Finding the Right College for your Student

By California State PTA Family Engagement Commission

A Conversation with Kelly Mattinson, Family Engagement Commission Consultant

Q. How does a student find the “perfect fit” college?

In most cases it’s a family decision. The choice needs to fulfill the needs of the student and the family , particularly when the parents are the financially responsible party or helping identify scholarships, grants or loans.

That said, the most successful college selection stories happen when three things factor equally into the decision: the social, academic and financial fit. All three are vital to a successful college journey.

Q. What do you mean by social fit?

By social, I mean “How does the school FEEL?” For example, a student should be asking:

  • Is it a large or small school, which do I learn better?
  • What clubs and activities are available?
  • Do they have a football team?
  • Do I care about school spirit?
  • Is there Greek life?
  • What is the weather like?
  • Is there dorm living?
  • How far is it away from home?

If possible, an in-person visit can be revealing. When you step on the campus, do you want to walk those grounds for the next four-plus years? Sometimes you just know the school is your place. Sometimes you immediately know it is not. If this is going to be your home for four years, it needs to feel like home.

Q. Beyond “do they have my major” what should a student look for to be sure of an academic fit?

This involves knowing a bit about your personal academic style. Do you prefer a semester or quarter schedule? How intense or laid back do you want your academic experience to be? The pace is an important factor to academic success.

Does the college offer multiple majors that interest you? Most students do not graduate with their initially intended field of interest. Having back up options is best as you discover new things about yourself and disciplines in college – that is part of the process.

Q. Isn’t a financial fit just a straightforward affordability question and aren’t more expensive colleges naturally better?

College is expensive. You get what you pay for can be true, but it can also be misleading. Just because the price tag is high does not necessarily make it the BEST. There are amazing public schools out there that come with federal and local funding packages that can help you, there are also VERY generous private universities that will invest in you given the opportunity.

When choosing your BEST fit university, make sure you are comparing apples to apples and not watermelons to grapes. Take all things into account. For example, look at the average time to graduate. If you pay $200,000 but it takes you 5 years to graduate, it actually costs you more than a 4-year university experience at $200,000 because you lose a year of earnings. In other words, sometimes a less expensive school can cost more because it will take longer to graduate. Most private universities guarantee that you will graduate in four years. There may be several reasons including that they may not have the housing or they gave you a lot of financial aid and want you to move on and give back as an alumni. (Watch for more on this and the FAFSA process in an upcoming post.)

Q. Why is the best FIT important for parents as well?

College selection and application is a process that can take up family time and parental involvement in the high school years. Some families are also able to make a financial commitment (even a financial sacrifice!) towards their child’s college experience. After all that, can you imagine your child crying because they are miserable at college? Talk about salt in the wound. I want to know my son is thriving and that he will be happy and productive in his life ahead and hopefully he will take care of me when I am old… lol. It is much easier to be happy for your kid when they are happy…. it is the worst to MISS them (and you will) and have them miserable. Trust me… if they go away to college and they’re happy, it makes it easier to not mourn their empty room.

For more resources on college and career preparation be sure to visit this Family Engagement webpage.

Kelly Mattinson is a former Council PTA President and current local PTA leader. She has worked as a college admissions planner in Los Angeles, helping families find the right fit for their students going to college.

Futureproof: A Book About Your Kids’ Futures (and Yours)

By California State PTA Family Engagement and Communication Commission


Futureproof, written by technology writer Kevin Roose, offers new perspectives and interesting food for thought on matters that shape the relationship between families and schools today. The book suggests “nine rules for humans in the age of automation.”  It’s an important topic if you want to ensure that your children’s education stays relevant in future job markets while also supporting their social and emotional health. As artificial intelligence (AI) becomes increasingly integrated into every aspect of our lives, at work and at home, how can we protect people from being replaced by automation and preserve our humanity?

Among the author’s more interesting insights is that rather than try to compete with computers in terms of productivity and efficiency – where the computers have the upper hand, so to speak – we should focus on developing those human skills and attributes where we do have the advantage: our creativity, our ability to make sense out of novel and chaotic situations, and our capacity to understand and personally relate to the feelings of other humans. Our future success depends on being able to do the things that the computer can’t do – things that highlight the efforts and contributions made by other people (examples include products or services described as artisanal, concierge, personal, or hand-crafted).  

