In Appreciation of the PTA

In the summer of 2008 we moved to Chicago. My oldest was due to start kindergarten the following year and the home we eventually choose was in the catchment of a highly regarded public school. It had a 9 rating on, but the parental reviews were mixed.

Some people loved, it others complained about the autocratic principal, lack of communication and the parent body.

“It is a strange, cliquish, unwelcoming environment with nasty politics.”

When my son entered the school I didn’t find the Parent Teacher Association particularly polarized. Perhaps as a man I didn’t notice or I wasn’t made privy to some of the politics. Or maybe kindergarten parents are just too new to adopt entrenched positions.

But those reviews have stuck in my mind.

At my kids’ current school in suburban New York a group of parents, that would be a bunch of mothers and me, tend to congregate in the same spot after school. Other parents come together in different places. Our group is heavy with PTA executive board members. Do the other parents in the playground think of us as a clique? What about the parents who pick up their children and leave the school grounds immediately?

Humans like to group together. It is inevitable that parents will divide into groups on the playground. They might be more loosely bound than the cliques of their kids. Adults are better able to smooth over the social cracks, but they are never far below the surface.

Given this fact, and my subsequent work on the PTA those comments on are particularly irritating. I want to tell those people to get over it. If you are too busy, be thankful someone else has the time to give. Look on the bright side.

If you can’t see the positive, here is a list of things the PTA does for my kids’ school. For effect I’ve put one item per line, so get ready to scroll…

  1. After-School Clubs: Over a dozen clubs ranging from beading to lego robotics, animals to TV production run in winter and spring.
  2. Bike Safety Rally
  3. Book Fairs: In winter and spring.
  4. Building Bridges: Week-long focus on people with different abilities.
  5. Car Drop-Off: Volunteers unloading the kids in the morning.
  6. Classical Café: Beautifying lower-grade lunch room while older kids give them a concert.
  7. Crunchy Carnival: A health-focused school fair.
  8. Cultural Arts: A school-wide event focusing on one of the arts.
  9. Directory: A list of parent contacts.
  10. Fifth Grade Events: Events for the graduating class.
  11. Fifth Grade Legacy Project: A gift from the graduating class to the school.
  12. Kindergarten Square Dance
  13. International Picnic: A Spring Friday Night family event.
  14. Literary Magazine: Printed book featuring a written entry from every student.
  15. Parent Perks: Coffee mornings with guest speakers.
  16. Picture Day: The official school photos.
  17. Scholarships: To help struggling families participate in events.
  18. School Charity: Thanksgiving food drive, Holiday cards for troops, school supplies for kids in Kenya.
  19. School Garden: Getting every student involved in gardening.
  20. School Play
  21. School Supplies: Set up online ordering of back-to-school supplies and delivering them to each classroom.
  22. School Talent Show
  23. Slice of Summer: An after-school party to welcome the new school year.
  24. Scare Fair: A Halloween-themed school fair.
  25. Teacher Appreciation Breakfast and Lunch
  26. Teacher Grants
  27. Walk to School Week: With raffles and prizes.
  28. Yearbook

The PTA, its donors and volunteers contribute to each of the above events. Sure teachers are involved in some of them, but they couldn’t do it without parent help. Remove the PTA and our school would be stripped of most of these programs. Our kids would get a bare-bones education.

It took me a long time to realize this. The penny only dropped when I put this list on the PTA website.

Like any non-profit, the PTA is an organization prone to politics. One of the ideas that sticks with me from my from my sociology studies is the power of giving. When you give to someone, you gain a certain amount of power over the recipient. Which is why wealthy people are so keen to give to political campaigns. Us commoners have to resort to more modest giving; usually donating our time. I notice volunteering comes with an elevated sense of entitlement. A noble entitlement to be sure, but it makes organizations reliant on donated labor devilishly hard to manage.

Martha Friedland, Romy Kirwin, Krista Williams and Melissa Perez.
Martha Friedland, Romy Kirwin, Krista Williams and Melissa Perez.

That is the underside of the PTA. Our PTA just installed it’s new executive board, it is an appropriate time to single out four people who do the lioness’ share of the work, managing the process.

They are Martha Friedland, Romy Kirwin, Krista Williams and Melissa Perez. The immediate past, present and future Co-Chairs of our school PTA. There are a couple of people like them at every school lucky enough to have a PTA.

Their role is truly thankless. They have to herd the volunteers together, field any number of complaints, attend meetings, and gently let down every wide-eyed volunteer with a plan to raise money this way or spend it another, when their idea clashes with the reality of the calendar, or the budget, or the rules around the use school facilities.

