Supporting Our Children to Find Their Passion, Purpose, and Voice

After being back in school for only a week, my 6th grade son came home and confidently announced “I signed up for track.” He beamed. And I felt a gush of relief that we sent him back to school in-person and opened up the doors to this new level of confidence and decision-making. 

New research released by Learning Heroes, delves into the power that afterschool, extracurricular and summer learning programs have in the lives of children. The research included deep listening among more than 2,000 K-8 parents and 1,000 K-8 teachers and out-of-school time (OST) providers nationally, between November 2020 and March of this year. Among the families surveyed, 65% enroll their children in one or more programs. Nearly half of those participate in a program focused on sports, the arts, or other interest-based activities. There are lots of ways to spend our family’s time and energy, but a clear majority see the value these opportunities offer our children, now and into the future. 

The good news is teachers and providers share parents’ enthusiasm for these programs and the positive effects they have on students–both in and out of school. In focus groups, teachers repeatedly shared that children who participate in activities outside of school are more successful in school. And this makes sense, because even if my son doesn’t win a single race, just signing up, showing up, and getting sweaty at every practice exercises safe and healthy risk taking. In the classroom, this translates to a willingness to take academic risks, like struggling through a tough algebra problem or making a mistake on an assignment and trying again. Along the way, he’ll learn teamwork, leadership and perseverance–all skills that parents, teachers, and providers agree are reinforced by participation in these programs.

What drives parents to sign their children up for out-of school-time programs? Learning Heroes found that parents see extracurriculars as their child’s own unique space where they can explore and cultivate their interests. These programs are distinct from school–where kids are one among many and everyone generally swims in their grade level ‘lane.’ 

Equally important is that out-of-school and summer learning activities expose kids to a range of important experiences they just can’t get at home. While there are lots of things I can offer my son–like our cherished time reading aloud before going to bed at night–I don’t need to become his track coach, too. Giving him that space to grow and find out what he loves–and even what he doesn’t–sends a powerful message: This is your time and space to be your unique self. The skills and lessons learned, the wins–and even the losses–are yours to keep as part of your life journey.

Unfortunately, Learning Heroes found that access to these programs is not equitably distributed. Families whose children are enrolled in OST activities report a higher socio-economic status and education level, regardless of race or ethnicity, than those who don’t send their children to any programs. So while I’m grateful my son’s middle school offered an array of virtual clubs this year, I wonder whether enriching opportunities like these are reaching all of the kids in our community who would benefit from them. Indeed, our school’s PTA could be a helpful messenger in getting the word out to families through our communication channels. And we can raise the equity question with our school leaders to understand what strategies they are taking to engage kids whose families might not be easily reached through traditional methods, like email and newsletters.

As we dream and make plans for what’s ahead this summer and beyond for our children, it’s a moment for us as parents to think about the program, camp or after-school activity that helped shape who we are today. I might even dust off a few memories from my track running days to share with my son as we support him to find his passion, purpose and voice.


Learn more at BeALearningHero.org or connect with us on social media @BeALearninghero.

New Tools to Advance Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

National PTA is committed to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) but what does that look like in action? To answer that question, we partnered with 14 local units to test out new DEI strategies which led to the development of three new tools, the Diversity Profile, the Facilitator’s Guide, and the Action Plan Template. If you’ve already reviewed the Local Leader Guidance for DEI and are wondering what next steps you should take, read on to explore our latest tools! 

Diversity Profile 

Who lives in your community? This may seem like a simple question, but answering it well requires an in depth understanding of the families at your school. Our Diversity Profile Template will walk you through important demographic questions about your community. Questions like: what religions are represented? What is the racial demographic breakdown of your community? What is the median household income?  

After finding out that information, challenge yourself to think critically: Does your PTA board and membership reflect your community? 

Facilitator’s Guide 

If you notice that there are voices missing, it is time to figure out why. How can you create a more inviting PTA that offers leadership opportunities that draw in all members of your community? Our Enhancing DEI Facilitator’s Guide offers step by step instructions for hosting a listening session where you can learn more about how families want to engage with the school and the PTA. The guide includes a meeting agenda complete with questions you can ask families to better understand their experiences and reimagine your PTA in ways that better meet everyone’s needs. Most of all, these conversations are opportunities for intentional relationship building with families who you may not typically interact with! 

One of the grantees shared that their use of the facilitator’s guide really made an impact: “Even though we needed to conduct our listening sessions on Zoom in order to be COVID-safe, our virtual introductions to new-to-PTA parents are already starting to blossom into real-life relationships now that our school has reopened.” 

