News from the Illinois PTA Convention—School of Excellence Program

At first glance, Kreitner Elementary School in Collinsville looks like a school that would be struggling to get families involved. The Pre-K through fourth grade school has just under 400 students, and 91% are from low-income families, 100% receive free lunch, 75% are Hispanic, and 53% are English Language Learners.

And a few years ago, it was a school struggling to involve families. The PTA was made up of three to five parents most years, all of whom were alumni of the school 30 years earlier, and PTA meetings might have a dozen parents show up. Hispanic families rarely came into the school.

Today, Kreitner PTA has as many as 200 people attending their PTA meetings, membership is up nearly 600%, student achievement is improving, and 95% of parents would recommend the school to others, based on the 5 Essentials Survey. What caused this dramatic change at Kreitner? The short answer is the National PTA School of Excellence program, described by Kreitner PTA treasurer and Special Education teacher Greg Hobbs simply as, “The best thing a PTA can do.”

Starting the Process

At the 2017 Illinois PTA Convention, PTA leaders and staff from Kreitner shared how they had used the National PTA School of Excellence program to engage the families at their school and transform both their PTA and their school. The School of Excellence program begins with the PTA choosing a focus for their efforts. At Kreitner, that focus was family engagement because everyone involved felt that issue was critical to everything else they wanted to happen at the school.

The next step in the process is to survey families about the school. The program offers an online survey, but only about 70% of Kreitner families have internet access at home, so the PTA felt that the online survey wouldn’t work for them. They set up a paper survey with the questions in English on one side of the paper and in Spanish on the other side. To encourage families to return the surveys, they offered a drawing for a Walmart gift card from among those who responded. PTA leaders then spent a fair amount of time entering those responses online.

Surprising Results

The results of the survey were surprising to both PTA leaders and school administrators. The School of Excellence survey is designed to give schools and PTAs a mapping of their strengths and weaknesses, as well as providing a “Roadmap to Excellence” that the PTA can use to work towards their goal. PTA leaders and school administrators had long assumed that the reason Hispanic families did not come to PTA meetings or events was due to the language barrier. What the survey showed, however, was that these families did not feel welcome at the school or in the PTA.

Transforming a PTA and a School

Based on the results of the survey and using the Roadmap to Excellence, Kreitner PTA developed a plan to welcome every family into the school. They began by working with their school district to translate PTA materials into Spanish and convinced the district to pay for a translator at their PTA meetings.

They worked to get teachers on board with the PTA as well. Their “Building a Strong PTA” membership drive had each teacher who joined the PTA get a cutout of a hammer with their name on it posted on their door (and classroom aides who joined added a second hammer). When families joined the PTA, a nail was added to each teacher’s door that had a child from that family. They held a drawing for a $25 gift card for classroom supplies for the teacher whose class had the highest percentage of membership by the end of October. The result was every teacher joining the PTA, including all of the traveling teachers who were only at the school part time.

Member Benefits

With all of the teachers on board and a growing number of families joining, Kreitner PTA then decided to provide some local member benefits for joining the PTA. Every year the PTA would have a fall festival that served as their primary fundraiser. Families would purchase tickets for students to participate in games and activities for $0.25 each and could purchase a hot dog for $1.00 at the festival. For PTA members, Kreitner provided PTA members a couple of activity tickets and a free hot dog for each child in the family. Families could purchase a PTA membership at the door, so some families could actually save more than they spent on a PTA membership that night alone.

While the member benefits cost the PTA at the door, they still made money at the festival through additional ticket and hot dog sales. Membership jumped to 147, up from 25 the year before. The real benefit for Kreitner PTA, though, was getting many more families coming through the school door and becoming familiar with the PTA, teachers, and staff.

Involving the Kids

So how did Kreitner PTA get 200 people at a PTA meeting? By including the kids at many PTA meetings. They helped form a dance team that does traditional Mexican dances and had them perform at a meeting. Another PTA meeting featured a schoolwide talent show, while another featured artworks for sale created by every student.

Before the PARCC assessments last spring, they hosted a PARCC Pizza Night for students and families. Families could choose to hear the program in either English or Spanish, rather than the English with Spanish translation that the PTA uses for most events and meetings. Students attended with their families and could demonstrate what they had learned that year and how they were ready for the PARCC assessment. The PTA included a drawing for one of three gift cards as well to encourage families to attend.

