By Todd Cohen
RALEIGH, N.C. — What are schools serving for lunch? How nutritious are the meals? Who makes up the menu? How do they decide which foods to serve?
Recognizing that children do better in school when their food is more nutritious, the North Carolina PTA is working with the Wake County School Health Advisory Council to find ways to get parents to work more closely with schools to make sure children eat healthier food, both in school and at home.
A key goal is to help parents better understand how their kids’ schools make the decisions behind the meals their cafeterias serve. The effort also aims to help parents see the impact of nutrition on academic performance, get them more involved in the food decisions schools make, and offer classes on preparing healthier meals at home.
Improving connections between families and schools is critical to helping students succeed, says Virginia Jicha, president of the board of directors of the state PTA.
“Research shows that in schools where the community and parents are involved in the education of their students, the students are more successful,” says Jicha, a fourth-grade teacher in Fayetteville.
Founded in 1919, the state PTA works as an advocate for 130,000 members of local PTAs that represent 40 percent of North Carolina’s public schools. Its top priority is school funding, particularly an increase in per-pupil spending, which Jicha says has not kept pace with rising public-school enrollment and costs.
The state organization operates with four full-time employees and an annual budget of $500,000, with member fees generating half the revenue, and grants to support health initiatives nearly the rest.
This fall, to diversify its funding, the state PTA will kick off its inaugural annual fund campaign, which aims to raise about $5,000 its first year, and $10,000 to $20,000 a year within three years, Jicha says.
A key job of the state PTA, which in November marks the start of its 99th year, is to provide training, tools and support for local PTA affiliates, says Catherine Peglow, who joined the state PTA in July as executive director and general counsel.
Late this summer, the PTA hosted training sessions for new leaders of local PTAs on their roles, their affiliates’ operations, and programs the affiliates and statewide group provide.
Local PTA leaders earned how to use the state PTA’s membership database — both for electronic collection of membership fees, and as a tool to get information to members and communicate with them.
And leadership in getting families engaged in schools was the focus of a training session at the School of Business at Campbell University.
Throughout the school year, the state PTA offers 11 webinars on topics ranging from the role of a local PTA treasurer to raising money and serving as an advocate.
It also fields questions from local affiliates on topics like recruiting new members, or forming partnerships between families and local schools to identify student needs and find ways to address them.
In May, at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington, the state PTA will host about 200 members at its annual convention, held the past two years at N.C. A&T State University in Greensboro.
The PTA also hosts a statewide arts competition, with students creating arts projects — based on a single national theme based on suggestions from students — in art forms ranging from dance, film and writing to music, photography and visual arts.
And the national PTA, which supported the introduction of school lunches throughout the U.S. in 1946, now is spearheading efforts to encourage parents to partner with local schools to make school meals healthy and to promote healthy behavior.
Making children’s potential a reality is the PTA’s mission, says Peglow, who most recently was director of continuing education for the North Carolina Bar Association.
Student success in school — including higher literacy and overall academic performance — depends on improving students’ health and wellness, she says.
A critical step, she says, is to get more parents more involved and active in working with schools to make sure children are healthy and ready to learn and succeed.