Action Plan 

Listening is an important first step, but you can’t stop there. After you listen to families, the real work begins. How will you address their concerns, answer their questions, implement their ideas?  

Another grantee shared their own DEI goals, “The first thing we want to do is have a workshop for new PTSA leadership and committee chairs (and anyone else interested) on culturally responsive skills. We want to improve outreach and communication and be sure that our meeting agendas speak to issues that are relevant to all families and that our meetings are conducted in ways that are inclusive.” 

Our Enhancing DEI Action Plan Template provides a structure for you and your board to plan next steps like these. Remember to keep families in the loop as you continue your planning! The action plan is a great way to re-engage the families you listened to. Ask them to weigh in on the draft and make additions or edits. These new strategies and initiatives will be most successful if they are co-created by the PTA board and the rest of your community! 

For more guidance on how your PTA can use these tools, watch our webinar, ”Turning Your Commitment to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion into Action” and keep up with our latest resources at www.pta.org/diversity!  

Science Is Leading the Way to Reopen Schools

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented immense and immediate challenges for schools across the country. Seemingly overnight, teachers and administrators had to rework their curriculum, shift to online learning, and find ways to engage students of all ages from behind a screen. At the same time, students and parents worked to quickly acclimate to the virtual environment, juggling jobs, school and childcare—all during a global pandemic.

As a mother of three boys, I experienced these challenges and stresses in my own family. My son’s high school held a “back to school night” right after I was nominated to be CDC Director. I heard—as a mother and as the Director—about the difficulties of engaging students on Zoom. Like many of you, I did my best to keep my kids safe while juggling work and other responsibilities.

From the beginning of my tenure as CDC Director, one of the top priorities for the agency has been getting students back into the classroom safely. The science tells us that in addition to education, in-person learning gives our children access to the vital social and mental health services that prepare them for success in our world. That is why CDC strongly believes schools should be the last place to close and the first place to open, to ensure no child goes without these essential services.

We know that students from low-resourced communities, students from ethnic and racial minority communities, and students with disabilities are disproportionately affected by the loss of in-person instruction. By following the science and engaging with our partners, CDC has worked to develop guidance and resources to ensure that every student can learn in the classroom safely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Science Is Leading the Way

Science is leading the way in how we respond to COVID-19, including how to get our children back into classrooms during the pandemic—while prioritizing the safety of students, teachers and school staff. Before developing guidance to safely reopen schools, CDC conducted an in-depth review of all the available data and engaged with educational and public health partners to hear first-hand from parents and educators about their experiences and concerns.

I have personally heard the concerns expressed by both parents and school leaders, which ranged from concerns about potentially lost academic progress, to anxiety about personal and family safety if returning to in-person instruction. These discussions, in combination with the latest science, provided the data we needed to develop a strategy for students to safely return to schools in different parts of the country, with varying classroom sizes and resources.

Guidelines for Reopening K-12 Schools

In February, we released the K-12 Operational Strategy for in-person instruction based on evidence that showed K-12 schools could operate safely for in-person instruction if they use layered prevention strategies. Prevention strategies that are layered, or used together, provide the greatest protection against transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.

The CDC Strategy encourages students, faculty, and staff in school settings to practice prevention behaviors by following these 5 key mitigation strategies:

  1. Universal and correct mask-wearing
  2. Physical distancing
  3. Hand washing and good respiratory etiquette
  4. Cleaning to maintain healthy facilities
  5. Diagnostic testing with rapid and efficient contact tracing, in combination with isolation and quarantine, and collaboration with local health departments

In addition, when CDC released the K-12 Operational Strategy, we noted that the science of COVID-19 is rapidly evolving and we would update our recommendations when new evidence became available. As more studies were published and CDC scientists analyzed the available evidence on physical distancing, it was clear there was ample evidence to update CDC’s recommendations for physical distancing between students in classrooms with universal mask use.

Based on evolving evidence, last week, CDC issued its updated guidance for physical distancing with recommendations for various settings of K-12 education.

  • Elementary schools: Students should remain at least three feet apart in classrooms while wearing a mask, regardless of the level of COVID-19 spread in the community.
  • Middle and high schools: Students should remain at least three feet apart in classrooms while wearing a mask, when community spread of COVID-19 is low, moderate or substantial.
  • For middle and high schools in communities with high spread of COVID19: Students should remain at least six feet apart, unless cohorting is possible.
  • Community settings outside the classroom or in any situation when unmasked: Everyone should maintain at least six feet apart.