The End Result

Kreitner PTA completed its follow-up survey last spring and was named a National PTA School of Excellence. But beyond the recognition, Kreitner PTA leaders noted a significant milestone for the PTA. Even as more Hispanic families attended PTA meetings with the translator translating everything, PTA business was generally conducted with the English-speaking parents making motions and contributing most of the discussion on those motions before everyone voted. However, at a recent PTA meeting, a motion was made in Spanish, discussed in Spanish, and the vote conducted in Spanish, all with English translation.

That is not to say that Kreitner PTA still doesn’t face challenges. Post-election immigration fears have reduced the number of Hispanic families attending PTA and school events, and PTA leaders and school staff are working to deal with those concerns. However, everyone involved with the School of Excellence program feel that it has provided them with the tools, insight, and ability to address these challenges as well as any future ones.

Sign Up Your PTA for the School of Excellence Program

Sign-up for the National PTA School of Excellence program begins in early April and runs through October 15. Keep an eye on the National PTA webpage on the program as well as National PTA and Illinois PTA social media for the launch of the 2017-2018 program. While you are waiting, you can share the results of the 2015-2016 School of Excellence program with your principal and superintendent. Those results include a 30% increase in families’ perceptions of how their child’s school is doing on all six of the PTA National Standards for Family-School Partnerships.

Student Competitions You Didn’t Know Existed

Most PTAs are aware of the annual PTA Reflections program focused on the arts, and chances are you’ve seen the Scripps National Spelling Bee on the news. Those are just two examples of the many competitions that are available to students each year. Kudoswall has created a list of 50 competitions in a variety of areas that might inspire your child to challenge themselves to do their best in a subject or talent that they love. Among the competitions listed are:

  • National Geographic Bee: Hosted by National Geographic, this competition challenges kids’ geographic knowledge.
  • Kids Philosophy Slam: Focuses on critical thinking skills and open to all K-12 grades, the slam has children creating essays or artwork on a specific topic (2017 topic: Is the pen mightier than the sword?) in order to be crowned “The Most Philosophical Student in America.”
  • Congressional Art Competition: Sponsored by the Congressional Institute to recognize high school students’ artistic talents, with winners having their artwork hang in the U.S. Capitol for a year.
  • NASKA: Members of the North American Sport Karate Association can compete in variety divisions and skills.
  • National STEM Video Game Challenge: Open to middle and high school students, this competition aims to motivate interest in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) by transforming their interest in playing video games into designing and creating their own.
  • C-SPAN’s Student Cam: A competition for students in grades 6-12 to submit a short documentary film (5-7 minutes) that focuses on a topic related to the annual theme.

Be sure to check out the full list with your child to see if there is a competition that sparks their interest so you can start planning on fielding a team or participating next year.

How Your PTA and Families Can Support National Reading Month

3321615408_7bb5356265_bMarch is National Reading Month, and kicks off with Read Across America Day on March 2, Dr. Seuss’s birthday. Your PTA and families can support reading both at school and in the home. Reading is a critically important skill for students to develop, and children who read 30 minutes each day progress faster and do better academically than their peers who read 15 minutes or less daily.

Host a PTA Family Reading Experience

National PTA has partnered with Amazon Kindle to bring the Family Reading Experience for kindergarten through grade 5. The program provides everything your PTA needs to host the event. At your event, there are six stations with literacy games for participants to play. Games are divided between kindergarten through grade 2 and grades 3 through 5. There are four different themes to use, so your PTA can host different events during the year or rotate themes each year. Most of the resources, including promotional materials, are available in Spanish as well as English to help support English Language Learners and their families. Plan your event today!

Supporting Reading at Home

The Getting Smart blog recently posted an article on four ways that adults can support child literacy. It included suggestions both for teachers at school and families at home. For families at home, the suggestions were:

  1. Make Time: Have a “Family Reading Time” when everyone in the family grabs their book and sits down to read at the same time.
  2. Provide Choice: Even the youngest child can pick which book to read, even if it’s just because they like books with red covers. Make sure the choice being made in your house is not to read or not to read, but what to read.
  3. Read to Kids: Reading to kids tends to taper off the more adept they become at reading, but children can understand much more than they are capable of reading on their own. Hearing words read to them before they come across them on their own can also help with learning pronunciation.
  4. Talk About Books: Has any child ever provided an informative answer to, “How was school today?” You will likely have a bit more success with, “What are you reading now?” and the answer can provide a jumping off point for further discussion: “Do you like it?” “Why?” “Who is your favorite character?”