They spend half their time putting out fires, and the rest of it stoking the engine so everything is done on time. They will no doubt have to soothe the waters when this blog post goes viral and I’ve left someone’s program off the above list. Which would be a welcome change from some of the “controversial things” I’ve been responsible for.

Perhaps you work full time, or you volunteer elsewhere. Maybe your child butts heads with the son of your PTA president. Perhaps you caught them on a bad day and that’s colored your view of the PTA.

That shouldn’t stop you from appreciating the work they do for the benefit of the school community. So I ask you to do two things; Thank the head of your PTA and next time they pass the hat around throw a few bucks in or give up some of your time.

It’s time to go back to and look at the reviews of my kids’ current school.

Whew, nothing but praise for the PTA. As it should be.

New York Parents to Call for Time Out On Gov. Cuomo’s Education Reforms

Parents across the State of New York are mobilizing against a series of education reforms being championed by Governor Andrew Cuomo.

The Governor’s plan was unveiled in the final hours of the State Budget negotiations, on March 31. It tied adoption of a new teacher evaluation system to increased state aid for schools and passed the Democratic controlled legislature within hours of being made public.

Groups as varied as teacher’s unions, school administrators and Parent Teacher Associations have come out in opposition. The New York State PTA is advocating a Time Out as an act of peaceful civil disobedience.

On Friday, the PTA Council in the Mamaroneck Unified School District, in suburban Westchester County, New York, is asking parents at the District’s four elementary schools to stage a sit-in after morning drop off. My children attend one of those schools.

Parents are being ask to sit with their children outside the school building until the bell signaling the start of the school day tolls, then collectively call for a Time Out, by making a ‘T’ sign with their hands.

The aim is to get the politicians in Albany to stop the process of reform that is on track to be implemented this year, and delay any changes until the start of the 2016-17 school year. The PTA Council wants an extended period of public debate in the hope that the reforms can be modified.

That will be the real battle.

In his State of the State address in January Gov. Cuomo signaled his intention to tackle teacher evaluation by calling a system, in which less than one percent of teachers were rated as ineffective last year, “baloney.”

His solution was to reduce the weight of principals’ observations to 15 percent of a teacher’s rating. The judgment of an independent evaluator from outside the school would make up 35 percent, while half would be determined on students’ performance in state test scores.

But many districts, including Mamaroneck, complain they have implemented reforms to the teacher evaluation system, known by its acronym APPR, Annual Professional Performance Review, and the Governor’s proposal is a wasteful power grab.

Dr. Robert Shaps
Dr. Robert Shaps

In a recent blog post “How To Fix Public Education in New York State” Dr. Robert Shaps, the Superintendent of Mamaroneck Public Schools likened the current reform process to a Monty Python movie.

Dr. Shaps and I were unable to arrange an interview for this story on short notice. To call him cautious or calculating would be too negative, but he is definitely a man who thinks before he speaks. So it is no surprise he didn’t leap at the chance to be in the media spotlight.

Since arriving in Mamaroneck in 2010 he has set about implementing a new APPR. School principals and district administrators conduct a minimum of six unannounced mini-observations of each teacher every year. Feedback is given to the teacher soon after.

In a February article in the Lower Hudson Journal News “Stern: Schools can grade teachers without Cuomo’s help” Dr. Shaps framed the evaluation process as a partnership with the teachers.

“We have established a norm that people will walk into your classrooms, but there is a trust that comes with having a professional dialogue,” he told the Journal News.

While the classroom observations are unannounced the goal is to help the teachers improve, and relies on a level of trust built between the staff and the administrators. To that end everything is documented. Teachers are told what is expected of them and given ample opportunity to meet their goals

The point is that an outside observer couldn’t develop the trust and the intimate knowledge of each classroom required to pull off such a detailed teacher evaluation. The Mamaroneck School District makes over 3,000 visits to nearly 500 teachers a year; is the State really going to invest that much time and money in teacher evaluation?

Advocates of reform like to portray district-level APPRs as the rubber-stamp of the status quo. While that might be true in some cases, Mamaroneck is not one of them. Teachers have been denied tenure. It happened in my children’s school last year. As Dr. Shaps told me in the aftermath of some parent dismay at that particular termination, the tenure system puts the onus on him to make the right decision. He gets one shot and is totally invested in making an informed choice.

Chatsworth School PTA President, Kerry Roberts Sneyd calls for a Time Out.
Chatsworth School PTA President, Kerry Roberts Sneyd calls for a Time Out.

