Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Advocating for All Children: An Interview with National PTA President Otha Thornton

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When you think of the PTA, you might picture parents getting together to put on a fall carnival or bake cookies for teacher appreciation week. And while the National PTA does encourage teacher appreciation (and has a great Pinterest board dedicated to the topic), the organization is about so much more.

The overall purpose of the PTA is to make every child’s potential a reality by engaging and empowering families and communities to advocate for all children. The national organization prides itself on being a powerful voice for children, a relevant resource for families and communities, and a strong advocate for public education, working in cooperation with many national education, health, safety and child advocacy groups and federal agencies on behalf of every child.

Otha Thornton was installed as President of the National PTA in June 2013, making history as the first African-American male to lead the organization. He recently took the time to tell us about himself and his views on education, as well as how the PTA is gearing up to address the challenges facing public education.

Public School Insights (PSI): It’s been widely noted that you are the first African American male president in the National PTA’s history. What do you think is the significance of that?

Thornton: It demonstrates that PTA, as an Association, transcends race. The founders did not start PTA as a segregated Association, but due to our southern states and their laws earlier in our country’s history, the National Congress of Colored Parents was formed in 1911 by Selena Sloan Butler to address the needs of black children. The two Congresses combined in 1971 to form the National PTA with the shared mission that all children of all races need advocates to look out for their best interest.

PSI: Also widely noted is the fact that you are a decorated retired U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel. How do you think that your military experiences will impact the PTA?

Thornton: My military experience has been of great assistance. My leadership experience, first and foremost, has lent a tremendous hand to the Association. I have lived in two foreign countries, traveled and operated in 25 foreign countries. These experiences exposed me to different people, cultures, customs, and ways of life.  The most important life lesson that traveling has taught me was that the average person just wants love, respect, and security.  I plan to use my experiences to hopefully make PTA an even better Association.

PSI: You and your family have lived all over the world. Your children have been part of school systems in Georgia, Maryland, Michigan and Texas, as well as the Department of Defense Schools overseas. How has your experience with a variety of school systems shaped your views on education, and how will it influence your work with PTA?

Thornton: It has been an invaluable experience for my children to attend school systems around the world. My wife, an educator, and I have seen see some of the best education systems and some of the worst.  Seeing that disparity impelled me to advocate for the Common Core State Standards.  PTA is a huge advocate of the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which will improve education nationwide. I have seen firsthand what happens when different states have different standards. It hurts education and, ultimately, hurts our children.

PSI: You’ve worked in PTAs at the state and local level, as well as at the national level. How did you get involved in the PTA initially?

Thornton: As a father, I was always involved in my children’s education, so I always attended parent-teacher conferences and PTA meetings. My wife is also a teacher and former administrator. So she also was always involved. More than 40 years of research shows that when parents and families are engaged – through not just “check-the-box” parent outreach activities, but through meaningful, integrated, and sustained engagement efforts – student achievement increases, regardless of a family’s socioeconomic or educational background.  Parents must be active participants in the education of their children, and schools must facilitate a welcoming environment, foster clear communication, and involve parents in the decision-making process. That’s why we became involved.

PSI: What do you see as your role in the National PTA?

Thornton: To serve as an advocating voice and thought leader to help navigate the Association through a challenging, but promising period of education reform. National PTA needs to help lead the conversation on a variety of issues, not only suburban schools, but urban, rural, and military connected schools around the world as well. 

PSI: In what areas do you hope to focus your work at the PTA? What do you see as PTA’s priorities over the coming months?

Thornton: During the next two years, the National PTA will focus on membership, leadership, and advocacy. We are reaching out into more communities and implementing data-focused strategies to increase our membership, which has declined somewhat during the last decade.  Leadership is very critical. I hope to work to ensure that quality leadership training is taking place in all of our State PTAs, and that all PTA leaders are addressing cultural competency as we deal with the nation’s demographic shift. Last, but certainly not least, advocacy is the heart of our Association. We were founded on advocacy, and we will continue to commit our advocacy efforts to address the needs of all children and their families in a robust 21st century model and framework. 

PSI: You take the helm at PTA at a challenging time in education. Schools across the country are closing and teachers are being laid off, both of which disproportionately impact low-income and minority children. Sequestration is impacting schools across the country, particularly those receiving Impact Aid, which goes to schools serving Native populations and military families. The Common Core, an initiative that PTA has long supported, is under attack in many states. What is PTA’s role in all this? How can you help strengthen our nation’s schools?

Thornton: First, as an Association, we are addressing the issues of sequestration by educating our members and providing tools for them to advocate in their communities, in their state and at the federal level. This knowledge is helping to secure leverage with elected officials to push for movement towards a resolution. One of the most innovative techniques we have available to our members is a template invoice on our website that allows members to input the amount of federal dollars their schools receive, and then the invoice automatically calculates the sequester cuts. Advocates can then “send” their invoice directly to Capitol Hill to show their Members of Congress the very real impact these cuts are having on their district.

This past June, we conducted our annual National Council of States meeting, which focused on the topic of Overcoming the Obstacles of Poverty with our Children.  When people think of poverty, they often think of urban and rural poverty, but the most poverty for our nation’s children resides in suburbia. This surprised many of the participants in our session this year.  We brought speakers in and had great discussions as we looked at best practices to address matters of poverty.  We then provided delegates with a sample plan of work to take back and implement strategies to make a difference in the war on poverty with our children.

PTA has taken a front-and-center role advocating for the Common Core State Standards.  We know that these standards are providing our children the education required to compete in the information age and global economy. The critical thinking skills and interdisciplinary approach will optimize the education experience that our children so greatly deserve.

PSI: What do you think is the biggest challenge that PTA is facing at this point in its history?

Thornton: I think the biggest challenge is the nation’s demographic shift.  National PTA is working diligently to address the challenges associated with this shift with both internal and external initiatives. For example, we have launched our Every Child in Focus Campaign, where each month, we highlight and focus the Association’s attention on a different group of children in an effort to increase awareness. In sum, we are committed to empowering parents, teachers, and students from communities that we have not fully engaged in the past.