safety advocate.  Inspired by her daughter, Emilie who was killed in the tragedy at Sandy Hook School, Alissa has joined fellow Sandy Hook mom, Michele Gay in building a legacy of safety for school communities across the country.

What is #GivingTuesday and How Can I Participate?

 

For many of us, Thanksgiving with our families makes the holiday season official. We gather with loved ones, give thanks for the blessings in our lives, and enjoy a day of togetherness and turkey.

We hardly have time to put away the leftovers before holiday shopping messages become urgent. Don’t miss Black Friday! Save time for Small Business Saturday! Don’t forget about Cyber Monday!

And then there’s #GivingTuesday.

With all of the messages about buying and taking you’ll hear over the next few days, #GivingTuesday (Nov. 27) provides a welcome reminder about the power of giving. #GivingTuesday is a global day of giving that kicks off the charitable season. Using the power of social media and collaboration, millions of people around the world proudly and publicly show their support for their favorite charity by making a gift on #GivingTuesday.

How will you join this global movement on #GivingTuesday?

This #GivingTuesday, National PTA will celebrate how the Reflections art program has impacted kids, schools and communities through the arts. National PTA will showcase Reflections artists past and present and raise awareness for the importance of the arts for children’s well-being.

We need your support!

For 50 years, National PTA’s Reflections program has helped students explore their own thoughts, feelings and ideas, develop artistic literacy, increase confidence and find a love for learning that will help them become more successful in school and in life.

Art education is critical to a child’s development and success:

  • Underserved students show the greatest relative improvements when participating in arts programs like Reflections.
  • Through movement, social interactions, emotional expression and application of skill, arts education provides an academic advantage to students.
  • The arts provide safe learning environments where students take risks, explore ideas, express their individuality and support their peers in a positive way.
  • Studies also find that students are more engaged, and teachers are more effective in arts-rich schools.
  • Research shows that students who study the arts develop a sense of personal responsibility toward their communities and can positively affect the community social life through their artwork.

National PTA’s cornerstone arts program engages nearly 300,000 students from all grade levels each year in categories like dance, film, literature, music, photography and visual arts. This #GivingTuesday, we’re asking you to give your children and grandchildren the gift of 50 more years of Reflections.

On Nov. 27, get active on social media, engage with your favorite organizations including National PTA, and give generously. We invite your support of National PTA’s Reflections program! Help us celebrate and spread the impact of the arts on children and families. You can donate here, and don’t forget to post on social media to encourage your friends to join you in giving!

 

 

Know an Outstanding PTA Advocate? Nominate Them for the 2019 Advocacy Awards!

PTA advocates go to great lengths to take action for kids. From meeting with local, state and federal decisionmakers to hosting school forums to advocating for legislation and ballot initiatives, PTA advocates consistently go above and beyond to advocate for each and every child.

National PTA recognizes the dedication our advocates through our annual Advocacy Awards which are presented to outstanding individual, state PTA and local PTA advocates at our Legislative Conference. We are now accepting applications for our 2019 Advocacy Awards!

If you are or know of an outstanding youth or individual PTA advocate, or a local unit or state PTA that has done great advocacy work, submit a nomination today! Our four award categories are the Shirly Igo Advocate of the Year Award, Outstanding Youth Advocate of the Year Award, Outstanding State PTA Advocacy Award and Outstanding Local PTA Advocacy Award. Advocacy awardees will receive an all expenses paid trip to National PTA’s 2019 Legislative Conference, March 12-14, where they will have the opportunity to meet with policymakers, hear PTA advocacy success stories and learn how to shape public policy in Washington, DC and at home. Awardees will receive their award and be recognized at LegCon during our Advocacy Awards Dinner.

As in previous years, advocates may self-nominate for the Shirly Igo Advocate of the Year Award and the Outstanding Youth Advocate of the Year Award. Nominations for all awards must be for efforts made in the last year and are due by 11:59 PM EST on Dec. 14. For more information about the 2019 Advocacy Awards, visit PTA.org/AdvocacyAwards.

Submit a nomination today to honor the outstanding advocacy work PTA members have done across the country! We look forward to recognizing our outstanding PTA advocates at LegCon!

Inspiring the Next Generative of Digital Innovators

Technology is a powerful tool that is undeniably changing the foundation of education. Schools around the world are increasingly harnessing its reach to improve the educational experiences of their students. Some parents and teachers may wonder if this is the right learning path for their students, especially at the elementary levels. Below, we’ve addressed five reasons why leveraging technology can be beneficial to all students.