PTA has a role to play

Roose recommends we “build big nets and small webs.”  The term big nets refers to the kinds of social safety programs established to protect children, youth, and families in times of crisis (a common focus for PTA advocacy efforts). PTAs themselves can be thought of as small webs since our local associations are frequently on the front lines finding creative ways to help families when they find themselves in need or distress, as recently demonstrated during the pandemic. For many members of our school communities, PTA activities and support for family engagement offered a means of resilience, encouragement, aid, and friendship during difficult times.

Recent news stories about the lack of accountability among social media companies and the implications of the content they relentlessly provide may be motivating you to reexamine technology use in your own households.  It could be time for you as PTA leaders to consider the growing influence of the digital world more broadly and decide how that should influence PTA strategies for family engagement related to the education offered in your local schools. 

Implications for what schools teach

Roose notes that while “many ideas have been proposed and tested for bringing our educational system into the twenty-first century,” most have dealt primarily with how we teach, rather than what we should teach.  His recommendations for practical skills that maximize the advantages of people over machines include:

  • Attention Guarding – Finding ways to maintain our focus despite a persistent onslaught of external forces trying to distract us.  This isn’t simply a matter of maintaining productivity but is important in our ability to exercise control over where we choose to direct our attention.
  • Room Reading – It takes emotional intelligence to be able to “read a room” – a skill that is valuable in the workplace.  Roose suggests that women, racial minorities, and LGBTQ people may be particularly adept at this as it has long been an essential skill for their success in the dominant culture. 
  • Resting – A surprising skill to cultivate is the ability to allow yourself sufficient rest to help prevent burnout and exhaustion, and to reconnect with our human selves.  Roose suggests, “In the automated future, as more of our contributions come from big breakthroughs, inspired ideas, and emotional aptitude, being well-rested is going to become even more critical.”
  • Digital Discernment – As people increasingly get their news and information from social media networks, it becomes ever more important to engage critical thinking skills to distinguish truth from fiction and to differentiate between credible sources and sponsored content.  “…It’s going to get even harder in the coming years with the rise of algorithmically generated text, realistic conversational AI, and synthetic video (‘deepfakes’) produced with the help of machine learning,” Roose cautions.
  • Analog Ethics – In an age when our value will come from our ability to relate to other people, Roose asserts that treating people well, acting ethically, and behaving in prosocial ways will remain essential to lifelong success. Schools that offer social-emotional learning programs to children are more likely to produce well-socialized, responsible adults able to cope with change.
  • Consequentialism – Organizations that create or use AI systems need to anticipate the ways these products can be misused, exploited, or gamed. Consequentialist thinking can be useful both in spotting flaws in technological systems before they cause catastrophic problems and, in other areas such as medicine, law enforcement, and human rights, being alert to where significant opportunities for error exist. Roose recommends incorporating consequentialist thinking as a standard part of STEM curriculum.

In the book’s final pages, Roose urges readers to step into the broader conversation, to “learn the details of the power structures that are shaping technological adaptation and bend those structures toward a better, fairer future.”  

This is certainly an opportunity for family and PTA engagement – to use our collective influence to help shape education, public policy, and the technological landscape to benefit children, youth, and families.

Family-School Partnership Standard #4: Speaking Up for Every Child

by Heather Ippolito, Vice President Family Engagement Commission

October 2021 Family Engagement

The fourth PTA National Standard for Family-School Partnerships calls for empowering families to speak up and advocate for their child and other children to ensure that students are treated fairly and have access to learning opportunities that will support their success.  

Families often need help in this area, as many don’t feel comfortable speaking up in school or district meetings. PTA and school administrators can do so much to help build confidence in our parents and caregivers. Here are a few ways you can help build capacity in this area:

Parents need to understand their rights and responsibilities. The California Department of Education oversees rights that are written into law as part of the California Education Code. Many families are unaware that they have the right to do things like review the curriculum their child is learning, observe their child in their classroom and participate in committees or councils at the school and district levels. School administrators and PTA units can help families understand these rights by doing annual information nights in multiple languages, including these rights in newsletters or on the website, and advertising opportunities for parent engagement in the committees and councils.

As issues arise on your campus, your PTA can host discussions for parents, students, teachers, staff, and administrators to come together and work toward solutions. Having all parties in a room together can spark creative solutions to issues and allow everyone to feel heard and involved.