A Shared Effort

Getting our children back to school for in-person instruction is a critical step in turning the corner on this pandemic, and partnerships with key stakeholders in education, government and the community are helping schools make this transition. CDC is providing guidance, tools and resources to our educational and public health partners and collaborating through webinars, conferences and other engagements to increase understanding of the operational strategy for K-12 schools and to support schools as they integrate CDC’s recommendations into their schools’ planning.

CDC also recently announced it was providing $10 billion to support COVID-19 diagnostic and screening testing for teachers, staff and students. In addition, CDC’s K-12 Operational Strategy identifies vaccination as an additional layer of prevention that can be added to the five key mitigation strategies. CDC has been working with our federal retail pharmacy partners to prioritize the vaccination of K-12 teachers, staff and childcare workers during the month of March. I am happy to report that our pharmacy partners have vaccinated more than 1.3 million educators, staff, and childcare workers so far, and more than 550,000 of these vaccinations were in the last week alone.  

Last week, at the National Summit on Safe School Reopening, I was able to connect virtually with representatives from the Department of Education and other government and non-governmental organizations to hear from school districts across the country about their challenges and successes in reopening. I was so encouraged to hear about their efforts and the innovations they are implementing in order to get kids back to in-person learning.

Real-World Experience, Science, and Evidence

My youngest son returned to hybrid school about a month ago, and he’s thrilled to be back. While I know many students are also looking forward to joining their peers in a classroom setting, I realize that the decision to have your child return to in-person learning is not an easy one. My hope for the future is based on real-world experience, science and evidence—and we now have that experience, science, and evidence as well as the resources to get our children back to school across the nation.


Rochelle P. Walensky, MD, MPH, is the 19th Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the ninth Administrator of the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Arlington Science Focus School Virtual Family STEM Night 2021

Think you can’t host a family fun night while remote learning? Think again! Arlington Science Focus School, an elementary school in Arlington, Va., hosted its first-ever Virtual Family STEM Night Wednesday, Feb. 17.

The event went off without a hitch thanks to ASFS Investigation Station Lead, Stephanie Lin, the 2020 NOVA District PTA Educator of the Year, and a team of volunteers made up of ASFS teachers, parents, local high school students, and community partners.

Kindergarten through fifth-grade families were able to connect with one another and enjoy an evening of virtual STEM activities and live presentations, all from home. Students joined Microsoft Teams calls to listen to live presenters, watch demonstrations, and participate in a variety of science and engineering stations.

Thanks to the support of the ASFS PTA, families were able to pick up STEM Night supply kits with bags of simple materials needed for each of the experiments, and many of the activities could be completed with supplies found at home.

Some of the night’s highlights included hands-on activities, such as:

  • Building Index Card Towers
  • Creating Ocean Sculptures from recycled materials
  • Building a LED Copper Tape Flashlight
  • Making a Balloon-Powered Boat with a sponge, straw and balloon
  • Creating Underwater Fireworks with oil and food coloring
  • Experimenting with Paper Cup Constellations using a flashlight
  • Making music in the Chrome Music Lab

The event also featured presentations and demonstrations, including:

  • Astronomy presentations by a speaker from NASA
  • ASFS First Lego League Robotics Team demonstration
  • Reptile and amphibian presentation by a nature center representative
  • Space shuttle simulation with the ASFS student Tech Crew
  • STEM career talks by a Bioinformaticist, Computer Scientist, Environmental Engineer, Forester and Sustainability Analyst

Although the virtual experience was not the same as the annual science fair typically held at school, it was great to see so many families engaging and participating in this school-wide event and enjoying STEM in this virtual world.

Two of the most popular STEM activities from the night were National PTA STEM @ Home activities: STEM @ Home Experiment 2: Ballon Boat and STEM @ Home Experiment 5: Copper Tape Flashlights. For the Balloon Boat, many students filled up their sinks or bathtubs with water and enjoyed watching their boats travel. Siblings loved racing their boats against each other. With the Copper Tape Flashlight, students were amazed that the LED light could light up with simple household materials, and they loved how bright it was!

Interested in hosting your own virtual STEM night? Check out National PTA’s STEM @ Home page for more information.

ASFS Family STEM Night Photos

National PTA Demystifies School Funding

Do you feel intimidated by issues related to school funding and education finance? You are not alone. We surveyed parents and caregivers around the country and many shared that they feel clueless and frustrated by how difficult it is to find basic information.

In fact, less than a third (32%) of participants agreed they have a general understanding of how their child’s school district uses its funding. Even fewer (29%) agreed they know where to find information on school funding in their community.

School funding is too important of a topic for parents to sit on the sidelines. Families’ voices are critical to ensure that school budgets reflect a community’s needs and priorities for our students. With that in mind, National PTA has released several resources to help PTA leaders to learn more about school funding.