  1. Personalized Education Experience

Technology can innovate, grow, and expand access to personalized education tools. Using laptops and tablets, students can choose between educational videos, games or articles that best suit their abilities and interests. Educational apps and programs cover a wide range of subjects from music to digital design. With a plethora of learning options, every student can discover and develop his or her niche.

  1. Bringing the Classroom Home

By removing barriers to learning, technology connects students and teachers with educational content wherever they are. Many primary schools are assigning students tablets or laptops to take home. Mobilized learning is a great opportunity for students to continue their learning outside of the classroom, at their own pace.

  1. Preparing Students for the Future

The days of four classic subjects of study are over. Today, students should establish hard skills early-on to be competitive in the tech-driven workforce. As the tech industry continues to expand, students can take advantage of its offerings now and begin preparing for the jobs of the future by mastering technical applications.

  1. Engaging Today’s Students

Interactive materials help students stay engaged while learning and investing in these technologies can help shape the future of education. As part of its Aspire Accelerator program, AT&T supports organizations using tech to promote student success beyond the classroom. New educational online programs that are creatively designed can foster fun while exposing kids to practical skills. For example, as part of Aspire Accelerator’s 2018 Class, the start-up Unruly Studios seeks to revolutionize learning by combining STEM education with physical play. Through its programmable device that kids control, it integrates coding skills with recess-style games.

  1. Developing Communication Skills

Strong online communication skills can be the key to a successful future. By engaging in technology at a young age, students will grow up immersed in practical 21st century skills like writing emails and collaborating with teams through online chat options.

The benefits of incorporating technology into students’ educational paths can be endless, and ensuring students can engage with innovative educational options is crucial.  To help with that engagement,  AT&T is bringing affordable internet access to low-income  families through  Access from AT&T,  a discounted internet service for qualifying low-income households across AT&T’s 21 wireline footprint.[1] With increased access, students can finish school and feel confident they are ready to thrive in the digital world.

Technology can break down barriers, including those in education. The ability for students to keep learning shouldn’t end in the classroom. With technology, it doesn’t have to.

 

[1] To qualify for the program, at least one household resident must participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). In California only, households receiving social security income (SSI) also may qualify. Other conditions may apply, click here to learn more.

My Experience Testifying Before the Federal Commission on School Safety

As the Federal Legislative Chair for Wyoming PTA, I testified before the Federal Commission on School Safety at a listening session in August in Cheyenne, WY. 

In my testimony, I referenced National PTA’s position statements on school safety and shared my experiences as a trustee of the local school district, Laramie County School District 1. I am proud that PTA emphasizes the inclusion of all stakeholders in local safety and security decisions and that arming teachers is not the solution to gun violence in schools.

I was listening, too, as students from Denver and Albuquerque testified before the commission on what school “safety and security” means to them. They talked about the importance of feeling safe from daily verbal and physical assaults from other students, about instances where they were in despair and contemplating self-harm. They talked about putting resources into counselors and school psychologists, not arming teachers.

Students from high schools with a large minority enrollment discouraged the commission from even arming law enforcement. In Wyoming, we rely on School Resource Officers onsite at our secondary schools, as trained and trusted professionals to respond to an active shooter. But the students who spoke at the listening session said they feared that more law enforcement presence in schools would lead to the targeting students of color and creation of more violence. These students want an environment free of weapons, staffed by caring and competent adults to help them deal with the violence that threatens them every day.

We must balance the need to protect students and staff in schools, but also ensure positive school discipline policies and procedures are in place so no group of students are disproportionately disciplined.  If the decision is made to have a Student Resource Officer in a school building, there must be a clearly defined memorandum of understanding, as recommended by the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO), between the law enforcement agency and the school on the role of the officer.

Of course, we need to be prepared for the rare but real possibility of disaster, as we do with tornado shelters. So, we need buildings with secure access, we need school personnel and students to be prepared for all types of emergency scenarios, and we need trained SROs. But what I gained from the listening session was what makes students afraid every day and what makes them feel safe personally, so they can learn. A gun in the Social Studies teacher’s desk drawer doesn’t make them feel safe.

I also learned the value of anonymous reporting systems, we use Safe2Tell in Wyoming, because students want to be safe and will tell adults about weapons and threats they see and hear in their schools.

These things cost money, obviously, and our fear is that pressure to cut budgets will keep our schools from meeting the daily safety and security needs the students described. I think a few of the adults mentioned that fear, too.

I trust the Federal Commission on School Safety was listening and releases a report that focuses on collaborative, evidenced-based school safety best practices as recommended in the Framework for Safe and Successful Schools.