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.


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