Provide families with advocacy training. Advocacy is a scary term for many parents, but at the school level, advocacy can be as simple as asking your teacher for a resource your child needs or sharing a concern with the school principal. Show parents that all forms of advocacy small at the school site or larger efforts like speaking to legislators are welcomed and needed for our children to succeed. 

Families need to understand how the school system works. Who do they talk to if they have concerns about their child? When should they involve the principal? What offices at the district office are there to support student learning? California State PTA has the School Smarts Family Engagement Program that, over seven sessions, helps families at your school answer those questions and build capacity for greater advocacy and involvement. You can get more information about this program by emailing 

You can download the comprehensive document PTA National Standards for Family-School Partnerships, or get started with this brief summary. You might also want to share our previous blog posts: 

Introduction to the National Standards

Standard 1- Welcoming All Families

Standard 2- Communicating Effectively

Standard 3- Supporting Student Success

Fall Family Challenge

by Family Engagement Commission

Thank you to all of the families, schools, PTA councils, and districts who joined us in the September walking challenge.  Remember that you can use that  family engagement idea at any time during the year. We’ve done the work for you by creating a newsletter, weekly emails, and all the other handouts you will need for the program.  

As October begins, the focus is on all of the fun things your family can do together in the fall.  This season can be a busy one for families with school back in session, after-school sports and activities abounding, and several holidays, but we want to remind families to slow down and take some intentional time to come together.  To that end, we have created a calendar with 31 activities on it for families to choose from throughout the fall. We also have a list of over 50 activities the California State PTA Family Engagement Commission has brainstormed that you can use to create your own calendar. 

We invite you to join us this fall as we expand our engagement with these fun fall activities.  If you want to join in, fill out this simple google form and we will send you weekly reminders, tips, and tricks. 


If your PTA wants to use these family engagement ideas with your members, here are the handouts we’ve created: 

Sunday is Gold Star Mother’s Day

by Heather Ippolito, Vice President Family Engagement Commission

Family Engagement for September 2021 Image

This Sunday, September 26th is Gold Star Mother’s Day.  Gold Star Mother’s Day is designated as the last Sunday in September and is designed to honor mothers who have lost a son or daughter during military service.  As we honor their sacrifice and celebrate the lives of their children we want to help our PTA units support military families who may be at their site.  We have created a new page on our website devoted to Military Families that we hope you will visit.  Take a moment on this most special of holidays to recommit your PTA to supporting all of the diverse families on your campus- including our military families. 


Question: College? When do we start talking about college? Answer: NOW!

by California State PTA Family Engagement Commission Consultant, Kelly Mattinson

The best time to discuss and prepare for college is now. That said, your three-year-old does not need to decide where they are going to college BUT open discussion about attending college can be a common topic at the dinner table, no matter what age your kids are.  

I was raised in a family where college was expected.  Now, college is not for everyone, but in today’s world, a college degree is comparable to my mom’s high school degree.  I don’t say that lightly, the world is very complicated and a degree (a focused area of education) is going to help you succeed in a specific career, but success does not rely solely on a piece of paper.   College is not for everyone, the trades are VITAL and we will discuss that at another time, but for today we are focused on opening the conversation about high learning.  

When you are taking vacations/road trips as a family, why not drive through some of the wonderful colleges and universities in our world?  That being said, there are over 5,000 Universities in the US alone, so you won’t see them all.  Visiting campuses is fun. Each one is unique, many have a rich history and often the architecture is lovely.  Touring just opens the conversation about life post-high school.  

Watching movies, sporting events, and seeing where family and friends attend can also help you discover Universities that you didn’t know existed.   Use your PTA resources, encourage guest speakers to come to meetings, visit college fairs and see what the world offers. Exposure and investigation is necessary to choose the best college path for your individual student’s needs. It plants the seeds and will allow them to grow as your child matures.

My recommendation is to deal with each life chapter as it comes, elementary students should focus on their experience, middle schoolers the same – new exposures with electives and extracurriculars widen their experience and open it for high school life.  Please let your high schooler be a HIGH schooler.  Whether you loved high school or not; it is the time to learn a great deal about the world, other people, values, and what topics interest your student.  A well-rounded High School experience, coupled with familiarity with what’s out there, will help your student choose the college that fits them best when the time comes.