Listen to our podcast episodes featuring Dr. Marguerite Roza, Director of the Edunomics Lab.
In Money Talks: School Funding 101, Dr. Roza offered practical guidance on how families can stay informed about their school district’s financial decisions and how they can advocate for the priorities they care most about. In our COVID-19 bonus episode, she shared how the pandemic has impacted school finance and she advises how advocates can adapt during this challenging time.

Read our answers to the most frequently asked questions related to school funding.
Are you curious where the money for your child’s school comes from? Are you wondering who makes the decisions about how dollars get spent? Our guide to Understanding & Advocating for School Funding will provide those answers and more.

Register for our upcoming webinar, Understanding Families’ Perspectives on School Funding.
National PTA partnered with five council PTAs in Florida, Texas and Washington to learn more about families’ perspectives on school funding. After talking with more than 150 parents, we are ready to share our findings with you. Join us Tuesday, Feb. 23 at 8:00 p.m. EST to learn: 

What do families actually know about school funding? What areas do they feel are adequately or inadequately funded? And what are the implications of this for PTA leaders’ work advocating for all children?

Join us for a presentation of these research results and learn directly from a panel of PTA leaders about their own experiences advocating on issues related to school funding. Register now.

Let’s raise our PTA voice for better school funding and education finance! You can find the complete list of tools and resources mentioned here at PTA.org/SchoolFunding. All of these resources, including the upcoming webinar, are also available in Spanish.


Rebecca Bauer is the Family Engagement Specialist for National PTA.

National PTA Celebrates Look Within Reflections Artists

For over fifty years, the National PTA Reflections program has provided opportunities for recognition and access to the arts, which boost student confidence and success in the arts and in life. The arts program honors student creativity through six Reflections categories: Dance Choreography, Film Production, Literature, Music Composition, Photography, and Visual Arts. 

In response to an annual theme, thousands of students across the country and in U.S. schools abroad submit artwork and can be recognized with awards and prizes at the local, county, district, region and then state PTA levels. Just over 200 students are recognized at a national level for their artistic achievements in the arts each year.   

At the national level, students can earn an Award of Merit, Award of Excellence, or Outstanding Interpretation Award. Each year, National PTA typically honors the national winners and their artwork with in-person events—including the Student Arts Showcase at the U.S. Department of Education. This year, due to COVID-19, National PTA hosted its first-ever Virtual Reflections Student Arts Showcase.  

Held January 26, the digital event brought Reflections supporters together to celebrate the national winners from the 2019-2020 Look Within program. The Showcase featured one national winner from each Reflections category and our Special Artist Division.

Representing the Dance Choreography category, Jacob Valadez kicked off the featured student artist performances. Jacob’s dance, “Look Within Yourself Be Unstoppable,” expresses the value of personal strength. Although life can be hard, Jacob demonstrates that everyone can be unstoppable by looking within and never giving up. We are grateful he shared this powerful sentiment with us. 

After Jacob, we enjoyed Matthew Bang’s visual arts piece, “I Realize and Recognize.” As the featured Special Artist, Matthew’s painting depicts his family’s Korean heritage and his own identity as a Korean American. Matthew shared, “Art is a form of expression. It allows me to convey emotions that are too difficult to express in words alone.” His detailed visual arts piece beautifully communicates a vast depth of meaning! 

Jiya Bhavsar wowed us with “Struggling Within Me.” Through her piano performance, Jiya represented the music composition category and showcased the power of perseverance. She explained, “I look within when I feel like ‘I give up’ and then I say, ‘Try again.’” We are all inspired by Jiya’s tenacity. 

As the featured artist for the photography category, Barbara Exilus’s photograph “Look Within” depicts the pressure that many young people feel when trying to achieve unrealistic beauty standards and social norms. Barbara shared, “I want my artwork to speak and touch people in any way it can.” Barbara truly conveyed a compelling message through her photograph. 

Melissa Qiu, the featured artist for the literature category, impressed with her poem, “Breaking the Silence and Filling the Minds.” Her writing details the beauty of the zither, which, Melissa shares is a “a very magical and traditional musical instrument because it has allowed me to look within myself and my Chinese culture.” We appreciate Melissa’s creative use of language to bridge musicmaking and her ancestral heritage.  

As the representative of the Visual Arts category, Katie Ross Nelson shared her wearable sculpture. Meticulously constructed, “The Swan” dress showcases fashion as a means of self-expression. Katie found inspiration from actor Billy Porter, who, by wearing a dress to the 2019 Oscars, “flipped the stereotype and made the dress a symbol of inner strength.” Thank you, Katie, for sharing your compelling work of art with us. 

