The New PTSA

When you think of Parent Teacher Student Association (PTSA) members, images of bake sale moms may come to mind. But the organization represents so much more. After-school art programs, fitness activities and guest speakers are just some of the many ways PTSA helps support public schools.

“It’s about figuring out how you can bring out the best in your school,” says Katie Vercelli, Kauai regional director for the state PTSA.

At a time when budgets are tight and state-funded school programs are getting slashed, PTSA is playing a vital role in providing students with extracurricular activities.

Reflections Arts Program, for example, is PTSA’s after-school program that encourages and promotes the arts such as literature, photography and dance.

“Often the arts is the first thing that goes. But we know how important it is and how it enhances the whole learning process,” notes Vercelli.

Students activate their creativity through the program and also potentially receive recognition for their work by entering a contest that eventually reaches the national level.

“Not everybody is an athlete,” says Vercelli. “This is a chance for them to get recognized in other ways.”

Students, teachers and administrators are invited to participate in programs like this, which largely occur after school. PTSA is an all-volunteer nonprofit with some 5,000 members statewide and about 90 local units, which generally consist of public schools. Each local unit decides what it wants to focus on at its school and has a board of directors, which develops budgets and coordinates fundraisers that help make possible after-school programs and supplies for the classrooms.

“The commitment is really about engaging families and the community to support your school, and make it the best it can be, and to bring out the potential for each student in that school,” says Vercelli who, with state biologist Jason Vercelli, has a daughter named Kasiah, who attends Kapaa Elementary School.

The national PTA (which does not include students) was started more than 100 years ago as a way to enlist families to support schools. The state PTSA chapter launched in the 1920s and includes students as part of its overall equation. Not all public schools utilize the nonprofit, even though it’s virtually a free service that only requires a voluntary commitment on behalf of parents and administrators. Members pay a small yearly fee of about $10, which helps fund the state and national organizations while supporting collective lobbying efforts to raise awareness of issues such as bullying and healthy lifestyles.

Vercelli knew she wanted to be a part of PTSA after attending her first meeting seven years ago, when her daughter was entering kindergarten.

“There was a dynamic group of parents who were in charge that just drew me in,” she says. “I wanted to be a part of it. They had such a positive energy, and were just committed to making Kapaa Elementary be a wonderful school and a wonderful place for kids to have a good educational experience filled with other activities.”

Vercelli adds that her father also was her inspiration. He was an elementary school principal who supported teachers and staff while at the same time drawing in parents to help.

“I thought that was how all schools were – that parents contributed their time and energy,” she says.

But she has since discovered that isn’t always the case. When Kasiah started school, Vercelli realized how many programs were being cut and how little funding the schools received.

“I want to do what I can do to help make it a good school. I want to make something really positive happen,” she says.

Vercelli, a California native and part-time occupational therapist, took on her role as regional director in September 2013 and has many responsibilities, including overseeing all Kauai programs, proving leadership training for local units and coordinating the Reflections Arts Program. She also has been instrumental in Kapaa Elementary School’s PTSA-funded after-school enrichment program, Dolphin Club. Vercelli is thankful that her daughter is able to attend this public institution, which provides ample opportunities for enrichment.

“So far she’s had an amazing experience,” she says. “It’s so fulfilling to see the students in their joyful self-expression and the parents being able to be a part of it.”

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