As the new year gets under way, the PTA Council of Howard County plans to continue its advocacy on behalf of the school district's nearly 48,000 children. That means, among other things, working with the school board on policy revisions and promoting programs that help students excel, said Deborah Wessner, who is in her third year as council president.
"We want to have living policies that have some meaning to people," Wessner said. "We want documents that people can refer to routinely and understand how they're enforced."
For instance, Wessner said a policy that states school fund-raisers cannot be conducted where alcohol is served has been a point of concern for the PTA Council, which is an advocate on behalf of the county's PTA and PTSA organizations.
"Many schools have fund-raisers in restaurants and in other venues where alcohol is served," she said. "We want to make sure they don't put something into place that will not be [enforced]."
Courtney Watson, chairman of the county Board of Education, said the board will review about 30 policies this year.
"We are aware of this and are looking at many policies," she said.
Watson said that policies are reviewed by a committee that includes representatives from the PTA Council. The superintendent then makes a recommendation to the board, and a public hearing is scheduled to give the community a chance to weigh in. The board can then vote on the policy or send it back to committee for changes.
Wessner said another policy that warrants further examination involves the eligibility of freshmen to participate in extracurricular activities.
Under the policy, incoming ninth-graders must have a final cumulative average of C or better in core courses and no failing grades in the final marking period of eighth grade to participate in fall extracurricular activities.
Wessner said that students should be given an opportunity to retake some of the courses during the summer, but "many of the subjects aren't even offered during the summer."
"Research shows that students who don't get involved in extracurricular activities early in high school don't get involved later," she said. "We have to take a different look at this."
Watson said eighth-graders have opportunities to take make-up classes in core subject areas, but not all classes.
"The board is aware of this issue ... and it will be a lively debate," she said.
The school board is scheduled to consider revisions to the academic eligibility policy Jan. 13.
Students' rights and responsibilities and the code of conduct are also under review, and Wessner said the council is looking for "consistency" of enforcement so that "we don't have some kids getting suspended for cutting school and others staying at school."
Another issue is transportation. The transportation policy hasn't been reviewed in about 15 years and needs a fresh look, Wessner said.
"Many walking paths have trees on them and are not visible anymore," she said, explaining that some students might need to be transported on buses instead of walking to school.
Regarding redistricting, Wessner said the PTA Council passed a resolution calling for better criteria outlining the work of boundary line committees.
Watson said the board is looking at what specifics should be given to such a committee, including how the committee should be formed.
"These policies are in a state of revision, and it's helpful to have the PTA [and others] point out [suggestions]," Watson said.
Wessner said the council's advocacy also extends to the county level.
The group recently appeared before the county Planning Board, asking that the builder of new homes in Turf Valley set aside 50 acres of usable land for future schools.
"We believe there will be children living in those homes, and we want to be proactive rather than wait and see a ripple effect in the schools," she said.
As for helping students excel, Wessner said the Reflections program, a national PTA fine arts and writing recognition program, is one example.
It involves students submitting art and writing projects and competing on local, state and national levels.
To help PTAs exchange ideas to benefit their schools and students, a "Sharing Great Ideas" meeting will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. Jan. 26 at Faulkner Ridge Center in Columbia's Wilde Lake village.
"Each PTA runs independently and oftentimes miss out on the positive ideas of other PTAs," Wessner said.