Once your high school student is adjusted to high school life, get ready to plunge into the college search. In other words, serious college exploration should begin in High School.   

Each young person’s journey is their own, each of your children will have a unique voyage… just support, share and keep an open mind to THEIR path and you will create a successful and happy citizen.  That is what is most important, don’t you agree?

Back to School Week September 13-17

by Heather Ippolito, VP Family Engagement

This coming week National PTA celebrates Back to School Week.  From September 13-17 they are hosting activities and encouraging school sites across the country to hold events to welcome students and their families back to campus.  Visit their website to see a wealth of resources for encouraging families to join your PTA and ideas for how to do PTA activities virtually or in a hybrid fashion.  Also be sure to follow their social media channels so that you won’t miss any of the fun ideas and activities they will be sharing all week long.

The California State PTA Family Engagement Commission has some back to school ideas for you to use now as well– regardless if your community started school this week or a month (or more!) ago — these are events we know work!  We’ve held them at our schools to help students and families feel connected as school resumes.

  • Boo Hoo/Yahoo Breakfast for Parents- The first day of school is hard on parents, especially for our TK or Kindergarten families.  They are having to leave their little one on campus for the first time and it can be a little stressful on both parent and child.  While the teachers are taking care of the kids in the classroom, our PTA hosts a coffee and continental breakfast for parents.  Our principal comes and introduces themself, families have an opportunity to meet other parents, and our PTA shares a little bit about our programming and the benefits of becoming a PTA member.  The event doesn’t last more than an hour on the first morning of school, but it was always a family favorite event. School already started? There is no reason not to hold this to celebrate the first week, month or quarter!
  • Ice Cream Social-  Prior to the start of the school year, we invited families to campus for an ice cream social.  We bought giant bags of popsicles and ice cream from either the cafeteria or a warehouse store, set up a table on the school playground, and allowed families, students and our PTA to mingle.  The kids loved the opportunity to see their friends and play, while the parents greatly appreciated the sense of community they began to form with other families at school. School already started? Everyone in your community will love ice cream on the second week, or the eighth just as much as the first day.  
  • Family Picnic- Our school held a family picnic on the Friday after the first week of school.  We encouraged families to bring blankets, chairs and their dinner to the school playground.  PTA had music playing, we invited an ice cream truck or a mobile shaved ice company to park near the school, and we sometimes put out games like the parachute or giant connect four for kids and families to play.  It was a wonderfully low-key way to chat with other families, for kids to show their parents the cool playground that they had been exploring all week long, and oftentimes our administration or some teachers dropped by. School already started? Picnics can happen anytime!
  • Have your Mascot welcome the kids to school on day 1- Most schools have some sort of costume that goes along with the school’s mascot.  Ask for a parent volunteer to wear it on the first day of school as the children arrive.  This is a great photo opportunity, it helps ease the anxiety of some children to be welcomed by a friendly face, and you can promote your PTA by asking them (or their assistant) to hold a “Join PTA” sign with a QR code that links them to your membership site.  School already started? Your Mascot can bring the party any day of the fall semester!

Note:  Try to have your back-to-school events be no-cost or low-cost.  You don’t want price to be a barrier to attendance at welcome back events– this is a chance for all families to feel welcome on your campus.  These give-back events are for relationship building and to help our children and families feel comfortable at school.  They shouldn’t be for fundraising.

If your school isn’t allowing on-campus events this fall many of these things can be held in a local park, community center, library, or other non-campus location.  Or modify your event to make it virtual: Coffee with the Principal (on Google Meet) or a drive through ice cream social with student made signs on the vehicles, or even a socially distant ice cream social!. This may mean a little extra planning on your part, but the returns in helping families and students feeling connected to one another and to your school will be worth the investment of your time.

September 12- Grandparents Day

by Family Engagement Commission

Grandparents Day Image

On September 12th we celebrate Grandparents Day to honor all of the contributions that grandparents have made in our lives.  While it can be a wonderful idea to bring grandparents to campus for some sort of celebration, we need to remember that not every child has a relationship with their grandparents, some grandparents live too far away to attend, and due to health challenges some grandparents may not feel safe venturing on to a school campus.   

In order to be more inclusive and responsive to the issues above, many schools celebrate a Very Special Person Day, Intergenerational Day, Grandfriends Day, or a  Special Friends Day that would allow children to indicate a grandparent or another significant person in their lives to be recognized.  

