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There are worse jobs than being editor of a school’s parents association newsletter — bathroom attendant in the dysentery ward the morning after Taco Night, perhaps — but some idiot always volunteers. Meet that idiot.
Not that I’m complaining. OK, I’m totally complaining, but it’s been a rough week.
Some background: My daughter’s Upper West Side elementary school has one of those turbo-charged parents associations that raises and spends more money than the governments of some developing nations. The PA’s newsletter isn’t a mimeographed handout sent home occasionally to remind parents about the bake sale. It’s a carefully designed, professionally printed two-page tip sheet that goes home every week with every kid and reminds parents about the bake sale. (Despite the hoopla about banning brownies a few years back, bake sales continue to be a time-honored fund-raising tool.)
Can parents from schools with active Parents Associations help others from less-advantaged schools learn such basics as how to set up a PTA, run a fundraiser, or establish themselves as a non-profit? A newly formed parent group believes that they can and is reaching out to parents in all five boroughs to participate in a project called The Public School Parent Support Project.
Lisa Ableman and Rachel Fine, members of the active Parent's Association at PS 321 in Park Slope, decided to found the organization when they realized that there was no centralized place in the city for PAs and PTAs to connect with one another.
"Although most PTAs have similar general goals and are working toward some common ends, there is no good, central place for them to go to access and share information and resources," said Ableman. "Most PTAs function in relative isolation, replicating each other's learning curves, reinventing the wheel over and over again. Even individual PTAs themselves, often start over again year to year as new officers do not have a very good way of getting a primer on their roles and responsibilities"
After two New York City public high school searches in as many years, I've had lots of ideas about what might make the process a little easier on overtaxed parents: virtual tours, excuse letters for employers, more clear and transparent information from the schools.
I've recounted tales of falling asleep on tours, frustration and fear over tryouts, and concerns about preparing for the SHSAT exams that determine entrance into specialized high schools. I sought out advice from parents, and got an earful about similar frustrations.
I wondered whether anything had improved since my search last fall. When I read a father's plea in the New York Daily News for popular city high schools to do a better job accommodating parents, and his description of enormous lines and long waits for limited open houses, I realized it had not.
Budgets are tight and schools need all the help they can get to bring in outside resources. Applying for grants is one way to help ensure that extra funds become available to your school community.
Here's one source of small grants that Insideschools just learned about. (We'll share others as we hear of them.) Citizens Committee for New York City awards grants of $500 to $3,000 to volunteer-led groups to work on projects that "bring people together and that have a positive impact on the community." The group also offers project planning assistance and skills-building workshops.
Recent awards have enabled students, parents and teachers to come together to make healthy food available in their communities, transform school lawns into community gardens, and start school recycling programs. Citizens Committee is especially looking to reach out to schools in high-poverty neighborhoods .
"Millionaires have got to pay!" chanted public school children, parents, and teachers, who gathered for a protest outside of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's Manhattan office on Tuesday and called for an extension of the so-called millionaire's tax.
Police kept the sidewalks clear for afternoon commuters on Third Avenue near Grand Central Terminal while dozens of protestors took turns at the mic—both real mic and the trademark Occupy Wall Street "human mic"—and aired concerns about budget cuts. Complaints included over-crowding, co-locations, cuts to after-school programs and lack of arts programs.
"The government is more interested in campaign contributions for future elections than for the welfare of New York City kids," said Ben Wides, a father and public school teacher.
"If we're going to put the energy into fundraising, we can put it into protesting, too," said Yong Lapage, whose 10-year-old daughter attends Brooklyn New School. His daughter Simone walked on stilts and carried a sign: "stand tall for education." He said his PTA raised tens of thousands of dollars to offset budget cuts last year.
Cuomo did not make an appearance, but but City Council member Brad Lander of Park Slope and his daughter showed up to support the protestors.
"The fact that everybody wants it, that doesn't mean all that much."
So said Governor Andrew Cuomo on Oct. 17, explaining why he had decided not to extend the "millionaire's tax."
Some public school parents disagree, and they're taking their demand to Cuomo's doorstep on Election Day. They want the tax, which would generate $2.8 billion in the next fiscal year, to help offset a projected $1.4 billion budget cut aimed at city schools next year.
Parent-teacher conferences, being held at most high schools tonight and tomorrow, offer families the opportunity to meet teachers and learn how their children are doing in class. But it's hard for harried high school parents, who must rush around large buildings in an attempt to meet every teacher, to do that in the three minutes allotted for each meeting.
Our High School Hustle blogger Liz Willen thinks there must be a better way. Apparently, Chancellor Walcott agrees. He acknowledged as much in his Oct. 27 speech about parent engagement, likening the school conferences to "speed dating." The department is working on strengthening the conferences, he said, and has developed a tool-kit with sample questions to ask teachers as well as tips for how to prepare. Check out 10 questions on the DOE's website and let us know what you think.
Parents who don't speak English can get free over-the-phone interpretation services at evening parent-teacher conferences. Normally translation is available from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. by calling the Department of Education at 718-752-7373, ext. 4.
Department of Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott presented a five-point plan to increase parent engagement on Wednesday night, proposing the creation of "parent academies" in every borough, and the introduction of a system to rate schools' parent involvement efforts. High school Progress Reports released earlier this week showed that many graduates are not prepared to do college-level work. Walcott said on Wednesday that schools alone cannot boost college-readiness and the effort must involve students and families as well.
He delivered his agenda to an invitation-only audience of parents, Tweed officials and school staff with Jesse Mojica, the DOE's director of Family and Community Engagement, at his side. The chancellor, the grandparent of a public school student, promised to improve communication between the DOE and parents and presented a new online hub to distribute information to parents: http://schools.nyc.gov/parentsfamilies.
I am a lousy PA parent. I watch in awe as my peers chair meetings, organize bake sales, get street permits for carnivals, and write grants for enrichment programs, all the while juggling jobs and multiple children and various and sundry overwhelming challenges and responsibilities. I honestly don't know how they do it.
Although I manage to attend some meetings and sell my appropriate quota of raffle tickets, I am fully aware of my shortcomings in this area. And as education budgets continue to get cut, this kind of grassroots organizing is becoming more important than ever. I love the idea of supporting my school—I'm simply not very good at much of the above.
Luckily, I have an excellent role model in my house who has been compensating for his weaknesses and leveraging his strengths for as long as I can remember: Brooks. Taking a page from his play book, I try to contribute in less traditional ways. What I am good at is building websites, so my husband and I started ShopForCharityNow.com back in 2007 which raises money for charities, including schools.