Photo © 2006 courtesy of nedradio under Creative Commons license.

The Woke PTA’s Guide to Advocacy

wokeptaThe last few weeks have seen an unprecedented level of civic engagement. Huge demonstrations have drawn out people who have never marched. Congressional switchboards have received more calls than ever before. Your PTA may have many members who are now looking for ways to advocate on behalf of children through PTA. Here’s a guide to help your newly #WokePTA started with advocacy.

IRS Limits

All PTAs are 501(c)3 non-profit organizations, which limits how they can advocate. The primary requirement is that your PTA addresses issues, not people. That means that your PTA cannot endorse candidates, but can (if your membership votes to do so) support a school referendum, advocate for policy changes in your school district, or speak out about pending legislation.

In IRS terms, this is the difference between “political campaign activity” (working for or against a candidate) and “lobbying” (working for or against legislation). The former is prohibited; the latter is allowed. Participating in “political campaign activity” can result in a PTA losing its 501(c)3 status and having to pay certain excise taxes as well.

The other constraint that the IRS places on 501(c)3 organizations is the amount of money they may spend on lobbying. The IRS limits lobbying activity to an “insignificant” portion of an organization’s budget, and defines insignificant as 5 percent. This means that your PTA can spend up to 5% of its budget on things like information handouts and yard signs about a school referendum. Given that most grassroots advocacy involves fairly low-cost activities, this limit should not hinder your PTA’s advocacy efforts to a significant degree.

Engaging in State and National Issues

One of the benefits of being a PTA is having people following issues and legislation on the state and national level. Both Illinois PTA and National PTA have easy-to-use advocacy tools to alert members about pending legislation that they should contact their legislators about.

You can sign up for the Illinois PTA Takes Action Network by providing just your e-mail address and zip code (to identify your state legislators). When Illinois PTA issues a call to action, you will receive an e-mail with a link to our Voter Voice tools that will have a pre-written e-mail that you just need to sign to send to your legislators. It literally takes a minute or two. The Voter Voice tools provide additional resources to help you find out about pending legislation and contacting legislators as well.

National PTA also uses Voter Voice for their advocacy efforts, and you can sign up using the Quick Sign Up box. National PTA also publishes a monthly PTA Takes Action newsletter that provides timely information on national issues.

You should also note that meeting with your legislators, either state or national, doesn’t necessarily involve a trip to Springfield or Washington, DC. Your legislators may have a local office in your community or nearby that you can visit as well. You can use the Voter Voice tools to look up your legislators and locate their district offices. Even if you cannot meet with your legislator, meeting with their staff can be productive as well. Last fall, Illinois PTA presented a webinar on how to meet with legislators as part of its preparation for Illinois PTA Advocacy Day in Springfield. The recorded webinar will walk you through how to set up an appointment and what to do when you have your meeting.

Addressing Local Issues

Advocating with PTA is not just about state and national legislation. PTA advocacy can make a significant difference in local issues as well. As Illinois’s budget crisis approaches 2 years, many school districts are conducting bond referenda to provide needed revenue for their schools. Your PTA can support or oppose a referendum if your membership votes to do so. Illinois PTA has covered the things that PTAs can and can’t do regarding elections, and National PTA recently teamed with Nonprofit VOTE to provide election guides in both English and Spanish.

If your school district has school board elections coming up this spring, your PTA can host a candidate forum. All candidates must be invited to participate in the forum, though some may choose not to do so. Each candidate should be given equal time to speak. Your PTA can have specific questions that it puts to all of the candidates, and you can also take questions from the audience. In the latter case, you may want to have audience members submit questions on index cards so similar questions can be reduced to one comprehensive question.

Local PTA advocacy is not limited to just referenda and school board candidate forums. Your PTA may be concerned about supporting special education students, gifted students, LGBTQ students, immigrant students and families, homeless students, or other groups. There may be school district policies that your PTA does not believe provide the best education or environment for the students of the district. If your PTA wants to address a local issue, but doesn’t know where to start, Illinois PTA’s video on How to Advocate the PTA Way walks you through how to pick an issue, create an advocacy campaign, and bring it to life.

Additional Resources

PTA has been advocating on behalf of children for 120 years, on issues such as child labor, school nutrition, and juvenile justice. PTA can make its biggest difference in the lives of children when it changes policies and laws that affect them throughout a school district or across a state or the nation. The benefit of this long history of PTA advocacy is that there are a lot of resources to help your PTA be successful advocates.