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.


Cooking Matters to the PTA

Reposted from No Kid Hungry blog.

NoKid_Hungry_Blog_RepostI thought I was pretty savvy about shopping and food nutrition until I took a Cooking Matters at the Store tour recently. Cooking Matters at the Store is a free program of Share Our Strength’s No Kid Hungry campaign that empowers families to stretch their food budgets so their children get healthy meals at home. The grocery store was in the historic district of Alexandria, Virginia, but the rush of learning something important and valuable could happen anywhere.

I just happened to be with ten folks from PTAs across the US with different tastes and eating habits, family sizes and configurations. We were in Alexandria for a retreat, working out ideas and strategies for the PTA’s Urban Family Engagement Network to encourage urban families to get more involved in local public schools. Given the connection between proper nutrition, overall health and academic achievement, the idea of better nutrition is a natural for parents and the PTA.

For our tour, we started in the produce aisle, looking beyond the colorful fruit and veggies to the unit price stickers. Never mind the price of the item itself, for comparison sake you need to check out the unit price. Our assignment was to choose a favorite vegetable or fruit and make note of its per unit price and then we were off to the frozen food section and later canned foods section to compare unit costs and debate the pros and cons – taste-wise, convenience-wise and price-wise – of the choices. And finally a trip to the bread aisle for eye-opening lessons on whole grain (wheat, oat, etc.) versus unbleached, refined flours and lessons on the many ways that food manufacturers color and flavor foods to achieve the faddish health look so many of us want now without the real nutrition we need.

Families on a tight budget report that the cost of healthy groceries is their biggest barrier to making healthy meals at home. Food skills, like smart shopping, can help overcome that barrier. I can easily see Cooking Matters at the Store as a valuable strategy to encourage healthier eating. The PTA at my son’s school is already looking for strategies to introduce ideas for healthy eating now that the public schools are removing less nutritious meals and snacks from the schools.

To learn more about Cooking Matters at the Store and get your PTA, school, or community organization involved, visit

Vanessa Ford Bush is the  Chicago team leader for the Urban Family Engagement Network of the National PTA.