11.29.2010

A little less conversation a little more action?



I was resolved last night to be a “kindler, gentler” version of myself. To understand and be patient about the many concerns I have with education, not just in Louisville where I live, but as a whole. Then I woke up, checked the local paper…and all bets are off. In a recent “expose” about one of the High Schools in our community, the reporters point out in a power point, high gloss, slide the amount of PTA members at this particular school over a long period of time. As the District PTA president, no offer of a conversation about the data was asked of me, or any of our board. I feel this is a disservice to our community for as we know, there is a larger story that could have been told, so I am here to tell it.

PTA Membership in this community is on the decline. This high school is not the ONLY school that has a struggle with PTSA membership, nor is it the only school PERIOD, that faces dwindling numbers. Why is that? I’m certain that the economy is a contributing factor for some families. When a school PTA asks for $4.00 (or more) to support an association that so many see strictly as a fundraising group, as well as when $4.00 could mean a contribution to an electric bill or to groceries, it is hard to feel inspired to contribute. Certainly leaders at these schools do a tremendous job trying to explain how that dues payment breaks down, but ultimately you either pay or you don’t. I think a second factor, which is actually more relevant, is apathy. Frankly, parents don’t care. Oh, I know I will get my hand slapped for that one, being the head of the PTA in this community, but it is the truth. Certainly parents care about “their” child or children, but there seems little awareness about how our children are connected to one another and how the life of one child can impact the whole group. Ever have a bad day? That mood can have a ripple effect and suddenly everyone around you has soured. On any given day in this community, children attend school hungry, homeless, or both. And yes, educating all kids in a classroom where one child is disruptive because they are hungry, homeless, or faced with other circumstances, is a challenge. That’s why we have to be connected. Our children certainly are.

Okay, I know. The six of you who read my blog are saying “but we are the one’s who are engaged!” Really? Because the majority of the time what I hear about “engagement” is completely focused on FUNDRAISING. What you want to budget for, fundraisers you will do to create that budget, and occasionally how much was raised. But I rarely hear the about how members sent a message to elected officials about passing the child nutrition act, or see anyone attend advocacy training or hear about an event at a school that is not connected to fundraising in some way, shape or form. If our local leaders (the school PTA/PTSA Presidents) aren’t sharing the PTA message to our members at large, the only message that our PTA members get is that WE NEED YOUR MONEY. That is NOT what the PTA should be about. PTA is about advocacy. It wasn’t started 119 years ago by a group of women who said, “let’s sell some wrapping paper in order to refurbish the stage” it was founded on the vision and belief of “Making every child's potential a reality.” NOT “making every child a fundraising machine to offset dwindling school budgets.”

Membership is only one aspect of parent/family/community support. Again, telling it like it is, in the last eight years I have been an active PTA board member as well as PTA member, and there have been times when it has been a team of three: “me, myself, and I,” volunteering on a project, collecting paperwork, funds, left over catalogs, and popping popcorn. Time and time again, other parents will stop and say, “wow, how do you do so much?” Lots and lots of caffeine my friends, because although you are not helping me in this particular project (don’t have the time, wasn’t asked, have other commitments…), “we” (yes the collective we, the we who paid their dues, who passed the budget, who said we want this, this and this, for this school) made a promise to the children and families of the school and community that “we” would follow the mission and vision of the PTA to do our best in “making every child’s potential a reality” and you never break a promise to a child.

So while the High School mentioned in this article may not have hundreds of PTA members, let’s be truthful. Other High Schools in this community are allowed to include membership in their fee schedule. It doesn’t mean that they have hundreds of volunteers, just ask the leaders at that school and they will tell you it is the same five people who have been sitting around that table just like they were attending the mad hatters tea party. Each year at election time they stand up, move one space to the left, and voila, a “new” PTA board.

And that is why I’m frustrated. Not by the article that didn’t ask for input or comment about the data. Not even about the article itself. I’m frustrated because the PTA in our community, which countless numbers of parents, teachers, administrators, students, and community members support and encourage others to support is failing in its mission. While a Fall Festival is a great school community builder, it has sadly become yet another fundraising opportunity. And until fundraising is delegated to the bottom of the PTA list, then that is all PTA will ever be in this community. The potential is there…but is the motivation and commitment to live up to that potential? I know that we are volunteers, but we are also leaders. So I ask, are we leading our members to Frankfort to demand support for the funding to support quality education for every child, or are we leading our members to their ATM? We should be doing the first, but far too often we focus on the second. The children of this community deserve so much more than this.
I know that this sounds so heavy handed. And for the countless PTA leaders and volunteers who make a difference in their school every single day, without thanks, without support, I recognize your efforts and am so grateful. I appreciate how you do your very best in circumstances where you feel overwhelmed by circumstances. And I would never ask a volunteer to do something that I was not wiling to do myself. So when you are sent a newsletter from the district or the state, please share that information with your members and non-members (they might be inclined to join). When you are sent an action alert, please pass along so that others have the opportunity to respond. When you know of an advocacy training session, attend or send someone to attend. When you know of an event (such as Kentucky Kids Day at the Capital in Frankfort in February), mark that event in bold on your calendar, the PTA calendar, the school calendar and get a group together, including students, and attend. I need your help to make our PTA a more vital and viable part of this community. For I believe this "Your past is not your potential. In any hour you can choose to liberate the future.” (Marilyn Ferguson). As we plan for winter break from school, let's look forward into what we can do to make our schools stronger...not for ourselves, but for our children. That's what PTA is all about.


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