Red Apple Mom

January 31, 2011

Harnassing the Power of PTAs & PTOs

Getting issues advocacy work done through a PTA or PTO can be like herding cats.  Volunteers have limited time and PTAs and PTOs are often reluctant to step outside of their fundraising “booster club” model.

Certain events require broader PTA/PTO action though – issues like boundary changes, budget cuts, curriculum or policy changes and school closures.

Too often, PTA/PTO executive boards are nervous about stepping out of their comfort zones and providing leadership in areas that some will say are “political.”  But school issues like boundary changes, curriculum or closures aren’t “political.”  These are serious issues affecting communities and families.  Parents, students and teachers need a voice to advocate for them on these issues with school officials.  PTAs and PTOs are a natural outlet.

One of the most effective tools PTA/PTOs can employ is a “common resolution.”  A common resolution outlines the concerns of an issue and the action(s) the PTA/PTO would like taken by school officials.  I’ve attached a couple of samples here – one for FAIRGRADE which called for changes to the Fairfax County Public Schools Grading Policy, and another from FRIENDS OF COMMUNITY SCHOOLS which calls for a halt to a boundary study in Fairfax County.  FAIRGRADE Resolution , PTA SW Boundary Resolution

A community resolution provides the following advantages for parents, students and teachers:

1.  It demonstrates power in numbers which can translate into influence and ultimately, a shifting of the debate in your favor.

2.  It shows the press that the community is in agreement and speaking with one voice and working in unison to achieve a common goal(s).

3.  If you can get a majority of the PTA/PTOs in your school district to pass the same resolution, it buffers the “divide and conquer” approach frequently adopted by school officials who may want their positions to prevail despite community concerns.

The next time you have a serious issue facing your school community, ask yourself if other schools in your district are facing the same problem.  If they are, hammer out your concerns and solutions in the form of a resolution and start shopping it around to other affected PTAs and PTOs in your area.  Ask them to have their memberships pass the resolution.  If time is a concern, request that a vote be taken by their executive board only.

Once you have all the PTAs/PTO’s on board, or a significant majority of them, do the following:

1.  Send the resolution to the proper school authorities (your superintendent or your school board).

2.  Notify all the PTA/PTO memberships that the resolution was sent to school authorities.  If your school district has a regional or district PTA or PTO council, notify them as well and request their support.

3.  Write up a press release and it to all of your local media.   Attach a copy of the resolution and a list of the all the PTAs/PTOs or the PTA/PTO executive boards who passed the resolution.  Select one person among all of your PTA/PTO leadership teams to serve as a spokesperson about your common resolution and list their name and number on the press release.  Multi-School PTA Press Release

4.  Post a copy of the resolution and the press release to your PTA/PTO website.

Once your common resolution and press release have gone public, monitor all public responses from school officials and decision makers so that you can determine your next strategic move to any action school officials may or may not take.

January 23, 2011

Zero Tolerance for Jeff Spicolli & Ferris Beuller?

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February 20, 2011:  I have updated this blog entry to include an article from the Washington Post that provides details about the situation that may have led to this young man’s tragic suicide.  The link to today’s article is at the bottom of this blog post.

The Washington Post ran a very sad story today about a high school student suicide – with many in the community asking if their school district’s “Zero Tolerance” policy for even non-criminal offenses is to blame.

Why do schools have “Zero Tolerance” policies anyway?  Are such policies fair and warranted?  Can’t we just have “Low Tolerance” policies  for non-criminal infractions that give administrators, kids and lawyers some room to find better solutions that keep a student in their home base school and provide an opportunity for the child to learn from their mistake?  Does every offense have to be worthy of school expulsion?

I remember when my brother was in high school in the 1970’s.  The school environment was very much like the film “Dazed and Confused” which depicted high school life in 1976.  If “Zero Tolerance” policies were in existence then, the student expulsion rate would have been through the roof!  I wonder how many of those graduates from the 70’s are now running our schools.  Why were “low tolerance” policies for non-criminal offenses okay then but not today?

Even in the 80’s when Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” drug campaign was the major focus at every American high school, kids could still screw-up without the threat of expulsion.  Remember, it was also the era of “Fast Times At Ridgemont High.”  My middle-class, suburban  high school had plenty of “Jeff Spicolli” characters smoking it up in the bathrooms and courtyards.  Back then, we were even allowed to bring cough drops to school and even Midol – yes Midol and Tylenol.  And here comes the shocker –  we even shared our Midol and Tylenol.  Guess what?  We all survived.  We learned from the Spicolli’s at our school and from the Ferris Beuller-type characters who frequently skipped class.  Through observation of these in-house “characters,” other students learned what to avoid.  We also learned how to take some risk, have fun and enjoy being teenagers.