The last featured artist, Dayton Kress, closed out the show with his film production. Titled “Within Us All,” Dayton demonstrates the power of compassion. He shared, “It is important to understand that we can all lift each other up in times of need. We all go through things, and sometimes we just need a little support along the way.” Dayton’s film shares a timeless message—be kind to one another!  

As our hosts for the evening, Leslie Boggs, National PTA President, and Nathan R. Monell, CAE, Executive Director of National PTA, expressed the value of the arts in a student’s education—especially in the era of COVID-19. Bonnie Carter, the Group Leader of Arts in Education Programs for the U.S. Department of Education, shared a congratulatory message to all Reflections participants. The Department of Education is a valuable supporter of the Reflections program, and we thank Bonnie for joining us virtually!

Our celebration of the arts continues with a virtual exhibit featuring the 200+ national Reflections winners from the 2019-2020 program. Take a moment to view the remarkable creative achievements of our program participants, ranging from detailed paintings in the visual arts category to graceful dance choreography movements. The artwork may encourage you to Look Within!  

Visit PTA.org/Reflections to learn more about Reflections and share your artwork with @NationalPTA using #PTAReflections. Missed the Showcase? Find the full program on National PTA’s YouTube channel


Sarah Scalet is the National PTA arts in education fellow. 

Collection: 2019-2020 Look Within National PTA Reflections Award Recipients (flickr.com)

You’re Invited! Join us for the 2021 Virtual Legislative Conference

Happy New Year! It seems like just yesterday that we were all gathered at the Westin in Old Towne Alexandria for the 2020 Legislative Conference. PTA Advocates were on Capitol Hill the last day it was opened to the public before the pandemic. So much has happened since then.

PTA has been busy advocating for COVID relief and a safe reopening of schools, as well as for funding and support for remote learning, child nutrition, social and emotional learning and broadband access for all. We have been affected deeply by the escalated racism and echoed the calls for social justice. Our political climate has been tumultuous and uncertain. PTA has been at the forefront of these issues.

2021 is a new year with new beginnings. In March, we will build on our advocacy efforts over the last year by hosting National PTA’s first-ever Virtual Legislative Conference, March 9-11. Our annual Legislative Conference (known fondly as LegCon) has always been my favorite event because it is PTA’s opportunity to use our voices to improve the lives of children and families. Advocacy is at the core of our association’s mission and vision. Our legacy in advocacy started almost 125 years ago, when our founders organized over 2,000 parents to speak on behalf of children and continued to lead the way in improving their lives. Through our members’ resilience and persistent commitment to advocacy, National PTA has played an integral role in landmark federal education legislation and policies.

At this year’s Virtual Legislative Conference, we will continue to empower the voices of our members towards making every child’s potential a reality. This year our theme is “PTA Takes Action Together for Every Child” and we will do just that when our members all across the nation meet virtually with their Federal Representatives and Senators to do more to support, advance and protect our nation’s youth.

We are thrilled to be able to offer a Virtual Hill Day to our LegCon attendees Wednesday, March 10. Meetings with Members of Congress may look and feel different this year, but Hill meetings remain an enormously important advocacy tool. In fact, during COVID we have seen a 45% increase in offices that are willing to participate in video-webinars, and a 35% increase in Members of Congress who are participating in virtual meetings themselves. National PTA has partnered with Soapbox Consulting to help ensure that your experience meeting with members and staff is seamless. To that end, if you register for LegCon 2021 by Thursday, Feb. 4, 2021, you will be automatically signed up to participate in Hill day.

As a constituent in your home states, your grassroots perspective is extremely valuable to elected officials and their staff. During our Virtual Hill Day, you will be able to inform lawmakers about which federal programs are serving our children well and which ones are failing them. Federal policymakers work to improve the lives of children and families and they want to hear directly from the people they represent.  Never underestimate the power of your voice!

We all want to improve education! LegCon will be the time to call upon the newly elected 117th Congress to take action and let them know how they can make a difference in the lives of all children. Several resources will be provided to our PTA Advocates to guide them through their meetings with Members of Congress. The Legislative Committee is particularly excited about the National PTA Public Priorities for the 117th Congress, which you can preview on the PTA website.

In addition to the Virtual Hill Day, the 2021 National PTA Virtual Legislative Conference will also include world-class virtual advocacy training, including wonderful workshops and PTA Advocacy Spotlights, which highlight PTA advocacy success stories from across the nation. Attendees will also enjoy prominent keynote speakers, a mental health panel, and our annual PTA Advocacy Award Ceremony. There will also be an opportunity for all Federal Legislative Chairs (FLC) to collaborate and share with fellow FLCs in a live networking session.

