EDITOR'S NOTE: The Prince George's Extra this week introduces Homeroom, a new column for parents, students, teachers and others interested in schools in Prince George's County. The column will run every other Wednesday and is designed specifically for Prince George's readers. Send your questions and comments to Karin Chenoweth, who will use them to develop topics for future columns.
Well, here we are at the beginning of the school year with its daily grind of school clothes and homework and math classes and PTA meetings, the day-to-dayness of which sometimes obscures our hopes that schools will provide children not only with warm, safe, nurturing environments but also the intellectual rigor, the challenge and the preparation to lead productive, healthy, happy, successful adult lives.
It is no wonder that we often find ourselves frustrated at the shortcomings of schools--we expect so much of them.
And, in addition to bearing the burden of all those hopes and dreams, schools all across the country have been the site of so many political and educational battles that they have developed worlds within defensive worlds, each with its own vocabulary and points of reference. Add to this mix in Prince George's County a new superintendent who comes from outside Maryland and who appears to be determined to shake things up, and there are bound to be swirls and eddies and even dangerous undertows.
Ordinary people need a guide, and that is where this column comes in. Every two weeks it will be a place for parents, teachers, students and residents to have a countywide conversation on a topic that is everyone's business: education.
I bring to the task of writing this column more than 20 (gulp!) years of training and experience. First, I have been an active parent in Maryland public schools for nine years (I have one child entering eighth grade and one in fifth) and have volunteered in many a classroom.
Meanwhile, in my professional life, I have been learning how schools across the country work. For the past four years, I have worked as a senior writer and executive editor at Black Issues in Higher Education, a magazine based in Fairfax that covers higher education with an emphasis on African American and Latino issues. I have been the magazine's specialist on issues related to primary and secondary schools and have talked to some of the leading experts in the nation about how schools run and how they should run.
In addition, for the last six months, I have written a column on Montgomery County schools for The Washington Post Montgomery Weekly. Before working at Black Issues, I wrote for a number of education publications as a freelance writer.
And back in the era I refer to as B.C. (Before Children), I was a reporter and then editorial page editor for the Journal newspapers, with most of my work being in Montgomery but some in Prince George's.
I bring to this column a deep belief in the importance of education, an expertise in unraveling its intricacies and a desire to learn more.
So use all that. If you are confused about the way the county schools are doing something, write in. If you want help figuring out how to evaluate the performance of your school, just ask. If you need some advice on the choices you are asked to make, let me know. Or if you just want to crow about a school triumph or complain about a failure, you now have another forum.
I can't promise I'll know all the answers. You won't always agree with my opinions. But I do promise to report facts as accurately as I can and tell you my opinion as clearly as I can, without mixing the two up so that you can't tell the difference.
So, without further ado, let me answer a question that I received from a Montgomery parent but which seems appropriate to any school. From now on, though, I rely on you to provide the questions, ideas and issues. So write.
Organizing a PTA
My daughter attends a small, private elementary school. We are currently in the process of reorganizing and expanding our parents' association.
Could you give us guidelines and suggestions for creating the best PTA?
There are two main purposes for a school to organize a Parent Teacher Association. The first is to create a sense of community within the school and the second is to advocate in a broadly political way for the needs of children and families. One of the main missions of the National PTA is to encourage parent and public involvement in the public schools, but membership is open to all, including private schools. For a boatload of information about the PTA, go to the Web site www.pta.org. It has a lot of ideas about how to organize and run a PTA and why you would want to. For even more specific information, call the Maryland state PTA at 410-235-7290, which will send you membership packets.
Creating a sense of community requires a number of things: a common purpose, a broad agreement on how to go about achieving that purpose, a way of resolving disputes and a tolerance of other viewpoints. But even before that, you need to know one another. And so, a PTA in any school should have as one of its first goals bringing people together so that they recognize one another and feel a connection.
You can do this in any number of ways, but one is to organize a continual volunteer presence in the school. Not all parents are able to volunteer during the work day, but many of them can give a couple of hours a month. Even this amount of time allows parents to get to know the children, the teachers and one another and gives them common experiences that serve as a basis for conversation. It is occasionally even helpful to the teachers, as well, in providing grunt labor for photocopying, cutting out paper, shelving library books, organizing art supplies or grading math and spelling tests.
Every PTA also should organize volunteer opportunities, such as running a tutoring program in math or reading or fixing up the school courtyard or grounds, in evenings and on weekends. The activities should be meaningful--no one has time for busy work--and varied enough that all volunteers can find something they are interested in. And don't rely on printed announcements to bring out volunteers or you will be perpetually disappointed. You have to speak to people individually and ask them to do something specific that fits their schedules; if you do, you will be surprised at the response.
Even more basic than organizing volunteers, however, is to publish a directory with each child, class, address and phone number. In my child's elementary school, we also include what language the family speaks at home and cross-reference the child's last name with the parent's last name, if they differ. Something as simple as a directory means that children can invite school friends to birthday parties and outings and parents can call other parents to find out whether the math homework really was supposed to take 1 1/2 hours to finish.
And, of course, you should have a monthly newsletter with announcements of school and PTA events, a letter from the principal and any news that affects the school or the students.
The Maryland PTA has sample by-laws, which will help set up your school's PTA structure. But if you organize yourselves in a traditional organizational pattern, you will have a president who runs the monthly meetings and acts as the liaison between the organization and the school principal; a treasurer who reports regularly on how much money the organization has and what it is spending the money on; a secretary who keeps notes and publishes minutes; and perhaps a few vice presidents who are in charge of specific committees, such as communications, fund-raising and special events. PTAs also should have a vice president in charge of political action such as advocating for smaller class sizes and linking with other PTAs in the county, state and country.
For maximum participation, choose officers and committee chairs who live in different neighborhoods and attend different places of worship so they can draw on different networks of friends and acquaintances for volunteers.
Most PTAs hold monthly meetings, the best of which have a short--note the word short--business meeting in which the members are brought up to speed on recent activities and the state of the budget and can vote on any expenditures. Use Robert's Rules of Order to make sure everyone gets a say and no one unfairly dominates. (You can get a simplified version at public libraries.)
The rest of the meeting should be organized around a topic that parents are interested in, such as what the students are learning in math and science, how to help children get their stuff organized and how to best prepare for college.
Most PTA meetings are held in the evening, but I have heard of some PTAs that hold occasional daytime meetings so parents who work nights can participate. Daytime meetings also are more convenient for teachers, who unfortunately are often the forgotten part of the PTA.
By creating a community where parents, teachers and students know one another and work together on common projects, you will help create the kind of environment where children know how important their education is to you and the wider community. And you might even make friends and have some fun at the same time.
Homeroom is a forum for you. Send questions, opinion and issues you would like to see discussed to Homeroom, The Washington Post, 14402 Old Mill Rd., Suite 201, Upper Marlboro, Md. 20778. The fax number is 301-952-1397. Or you can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.