Five Tips for a Great Education

September 19, 2014

By Carol Kocivar, Past President, California State PTA

Carol KocivarIt all starts with food. Really.

Sushi, Mac and Cheese, Banana Bread, Chicken Fajitas, Shrimp Pad Thai, and Dim Sum.

One of the best lessons I ever learned about getting parents and kids involved and engaged is the time- honored school potluck. Invite everyone. Value everyone’s contribution (well, in my case, I might value barbeque ribs more than others, but hey, that is a personal preference.)

Mix cultures and points of view. Add a student performance as dessert. Nothing beats an informal get-together to “create community”.

Here is why it is so important:

A sense of community is the foundation for how our children learn to be good citizens in their school, and in turn, their city, state and nation.

Being a good citizen does not come in our DNA. It is something we teach each generation. And it is one of the most important missions of our public schools.

From the scary headlines in the news today, we know there are values all our children should learn:

  • A concern for the rights and well-being of others;
  • To tolerate, appreciate and seek out different perspectives;
  • A sense of civic duty at local, state, national and global levels;
  • The awareness of the power to change things for the better.

Here are five tips on how parents can help their kids and their schools become more engaged and involved:

  1. Discuss current events at home and in school.This is an election year (my goodness, in a democracy it happens every year). Issues on the local or state ballot affect the lives of children. In my community we are voting on money for schools, children’s services, playground renovations, and a tax on sugary beverages. What do your kids think? Election issues are great topics for discussion around the dinner table.But don’t limit the discussion to deciding how to vote. Encourage children to read about current events. Ask their opinions. Help them think through an issue. Even if they come to a different conclusion than you, this is good preparation for decisions they will have to make in school and life.
  1. Take your kids with you to vote and to other election activities. Kids are more involved if their parents are involved. Students and parents can volunteer for a campaign. If you are eligible to vote, taking kids to the polling booth models great civic engagement. Your older kids can help you prepare that sample ballot you take with you (let them know that voting is not a pop quiz – you really do need to study ahead of time).  Younger kids enjoy wearing stickers. The “ I voted” sticker counts.High school students can act as poll workers.

    Here is where you can find an application:

    Students, teachers and principals also can participate in the MyVote California Student Mock Election. For more information, go to:

    P.S. on voting: When your children turn 18, make sure they register to vote if they are eligible.

  1. Encourage students to get involved in community activities.Activities outside of school help your students understand their role in their community. Whether they are interested in animals or tutoring or sports, the environment, or a political campaign, communities are full of volunteer opportunities. Check out activities advertised on local web sites. Share them with your kids. See if this sparks an interest. If you volunteer for something you feel strongly about like the PTA, invite your kids to go with you and help out.
  1. Encourage students to help make local education decisions.Local communities now have a greater voice in deciding how education dollars are spent. This is a new and important area for student involvement. Be forewarned– students may be more informed than some parents. As schools develop their local control and accountability plans (LCAPs), ask your kids to tell you what they think is important. Encourage them to go to community meetings to let grownups know their top issues. Also, invite students to your PTA meeting to share ideas and suggestions on how to improve your school. One good resource to learn more about education issues is
  1. Keep a close eye on what is taught in school.Civics is more than that class in 12th grade. It is about our values as a nation and our values in our communities. Learning these values cannot wait until the last year of school. It must start at home and in kindergarten.

    How does your school include civic learning on your report card? Does it tell you if your child is learning to follow rules, take turns, show determination, cooperation, honesty, courage, and individual responsibility?

    Does your school teach kids how to create a community?

    Do children learn the importance of making a better world? How is this taught to young children through the celebration of national holidays like Thanksgiving, Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays, Martin Luther King Day, Columbus Day?

    Does instruction in government, social studies, and history strike a good balance between knowing facts and events and teaching students how these ideas apply to their lives today?Do students participate in student government to get a sense of responsibility and have a voice in how their schools are run?

    Are there opportunities to debate ideas, participate in legislative activities and mock trials?

    Are engaging online resources shared with students, such as, an education project founded by United States Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner, that are designed to teach students civics and inspire them to be active participants in U.S. democracy?

We are what we eat.

This sense of community, the importance of creating good citizens, is a missing ingredient in our conversations about school reform. Too many schools and too many kids have been starved of these essential nutrients for a healthy civil society.

Oh, and did I mention– someone please bring barbeque ribs.