Kerry Roberts Sneyd (pictured), President of the Chatsworth School PTA, who is one of the Time Out protest organizers says, “The district has spent considerable time and effort creating a culture of collaboration in the classroom, that seems to be working.”

Her concern is that the governor’s approach would be more judgmental and would result in a step backwards towards a higher-anxiety classroom environment that is too focused on testing and outside evaluators.

Roberts Sneyd shied away from any policy prescriptions, calling instead for all interested parties to get together and explore what is working in terms of teacher assessment in different districts around the state in a less-rushed manner.

“There is a real risk to the joy of learning. Why not explore teacher accountability around the state and see what works?” she asked.

Mamaroneck is not an underperforming district, nor does it have a particularly activist parent body. Student opt-out rates on the 2015 state test were well below ten percent, much lower than some districts. The district’s students performed “extremely well” compared to the state-wide averages on the 2013-14 state tests according to Debbie Manetta, the District’s Director Public Relations.

While parents and administrators have some concerns about the reliability of the tests, their opposition to the proposed reforms is not driven by the fear of being given a failing grade.

Their motivation is to come up with the best solution for their child’s schools. If that means defending an effective local system from the heavy hand of Albany, they will raise their hands in a ‘T’ and call for a time out.

The Dad in Shining Armor

The deadline for my latest book is fast approaching. In fact, I should be sitting here figuring out a final schedule; Work back from the delivery day, June 17. I need two weeks for printing: Let’s aim for June 1. That leaves me less than a week for the least-enjoyable part of being an author, the final editing and proofing.

Crikey, I really should stop blogging.

The book I refer to is the local elementary school yearbook. It is my second year as editor of the yearbook, which is paid for by the PTA, and it strikes me that my approach to this job has been very male; DO IT YOURSELF.

Working alone is fine by me. I’m naturally introverted. I’m a man; asking for help is an unnatural condition. So our school yearbook is published by a man alone in front of his computer, in a strictly functional and precise relationship with the Adobe InDesign desktop publishing software.

The Man Alone
The Man Alone

There is none of this harmonious group of mothers standing around a kitchen table with a bottle of Prosecco pasting snapshots onto a page, which is how my neighbor described the publication the yearbook in her day. I imagine that scenario would also result in a great yearbook, unless someone has one sip too many and asks if that B******’s child deserves a spot on the cover!

Just so I’m not accused of painting a portrait of housewives as vindictive wine-soaked old gossips I will admit that were I in that situation, I might be the first as ask that question. It has a certain subversive appeal to me. I like to stir things up.

While I might approach this project with stereotypical manliness, I’m not stupid. I delegated the really onerous job of collecting the fifth grade baby photos to a woman.

I’ve tried to take the rest of the photos myself. Parents, that has been me at most school events with my camera. I’m doing it for the school, not because I am a creepy guy.

The women I am among, the ones who have assured themselves I’m not a voyeur, give me a great deal for credit for my photographic labor; I’m dedicated, I take lovely photos, I’m always around. It’s a lot of work.

I’ll take that praise, but I feel duty bound to acknowledge that my motives are much more self-serving.

  1. Other people take horrible photos. They are out of focus, full of red eyes, branded with date stamps, washed out by the use of a flash or backlit. Which is what happens when the sun is behind the subject of the photo and their faces are in shadow.
  2. They send them to you in low-resolution files, which look perfect on a screen but print fuzzy. Then you have to spend time chasing them down asking for a larger file. Then they attach six original-sized files to one email, and your server retires hurt…
  3. I don’t want to feel I have to use the photo someone sent me, because they might be offended if I don’t.

It is more efficient to take my own photos. It has the attendant benefit that while I am taking photos I don’t have to volunteer for anything else. No manning the ticket booth at the school play for me! Nor running the donut eating competition at Scare Fair, or fitting kids with bike helmets at the Bike Safety Rally.

Of course, I did end up fitting helmets. My friend was running that event. She is a born and bred Manhattanite, recently emigrated from the Upper East Side. She sniffed out my B.S. in two seconds, called me on it in one, and drafted me in when the line was getting unwieldy.

But I’m ok with that. What man doesn’t like to swoop in like a knight in shining armor and help out when the maidens are in a pinch? Chivalry is not dead; it’s just always been about the guys.

Signing up to volunteer requires organization and commitment. Chivalry is freedom. There is no responsibility to be in place at the right time. But when someone else drops the ball, if you happen to be on the spot, you can step in and get the credit. It works wonders on the coldest morning of the year when no body is manning the car drop off line at school.

Maybe every PTA needs a Dad is shining armor.

After all, there are more than enough women to do all the real work.