Focusing on Children and Families in Urban Areas

Lana Ajemian is President of New York State PTA.

NYS_1With a goal to develop, implement and support family engagement and empowerment efforts in multicultural, underserved urban communities across New York, New York State PTA formed an Urban Initiative Task Force in 2012. Over a span of 18 months, members of the Task Force worked together to build a better understanding of the needs of urban communities, develop criteria for establishing sustainable family-school partnerships and create unique service/program models. In January 2014, Buffalo Elementary School of Technology (B.E.S.T. School #6) was selected as a pilot school community for implementation of the initiative.

B.E.S.T. School #6 draws its students from two different neighborhoods on opposite sides of the city of Buffalo. The neighborhood on the east side of the city, in which the school is located, is largely African-American and comprises about 50% of the school population. Another 37% of students live on Buffalo’s west side, far removed from the location of the school itself. This part of the city is home to an immigrant population of Burmese, Arab and Nepalese families, many of whom are unfamiliar with American culture and the English language but are seeking a new life for their children and are eager to do whatever they can to help make this happen. More than 90% of students who attend B.E.S.T. School #6 are eligible for free or reduced breakfasts and lunches. With the combined challenges of language, ethnicity, poverty and neighborhood location, the percentage of students attaining proficiency on state tests is presently about 1.7%.

Once B.E.S.T. School #6 was identified as the pilot school for the Urban Initiative Task Force, members of the Task Force devoted countless hours and expertise to communicating to district administrators, school staff and families the key role of PTA and the importance of family engagement to student achievement and school improvement. In doing so, they garnered interest and built trust among the school’s diverse representative groups – parents, staff and community-based organizations. In July, a two-day parent orientation was conducted. This was followed with an invitation for six identified leaders to participate in New York State PTA’s Summer Leadership Conference. Two parents from B.E.S.T. School #6 attended the conference and left the event excited to bring PTA to their school community.

Passion for inclusivity, a welcoming environment, skillful team building, training and networking brought together New York State PTA and the families of B.E.S.T. School #6, and on Oct. 21, the principal of the school opened her building and welcomed PTA into her school family. Students, parents, teachers, support staff, district administrators and Buffalo Public School Board of Education members gathered at B.E.S.T. School #6 and were eager to celebrate this important “first” chartered PTA of the New York State PTA Urban Initiative Task Force, a nearly two-year effort.

NYS_2Members of the Task Force collaborated with school staff to develop a family-friendly format for the charter celebration event. In recognition of National PTA’s Every Child in Focus campaign and the designation of October as the Month of the Urban Child, National PTA President Otha Thornton joined B.E.S.T. families and staff to mark this important day. And, it was beyond thrilling to have their national president conduct the first installation of the officers of B.E.S.T. School #6’s PTA. One of the officers could not contain her excitement as her dad came to see her installed, saying she had “never been a leader of anything,” and was bursting with pride – as was her dad!

Among small “welcoming” gifts, family pictures were taken through the generosity of New York State PTA’s official photographer, Lifetouch.

As families were leaving the celebration event, several expressed that they felt excited, included, part of a community of support, and that something important was happening here. The event brought 50 new members to PTA, and word is out that two other Buffalo units have already requested charter consideration.

The enthusiasm of all who attended the event was palpable. Most impressive was the feeling of momentum building. The primary goal of the Urban Initiative Task Force is to open the door and empower and support diverse families across New York while fostering partnerships between home and school. With the help of many, Oct. 21 marked the achievement of this goal. Now, the challenge is to build on the momentum and inspire others to also “carry the card that counts!”

View the work plan and framework developed by the New York State PTA Urban Initiative Task Force to help build sustainable family-school partnerships at B.E.S.T. School #6 and in other diverse, multicultural and underserved communities across New York.

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