Attending #PTALegCon is also about improving and sharpening your advocacy skills! Regardless of your level of advocacy knowledge, we will have something for everyone.  Not only will you have the opportunity to hear from policy experts during our Workshops, you will hear from your peers that are experts in diverse areas of advocacy. This will include relevant topics such as safe and supportive schools, public school funding, diversity and inclusion, coalition building, school data reporting, child nutrition, and climate control. 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 LegCon better prepared to engage in policy discussions with lawmakers, advocates and members of your community. We are confident you will use this valuable information in your states to feel fully self-reliant and ready to speak for every child with one voice!

My fellow PTA advocates, don’t delay! Come “meet” with policymakers and learn how to shape public policy on Capitol Hill and in your own state. Don’t miss this chance to expand your knowledge and have your voices heard. Join us! Register today at PTA.org/LegCon to attend.


Yvonne Johnson (Delaware) is the National PTA Vice President of Advocacy.

Thank Your School Leader for Their Hard Work This Year

You know the old saying, “It’s lonely at the top.”

We all know the larger your constituent audience…

  • the more demands are put on you,
  • the harder it is to please diverse viewpoints and expectations and
  • the greater the understanding that you are there to make sure the needs of others are being met, not your own.

And gratitude is sometimes forgotten in the mix. Parents understand this. Many of our mouths would fall open if our children came forward with a heartfelt thank you just for doing our routine day-to-day jobs. No stressors there—just being a teacher/parent/mental health counselor, juggling family budgets and finding our role in addressing racial inequities. All that and the never-ending political news cycle that is raising everyone’s blood pressure. Some of us are secretly struggling but we carry on because we must.

It is that knowledge that makes me have great sympathy for our education professionals:

  • Superintendents have their bosses (school boards) to keep happy. They face withering scrutiny from their communities who suddenly appreciate public education as not just a learning environment for our children, but a critical piece to the well-being of staff, students and families—and a child-care solution necessary for the economic engines to keep moving. Any move they make will be criticized because no one agrees on the right course of action.
  • Principals are not armed with the resources to open or manage their schools. Those who open schools are spending enormous energy playing “COVID police,” monitoring social distancing and cleanliness practices to keep everyone safe. Those who lead hybrid environments are managing a large, human-scale game of chess. Those who lead distance learning are making sure the tools, methods and outcomes that fit an in-person model morph into meeting the needs at hand.
  • Teachers face their own health and professional development needs while trying to balance keeping a whole school community safe and learning. And if like me, you can hear remote learning outside your office, you know teachers are using new tools and methods to engage students and create lesson plans that meet this new world.

Our education professionals are surrounded by us, the parents (and sometimes critics). While there is always room for improvement—and as advocates, we want our voices to be heard—occasionally, we should stop for a moment to express our gratitude towards our education professionals who may need encouragement to keep doing their best. That’s why I encourage you to thank a school leader and show how much you appreciate their hard work. Because as we head into another wave of the epidemic, it is not going to get easy anytime soon.

Let’s start by telling teachers we have their backs. Some of my NextDoor app neighbors are all-too ready to disparage teachers for their unwillingness to rush back into the classrooms and risk their health, the health of their students or their family members. 

Caught in a political divide that misunderstands their intense commitment to our students, the teacher shortage will only be exacerbated by those who decry our teachers as selfish, while paying them an average starting salary that requires 59% of teachers to supplement their income. Meanwhile, each day remote teachers are doing their best with varying levels of student engagement, often while distracted students keep their cameras off. And they know that parents are listening in and commenting on their classroom delivery. (Guilty as charged.)

This is causing 28% of teachers in a recent National Education Association (NEA) poll to report that the COVID-19 pandemic has made them more likely to retire early or leave the profession. Those departures from an already-concerning teacher shortage hit all levels of teachers but grow understandably with the age of the teachers:

  • 20% with less than 10 years of experience
  • 40% with 21 to 30 years’ experience and
  • 55% percent of those with more than 30 years.

While some pillory American Federation of Teachers and NEA as the problem, they are doing all they can to serve, protect and empower a vital but shrinking workforce. While we don’t agree on everything, we should be grateful for their partnership in creating the most sustainable education environment while advancing the profession.

Principals, as the great senior managers of our schools, we support you as well. It was disheartening to learn in a recent National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) survey that:

  • Almost a fourth of our principals have thoughts of leaving sparked for the first time by their working conditions during the pandemic,
  • Nearly a fifth have sped up their plans to leave in one to two years, and
  • Five out of 100 principals plan to leave as soon as possible.