‘The Breakfast Club”, “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”, “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” and ‘Dazed and Confused” were all major motion picture successes because they reflected reality.  This stuff happened in our schools in the 70’s and 80’s and they are still happening today.  Kids make stupid choices – sometimes really stupid choices.  But kids are stupid sometimes because – not surprisingly – they are still kids.  Can’t we give them some latitude when offenses are not criminal?  Film director John Hughes celebrated teenage immaturity and stupidity.  He also showed, with great humor, that these same stupid kids were capable of learning from their screw-ups and maturing in the process.  Can’t schools give kids the same latitude today?

At the very least, isn’t it time to have a serious review and public dialogue about “Zero Tolerance” policies?  None of us want our kids experimenting with drugs or alcohol but teen surveys demonstrate that they are likely to do so at some point.  Punishments for such offenses shouldn’t make the situation even worse.  These can be teachable moments if the offense wasn’t criminal.

If you are interested in advocating for this issue in your school district, bring it up to your school board.  Research what type of policies neighboring school districts and neighboring colleges and universities have implemented.  Here are two resources which offer guidance on what other parents are doing about disciplinary policies in the schools:   http://www.fairfaxzerotolerancereform.org, http://www.rutherford.org/Issues/ZeroTolerance.asp

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/22/AR2011012203855.html?hpid=newswell

January 20, 2011

Political Plays With Kindergarteners & Turnips

No school district would dare deny 30 percent of its students the right to play sports simply based on their wealth right?   So why is it ok for a school district to deny 30% of the Fairfax County kindergarten population access to full-day kindergarten simply because these schools are in wealthy areas of the county?  All kids benefit from full-day kindergarten – not just poor kids!

Of the 126 elementary schools in Fairfax County, 37 are still without full-day kindergarten.  To compound the problem, the Fairfax County school district has a shortened day on Mondays.  So the kindergarteners at those 37 schools with half-day kindergarten are in class for a whopping 2 hours and 5 minutes.  That’s not the “world-class” education many people bought into when they moved their families to Fairfax County for the public schools.

Several FCPS school board members have publicly seized on this issue in the past couple months.  And I would applaud them for their efforts if it weren’t for the fact that this appears to be a self-indulgent political play for their re-election campaigns this November.   Ultimately, this is about young children and it’s also about providing equal services to the entire county when it comes to public education.  A noble cause indeed but one that definitely has politics written all over it and here’s why:

These very same school board members who are suddenly showing deep public concern about this issue now, had ample opportunity in the past few years to bring FDK to at least some of these 37 schools.  They claim the money wasn’t there in the budget.  But gosh, that didn’t stop them when they proposed buying themselves a new $130 million administrative building in 2008.  And it didn’t stop them when they decided to expand a once-a-week, 45 minute foreign language program in the elementary schools a few years back.  And it hasn’t stopped them from continuing to buy expensive new technology and computer upgrades for the school district either.

This isn’t about budget constraints.  If they really wanted full-day kindergarten by now, this School Board could have had it.  But they haven’t been willing to make the necessary spending cuts that would free up funds to make it happen.  The fact is, seizing on this issue now is an election year political play.

At a meeting of local officials with FDK supporters Tuesday night, Board of Supervisor member John Foust stated, ” “Full-day kindergarten in all schools costs $8 million?  I think we have room in a $2.2 billion budget to go forward.” What many in the applauding crowd failed to grasp, however, is that Foust was NOT referring to the Board of Supervisor’s budget.  Foust was referring to the School Board’s $2.2 BILLION budget.  Without embarrassing the attending school board members, he was basically telling the crowd that the Board of Supervisors feels FCPS already has the money in their school budget to fund FDK and they aren’t likely to receive additional funds from the Board of Supervisors.  How could they?  The Board of Supervisors is facing a $50 million budget shortfall this year!

Need more proof that politics is at play?  At a community budget meeting Wednesday night in McLean, School Board member Janie Strauss of the Fairfax County Dranesville district repeatedly said the School Board is directing the Superintendent to “squeeze the turnip” and “with hope” they can find the funds to implement FDK.

Hmmmm…that’s funny.  Up to that point, her comments about the budget focused on how FCPS has  already cut themselves to the bone, so what’s left to” squeeze in that turnip” Mrs. Strauss?  And if there was anything left to “squeeze”, why did the School Board run to the Board of Supervisors last summer for an emergency $2 million request to fund the Priority Schools Initiative for at-risk schools?

Once again, where our school district has failed to take action on important policies, it has fallen to the wonderful parents in this county to raise the sound of alarm.  And in doing so, is requiring countless hours on their part to  jump-start a debate that should have taken place years ago.  And, by the way, these same parents are devoting all these hours of advocacy while holding down jobs, raising their young children and entertaining their kindergartener for half of the day when they are not in school.

But keep the hope alive School Board because in times of budget constraints, hope costs nothing right?  Unfortunately, “hope” requires a lot of work in Fairfax County Public Schools.   Parents shouldn’t have to go to these lengths to effect change.  And if it turns out that “squeezing the turnip” yields nothing, parents still have one final card they can play.  Come November, elect new people to the School Board who are focused on results rather than “hope” and turnips!

