Engage! in Creating Excellent Schools

Recently I had a conversation with Jennifer Wiezorek of Plant PTSA in Florida. Jennifer is the VP of Advocacy for the Hillsborough County Council PTA and the Advocacy Chair and the Social Media Chair for Plant PTSA. Last year, Jennifer served as the VP of Membership at Plant PTSA.

Hi Jennifer, thanks for being a part of the Engage blog! Can you tell me a little bit about Plant High School?

Plant High School was built in 1926 in South Tampa. Plant has been nationally ranked as a top 100 high school by a variety of publications, most recently by the Washington Post. Plant is very proud of its tradition of excellence that is illustrated in its numbers – 95% of graduates go on to college; last year’s graduating class was offered $17 million in scholarship dollars; 70% graduated with honors; 88% graduated with a 3.0 or higher; 3,400 AP exams were administered last year.

This year we have 2,335 students, 27% minority. Our PTSA is one of the largest in Hillsborough County. Last year we had 938 members. We are fortunate that our PTSA is very active. PTSA helps support the school’s student run Writing Center – a resource available to all students wanting help with writing, be it a college application essay or a class paper. We also provide the convocation speaker before prom to educate students on wise decision making. Our outreach program adopted a school without a PTA, providing support programs for students and some TLC for the staff. And of course we do the fun stuff like staff appreciation and hosting hospitality events for the school.

Why did the Plant PTSA decide to enroll in the School of Excellence?

As a local unit, we were already working hard to promote PTSA within the community and increase awareness of what PTA does as an organization beyond our school’s walls. Enrolling in School of Excellence was sort of like accepting a challenge. Even though we have always supported our school community, School Of Excellence would encourage us to reach out to and engage our families and administration in new ways. We saw it as a way to evolve as an organization and to look at how we could improve our interaction with our families.

What did you learn when you began the surveys, did anything surprise you?

The survey process was very interesting. It was a surprise to me personally to see that my own experience as a parent wasn’t necessarily the norm. As someone who has long worked closely with PTA and other organizations, it has always been easy for me to stay informed. It was eye-opening to see the number of people who felt out of the loop.

I think my favorite thing about the survey was the way our principal embraced the results and worked to bring about change. We added a comment box section to our survey to allow parents to elaborate on their responses. Results were typical – some positive comments, some negative. Our principal didn’t try to make excuses for the complaints. Instead, he shared both the good and bad feedback with the staff to raise awareness of our families’ perceptions and to look for ways to improve.

How did you decide which goals your team wanted to address?

Our PTSA executive board chose ‘To support students’ emotional and mental well-being’ as our goal. I first became interested in mental health when I was PTSA president at my kids’ middle school. A guidance counselor there mentioned that parents need to have an emotional tool-kit ready to guide their kids through adolescence. We took that idea and adapted it for Plant. As you could tell from my first response, Plant expects a lot from its students. Plant always encourages students to reach higher and challenge themselves, to never look for the easy way out, and results show that our students rise to that challenge. But the reality is that high expectations can bring about a lot of stress. That’s in addition to the emotional challenges that just come naturally with being a teenager. We recognized that there was a need within our student body to talk about emotional wellness in an open and honest way. We wanted students to feel comfortable reaching out if they were experiencing any sort of problem. We wanted to educate parents on the variety of support resources available to students through the school system. And we hoped to lessen the stigma attached to mental illness.

What was your favorite part of the process?

Overall, I think my favorite part was the learning opportunity that the process presents. School of Excellence encouraged a sort of self-discovery within our PTSA. We used the framework of the program to evaluate current practices and identify areas in need of change. The family-school survey was of enormous value in that respect. I would be willing to conduct that survey every year, even during the years we get to relax and celebrate our success!

I also appreciated the level of enthusiasm and support we received from our administration and staff. I would imagine that not every school would be open to the process, but our already busy faculty found time to support and assist us throughout the year. Earning School of Excellence is a collaborative process, and we couldn’t have done it without the backing of our school.

My favorite moment was during the evening program we conducted for the community. Plant’s social worker led off by saying to parents, “If you are not comfortable talking about mental health, your student will not feel comfortable coming to you for help if they need it.” That one statement was so powerful, and really drove home for me the reason we were working so hard.

What impact did the School of Excellence program have on your school or your PTSA?

Working toward School of Excellence ended up being a fantastic period of growth for our PTSA. We expanded our involvement with our families by creating and implementing our Healthy Families, Healthy Kids program. Conducting the survey and acting on the results demonstrated to families that their input is valued and taken seriously. Most of all, School of Excellence made us realize that no matter how excellent we thought we were before we started the process, there is always room to expand and improve.  Our PTSA is better off for having participated in the School of Excellence program, without a doubt.

Is there any advice you’d give to new schools enrolling in the program?

I’d say don’t be afraid to give it a try! It’s a lot of work, I’ll be honest about that, but the journey is truly more rewarding than the destination. I’m sure that all schools that participated, even those who didn’t complete the process, benefited in multiple ways. National PTA is there to support you along the way with a variety of resources – this isn’t something you have to tackle on your own.

I’m so glad Plant PTSA found the process so rewarding! Congratulations again on becoming a National PTA School of Excellence. I think a lot of other PTAs are going to enjoy learning about your journey. Thanks so much for your time!

If you would like more information about the National PTA School of Excellence program, check out www.pta.org/excellence. Enrollment is open through October 1. PTAs who enroll will receive the Getting Started Guide, which describes program components, including first steps to gather feedback from families and set goals with the school.

Sherri_WilsonENGAGE! 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.

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