In response to this survey, my friend and colleague NASSP Executive Director and CEO Joann Bartoletti, challenges us with these thoughts, “These new findings on principals’ departure plans should frighten the entire education community. Our schools are already strained by principal turnover, and the school conditions policymakers have created will only intensify that turnover. Couple that reality with a shallowed pool of future principals caused by teacher layoffs and attrition, and we have a full-blown crisis in finding talented educators to lead our schools. We must make it a priority to attend to the needs of current principals and continue efforts to deepen the bench of leadership talent.”

Lastly, superintendents have the unenviable task of finding the way forward with multiple emergent demands—technology, epidemiology, building safety, human resource evolution, the pressure to support a halted economy, transportation and space-sharing concerns, broken links to community supports, conflicted parent groups. We salute your fortitude and your ability to gather expertise to solve the greatest problems ever experienced by a superintendent. But the stress is showing even if we take a positive spin on the events. 

Dan Domenech, longtime superintendent and executive directorat the American Association of School Administrators describes the challenges this way, “Throughout these uncertain times, the intensity has risen to seemingly unconscionable levels. Daily concerns include the health and safety of students and staff, addressing educational inequities, social and emotional learning, collaboration and teamwork among staff, connectivity for all students in the community, and the growing concern about the consequences of change. What’s more, budgets are imploding knowing that the average school district needs to tack on an additional $1.8 million in expenses to resume in-person learning.”

Nevertheless, Domenech has hope. “Perhaps the most striking outcome of the COVID environment is a universal commitment on the part of our school system leaders to use this crisis as a catalyst to transform public education. That’s easier said than done. Even under the best of circumstances, the job of the superintendent is a 24/7, 365-days a year occupation. Despite these challenges, this is the beginning of an extraordinary change in American education. I am confident that our superintendents will stand tall and rise to the occasion as they continue to build a sense of hope in communities large and small so our young learners can succeed in college, career and life.”

As a consumer of public education, I am never ready to silence my voice. The obligation of parents to actively partner with our educational professionals has never been needed more. But there is no discrepancy in being thankful for what we already have while we pursue all that is needed. Being appreciative does not let people off the hook—instead, we know that it causes others to do their best work.

So, this Thanksgiving break, let’s put down the criticisms and recognize the humanity in our leaders that just might need some encouragement. One teacher put it this way: “We’re all human beings. We have to respect and take care of each other.”

You may say, “I already feel grateful.” Good. But did you express it to those who need to hear it? As the late inspirational writer William Arthur Ward exhorted us, “Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.”

National PTA invites you to find a way to say thanks. To make that happen, we have created some simple tools to help express your gratitude. You can use our social media graphics to show your appreciation and encourage others to say thanks as well.

So, to all the superintendents, principals, teachers and other school leaders…Thanks for caring about my child. Thanks for taking on the burdens of our community. Thanks for feeding the hungry kids and families. Thanks for bridging the digital divide where you can. Thanks for your sleepless nights. Thanks for putting yourself and those you love at risk. Thanks for taking on a hard job. Thank you.

Thank a school leader today by using National PTA’s ready-to-use toolkit filled with sample social media posts and images: https://www.pta.org/home/About-National-Parent-Teacher-Association/Donate/Giving-Tuesday#thanks


Nathan R. Monell, CAE is the executive director at National PTA.

Transforming Family Engagement in High School

Even during a “normal” school year, engaging parents and caregivers of high school students can be challenging. As kids get older and more capable of organizing their own school and extracurricular lives, families often wonder what role they should play in their teen’s education.

Research demonstrates a clear drop off in participation: 92% of parents of K-2 students attended a parent-teacher conference, compared to only 58% of parents of high school students. Similarly, while more than half of parents of K-5 students volunteered at school, only 32% of parents of high school students did the same.

But… participation is only part of the story of what family engagement looks like during the high school years, when families’ roles shift to coach their teen and support them to be responsible young people who drive their own learning and success.   

So what actually works when it comes to engaging families of teenagers? How can we ensure that family engagement embodies the 4 I’s of transformative family engagement—inclusive, integrated, individualized and impactful—even amidst the challenges brought on by COVID-19? We spoke to two high school principals to find out.

Dr. Samuel Rontez-Williams, principal of Rayville High School (Louisiana) talked about making family engagement more inclusive and integrated

It’s important to make genuine efforts to check in on students and families and see how they’re coping right now.