January 19, 2011

Ring Ring…

Last week, a father in a nearby school district got his 15 minutes of fame in the Washington Post for phone pranking his local school board.  He was upset when the school district sent out an automated “robocall” at 4:30am to announce the cancellation of school due to snow.  So the next day, he prepared his own “robocall” for School Board members – giving them his own personal version of a 4:30am wake-up call.

Did he go too far with his phone prank?  Opinion is divided, but I’m firmly in the disapproval camp.  While I appreciate this father’s attempt at humor, it just appeared so unprofessional, childish and somewhat mean-spirited.

Was it foolish for the school district to robocall parents at 4:30 in the morning?  Without a doubt – yes!  But wasn’t this father also foolish?  What kind of lesson has he taught his children with his phone prank?  Was this the best role-modeling to demonstrate?   I don’t think so.

What would I have done?  I would have brought the issue up to my School Board members at a public meeting with my children in attendance.  If I wanted to inject humor into it, maybe I’d do a takeoff on the Progressive Soup commercials.  I’d bring in two tin cans tied with string and I’d play out the the following script:

Ring Ring – Hello School Board members?  I love our schools, but your robocall notification for school closures SUCKS – kind of like this crappy string and tin-can phone that I’m using to make my point.”

Ok – that approach might be bad role-modeling for kids too.  Here’s a better solution:  Why not play the offensive Robo-call for the School Board members at a public meeting and then ask them, “Kindly raise your hand if you think it is appropriate to send this Robo-call at 4:30am and keep your hand raised if you would like me to send it to you tomorrow morning at 4:30am.”

In taking this approach, this father’s point would have been made professionally.  It wouldn’t have made headlines in the Washington Post, but his point would probably still have resonated with Board members and resulted in the same outcome for ending 4:30am robocalls.  Most importantly, the father would have demonstrated to his children how adults should behave when they are trying to effect change in their school districts.

January 10, 2011

Disparaging Role Models

Filed under: Education — Red Apple Mom @ 9:38 pm
Tags: , ,

Today our fine School Board decided to spend an inordinate amount of time debating whether to include the words “members of the public” in their governing rules when it comes to whom they may and may not “disparage.”

Of course they took pains to make sure they aren’t allowed to “disparage” each other, the superintendent and staff, but the public – we the people who elected them – well that apparently was worth a lively debate.  ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!!!!!

This stupidity comes on the heels of another brain-dead move our school board recently took – going into a “closed session” to discuss the freedom of information act – FOIA. Yes folks. The freedom of information act – which exists to make information PUBLIC – must, apparently in Fairfax County, be discussed in private.  Unbelievable.

Of course, there is a back story to all of this. Other advocates in my county recently spent a lot of time, effort and money FOIAing our School Board on several issues related to a recent school closure vote. Several embarrassing goodies came out in these FOIAs, including one of our superintendents joking in a very “disparaging” way that one of our higher ranking elected officials must be on crack. Nice. That was a particularly special comment considering the fact that our school budget will soon be voted on by this same higher ranking, elected official.

At today’s School Board meeting, one member stated that School Board members are held to a higher standard because as adults, they are “role models” for the students whom they serve.  Umm….can they please inform the crack-commenting superintendent that our schools are Drug-Free Zones and his language should be too? At the very least, this “role model superintendent” should be held to the same standards of conduct our students must abide by.  I’d like to know how this guy still has his $204,500 job when any FCPS student would surely have been severely reprimanded had they written similar drug comments about a teacher or principal.

Looks like our Board will have to debate hypocrisy at another meeting.

January 5, 2011

A New Year’s Toast to Parent Advocates!

“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you,

then they fight you, then you win.” ~ Gandhi

Gotta love the man of peace!  Gandhi died in 1948 and yet his wise words still ring true for parent advocates like me.

For those of you new to the world of education advocacy, the path is sometimes frustrating but oftentimes rewarding – especially when you win!

Today’s blog post for this new year embodies that spirit of hope and success!

Check out what this family in Fairfax County, VA – home to the nation’s 12th largest school district – accomplished just this week.  The parents were fighting Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) so that their epileptic son could attend public school with his professionally trained service dog.  After failing to persuade FCPS about the merits of their son’s case, they took their cause national and made it onto The TODAY Show yesterday.  (http://today.msnbc.msn.com/id/26184891/vp/40906933#40906933)

It appears that FCPS now understands you can’t fight a cute kid and doe-eyed doggy being interviewed by NBC’s Matt Lauer.  Today’s Washington Post reports that the family has now been granted a two-week trial period for their boy and dog to attend public school together.  (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2011/01/04/AR2011010405680.html) Unfortunately, the boy’s Army sergeant father must take off two weeks of work and accompany his son and son’s guide dog, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will all work out for this family.

Still, I am astounded by the extraordinary measures that parents and teachers must take to ensure school administrators do the right thing.  When will school superintendents and school board members realize they should work FOR the parents and community who pay for the schools and not work AGAINST parents and the community?

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