Beyond the known monthly meetings and bake sales, today’s Parent Teacher Association or PTA is a leading child advocacy organization comprised of millions of families, students, teachers, administrators, and business and community leaders all devoted to the educational success of children and the promotion of family engagement in schools. The national organization goes back more than 120 years and on this episode of Keystone Education Radio, host Annette Stevenson talks with the president of the Pennsylvania PTA, Marie Merkel about the organization’s role in engaging families in their children’s education and how the organization has evolved and remained relevant over more than a century.
Episode sponsor: CM Regent Insurance Company
“Pennsylvania PTA will always play an important role in what is best in the health, safety and education of all children.”
“Throughout the years, PTA has been key in many important developments that improve the health, safety and education and welfare of our children.”
“[National PTA has] a very strong diversity, equity and inclusion program and statement on that in our family engagement programs and other programs throughout the schools.”
“From the time you become a PTA member, it’s important to make sure everybody feels welcome . . . Everybody has something they can bring to the table . . . People can do things and they don’t realize that they can do it.”
“And you can be involved, even if you’re a working parent.”
“The biggest thing is for equal and fair funding for all of our students. Whether it be in regular education, special education, all kinds of programs.”
“PTA is constantly learning more and more, what can be done to help with the advocacy.”
“Right. And we do get to meet with our legislators from across the state . . . we have been very lucky to meet with the senators in Pennsylvania.”
“One of the biggest programs is the Reflections program. It’s the national arts and education program and there are six different categories in arts. Every year, there is a theme chosen, and it’s chosen by a child and voted on.”
“It’s something different and they use their imaginations and it’s all their own.”
Q: What role do you see the PTA playing in the modern-day education of students?
A: Well, PTA is not an educational entity. We have a mission statement, which we follow. And that mission statement is “to make every child’s potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children.” And so, that being said, Pennsylvania PTA will always play an important role in what is best in the health, safety and education of all children.
Q: How has the group, it’s been around for a very long time, a history of more than 120 years. How has the group remained relevant and how has it adapted over history?
A: PTA began many years ago with a few women that wanted to make a difference in the lives of children. And throughout the years, PTA has been key in many important developments that improve the health, safety and education and welfare of our children, such as the school breakfast program and lunch programs, safe schools, parent involvement in education, air quality in schools, public school library programs. And that’s just to name a few. We have many position statements and resolutions on different things in education.
Q: It’s probably way broader than people may realize. Has there been any significant changes in the organization during your time as a member?
A: I have just become more aware of how the advocacy part of PTA is evolving. And getting involved with the legislators and things like that, speaking up for children.
Q: How does the organization connect to the community of parents and guardians? And how do you go about growing your membership?
A: Every year, PTAs have their membership drives in the beginning of the year. And encouraging parents to become part of the PTA so that they can get involved in their children’s education and activity in school.
They have a membership drive. They tell them all kinds of activities that there is going to be, and they encourage every parent to become a member, so they can help not only the financial part, but also help physically throughout the year with the children.
Q: Now, what role do you see the PTA taking in the diversity, equity and inclusion dialogue that is taking place in schools across the country right now?
A: Pennsylvania PTA takes its lead from National PTA. And there’s constant position statements. They have a very strong diversity, equity and inclusion program and statement on that in our family engagement programs and other programs throughout the schools. They talk about the critical race theory and anything else that may be involved in the schools and how we should handle it.
Q: And how does Pennsylvania PTA strive to make the organization a place for everyone and make everyone feel welcome?
A: I can speak from experience on that. It’s from the time you become a PTA member, it’s important to make sure everybody feels welcome. I’ve had parents, “well, I can’t come to meetings because of this, that, some reason.” But you always say there’s something that everybody can do. Everybody has something they can bring to the table. Whether it be making phone calls. Now it’s sending texts.
Baking of when there’s the bake sales, things like that. People can do things and they don’t realize that they can do it. And you just offer some of the little things and people like to do that. And you can be involved, even if you’re a working parent. All my children’s career, I was a full-time working parent.
Q: Okay, great. Now, you mentioned the advocacy work. Tell me, if you would, a little bit about some of the advocacy work that the PTA becomes involved in.
A: Basically, the biggest thing is for equal and fair funding for all of our students. Whether it be in regular education, special education, all kinds of programs. Broadband with the computers, especially now in the last couple of years, with all the virtual learning and things like that. Also, to keep our schools safe, keeping them healthy. The air quality, the testing. Now, more with the vaccines, things like that.
PTA is constantly learning more and more, what can be done to help with the advocacy. Every year we have a national legislative conference and National PTA chooses a couple of key issues and we meet with the leaders and discuss that with them.
Q: And so then the Pennsylvania PTA takes its lead again from the national level. Is that correct?
A: Right. Right. And we do get to meet with our legislators from across the state. And I mean, especially when we do meet, we have been very lucky to meet with the senators in Pennsylvania, which is great. And then are some of our representatives.
Q: Beyond the monthly meetings that everybody thinks of when they think about PTA involvement, what are some of the programs that the organization offers for parents to be connected? And I know you said there is little and big things that parents and guardians can contribute. Is there any kind of formal programs or committees that are available?
A: There is. One of the biggest programs is the Reflections program. It’s the national arts and education program and there are six different categories in arts. Every year, there is a theme chosen and it’s chosen by a child and voted on. And then everyone can participate in one or more art categories, visual arts, photography, literature, music, dance, or film production.
And there’s guidelines. And they submit some type of art. And it’s judged first against children in their own school. Then in their own maybe county. Then they progress. They go to the state level. And then at the state level, then the top winners go to the national level.
We were very lucky in Pennsylvania. We had a couple of national winners last year. And it’s not only for children in regular education, but we have a special artist category. They are all honored at their different levels with different programs, different celebrations. So they get recognized and it’s really, it’s a great program for the kids.
It’s something different and they use their imaginations and it’s all their own. And it’s not necessarily done in schools. Some schools do it, some don’t.
Q: And so that’s a program that probably requires quite a lot of volunteer support, I would imagine.
A: It does. To get the artworks collected, make sure the forms are filled out correctly. Then you have to have judging. So it is. And to watch the children’s faces when they get their little participation ribbons or a trophy or whatever, they are just…
Q: Thrilled. I’m sure.
A: Yeah. It really, it’s a wonderful thing. Last year when we had our virtual ceremony at the end of the year, one of the winners was in India. And we got on at, was it some… Two o’clock in the morning when he was in India so he could get his award virtually.
Q: Oh, that’s awesome.
A: Yeah. The dedication was there.
Q: Yeah. It’s a worldwide program then?
A: Yes. It is.
Q: Wow. That sounds really exciting. What a fantastic program.
A: It is. And there’s been other programs, but that’s probably the longest running one and the biggest one. The PTA one.
Marie Merkel lives in Scranton and is the mother of three adult children. She is a retired special education teacher of 35 years within the North Pocono School District. Marie is an adjunct professor in the Academic Development Department at Lackawanna College as well as a behavioral consultant and mobile therapist for Youth Advocate. Marie’s experience in PTA spans over 20 years from local level experience through and including previous Board of Managers experience. Marie’s PTA experience began at Charles Sumner Elementary School when her oldest son entered Pre-K and has spread through a variety of PTA roles to today where she serves as Pennsylvania PTA president. Marie enjoys being part of the State Board of Managers and working with local units whenever they call for advice.