Due to Rayville’s hybrid learning schedule, students don’t have classes on Fridays, which makes it a perfect opportunity for teachers to reach out to them and their families. Teachers at Rayville High focus on intentional relationship building by reaching out to families about when something positive happens in class, sending birthday messages, and doing small things that remind students and their families that they care about them as people. In addition to these check in calls, teachers also utilize these flexible Fridays to offer one on one tutoring and other supports.

By high school, students can play a role in encouraging family engagement.

Dr. Rontez-Williams relies on his students to help get their families excited about participating. The most successful events are ones where students are engaged, involved and showcased. For example, rather than offering a curriculum night, where teachers run through what students are learning, Rayville High School hosts an academic game night where teens enjoy competing and families can cheer them on. Academic game nights are a great example of family events that link to learning in school.

But what if you don’t even have reliable ways to reach parents? Immokalee High School (Florida) has more than 1,900 students, and the community is comprised of 41% migrant populations. With families moving around so much, principal Ms. Clara Calderon has developed strategies to make sure they’re doing their best to reach everyone. She emphasized that it is essential to focus on strategies that are individualized and impactful.

Offer personalized assistance. 

Immokalee High School is fortunate to have a 1:1 device program which ensures each family has a device and internet that they can use to communicate with the school. However, even if a family has a device and internet access, Ms. Calderon noted that it is not unusual for families to need help establishing an email address. A great deal of information comes out via email, so she makes it a priority to get families connected. If a family doesn’t have an email account on file, non-instructional staff will offer personalized support that is tailored to the needs of the family, instead of sending out impersonal instructions in the mail or hosting a webinar.

Establish a regular touchpoint and track who is engaging (and who isn’t).

As a way of staying connected with the community, every week Ms. Calderon sends out an e-newsletter in English, Spanish and Creole. But she doesn’t just hit the send button and hope for the best.Instead, she measures her success by running reports and identifying families who are not receiving emails. Her routine data collection informs her which families are getting the information they need and which families she needs to find other ways to connect with.

Ultimately, at the high school level, parents, teachers, administrators and students need to work together. Ms. Calderon summed it up nicely, saying “The more we see ourselves as part of the same team, the better off the child will be.”

As families and schools continue to work together, PTA is here to support. Get more tips on family engagement at the high school level in our new podcast episode, Surviving Quarantine with Your Teen.

Lifetouch Memory Mission 2020: The Spirit of Giving

Giving back is at the very heart of Lifetouch. The Memory Mission has been the cornerstone of Lifetouch’s Give Back efforts since 2000. Most recently, in January 2020, 50 volunteers returned to Rio Grande, Dominican Republic to add on to a school that was built in 2016-2018. The team worked side-by-side with local construction workers to build the walls of a two-story building that will be the school library, a computer lab and a community infirmary. View highlights of the 2020 Lifetouch Memory Mission recap video with President-Elect Anna King and the other volunteers.

During the 2019 National PTA Convention & Expo, Colleen Hervey, president of Ninth District PTA in San Diego, Calif. was selected through a drawing to participate in the 2020 trip.

“Working with fellow volunteers to build an addition to the Cecaini school was so rewarding. However, building relationships with the children and families there was the real prize. Although they have very little worldly possessions, they were willing to share so much love and generosity. We were supposed to be the givers, but it turned out that we received so much more than we gave. I left a piece of my heart in Rio Grande!” Harvey said.

National PTA President-Elect Anna King was also a volunteer on the 2020 trip.

“Playing with the children showed me that love has no borders, no limits and no barriers, no matter where we are from. All children need love,” said King.

The 2021 Memory Mission was scheduled to take place in rural Guatemala in January, working with a local community to construct an environmentally responsible schoolhouse made from bottles and inorganic trash. In August 2020, Lifetouch made the tough decision to postpone the January 2021 trip, prioritizing the safety and well-being of all our volunteers and everyone in the rural Guatemalan community.

“Lifetouch has a long legacy of giving back and the Memory Missions exemplifies that spirit of community, giving and shared experiences through photography and a commitment to education. We look forward to continuing our partnership with National PTA in making a difference,” said Johnny Grant, vice president of sales for Lifetouch. 

In addition, we have deep empathy for the many difficult decisions being made right now by superintendents, principals, and education professionals. Lifetouch supports and appreciates the adaptability demonstrated to start the 2020-2021 school year.

The Lifetouch Memory Mission team and National PTA arecommitted to making a difference and giving back. We join all of you in looking forward to the day when we are past this pandemic, and when we can safely bring joy to communities across the world. At this time, Lifetouch is postponing plans to work with the community in Guatemala to January 2022. Details about this decision are available on our website, www.lifetouchmemorymission.com for more information.

We are excited and look forward to continuing our legacy of giving back with National PTA in January 2022.