Here are a few ideas to have a fun (and inclusive) Grandparents Day celebration at school:

  • To ensure that every child can participate you can do things like buddy up children whose grandparents can’t attend with students who do have grandparents in attendance or invite other special guests (district administrators, community business owners, etc.) to attend and be paired with students who don’t have someone in attendance. 
  • You could work with parents to ask grandparents or special friends to send in a video message, card, or letter that could be part of a classroom celebration.  This way you don’t have to worry about visitors on campus, but everyone can still celebrate this special day.
  • Remember that some grandparents have more than one child at a school, so you need to consider this as you plan your event.  If the grandparents are expected to visit the classroom for part of the day, you might want to stagger the times so that grandparents could visit every grandchild who attends that school.
  • Have grandparents act as celebrity readers for classrooms (they can either do this live or virtually).  This is a great way to combine literacy with a fun, community-building activity! And all the kids can have an “adopted” grandparent.
  • Ask students to interview a grandparent or other special adult and share what they have learned with the class.  This helps families whose grandparents live too far away or are unable to travel still feel like they are a part of the celebration. 
  • For a high school spin on this activity– have a “Senior” section at the football game and invite grandparents and other local seniors to attend.  This is a fun way to bring seniors onto the campus to interact with the high school students.
  • Another idea for middle school or high school students is to have them organize a “Senior Prom” or dance for local seniors.  They can help decorate, select the music and the food and then the night of the event they can “chaperone” and dance with the senior citizens.  
  • Always remember to ask grandparents to join the PTA whether your event is in person or virtual.  We love having grandparents or special friends as PTA members!

Do you have plans for Grandparents Day?  We would love to hear about it!  Please use this form to share with us your ideas and they may be featured on our blog or social media!

September 8 – International Literacy Day

by Education and Family Engagement Commissions

The website, Raising a Reader, recently shared these statistics about reading and literacy:

  • Less than half of the 16 million U.S. children who live in poverty enter school with the language and reading skills needed for success.
  • 6 out of 10 children in the United States currently fail to read proficiently by grade 4.
  • Low-income children without exposure to books before age 5 enter Kindergarten on average with a 30-million word deficit.
  • Reading under-achievement by grade 4 = long-term academic failure

September 8th is International Literacy Day and California State PTA knows the important role that parents play in helping children cultivate a love of reading.  Here are some resources for you to help your child along their literacy journey:

  • Raising a Reader – California State PTA has great tips for helping children to develop language skills and become lifelong readers.
  • 4 Tips to Boost Literacy Skills – Learn four ways to eliminate a “word gap” for your child.
  • Reading Tips for Families – This website has videos, a daily calendar of literacy activities to do, as well as a reading glossary to help parents increase their child’s reading skills. 
  • Our Resource Library has several tools as well for students from preschool to high school.  Simply search “reading” or “literacy”. You can also search “books” for some great reading lists.

Family-School Partnership Standard #3: Supporting Student Success

By Heather Ippolito, VP Family Engagement

As we continue our series about the  PTA National Family-School Partnership Standards  we want to remind you that we have several blog posts around this topic: 

The third standard of supporting student success encourages families and school staff to continuously collaborate to support students’ learning and healthy development both at home and at school, and to have regular opportunities to strengthen their knowledge and skills to do so effectively.  Here are some ideas of ways to bring this standard to life on your campus:

  • Help parents understand what their child needs to succeed in school by holding grade-level meetings to cover the state standards, assessments, and expectations at the beginning of the year.  
  • Testing data can be confusing to families.  Parents should be given resources to fully understand their child’s assessment reports and the school should also share full-school data with families.  This could be done at a coffee with the principal, a parent night event, or at a PTA/PTSA Meeting.
  • Parent conferences or goal-setting meetings are a great way for families and school personnel to connect, but these should be two-way conversations– not just an opportunity for the teacher to do all the talking.  Parents should be encouraged to share their hopes and goals for their child and to convey their families’ cultural experiences that may influence how their child learns. 
  • Families should be encouraged and welcome to participate in classroom and on-campus activities (when it is safe to do so).  The PTA can help facilitate this by making sure families are aware of the volunteer opportunities and any of the requirements necessary to participate (district training, fingerprinting, etc.).
  • Parents also need to understand how they can support learning at home.  Teachers can be a huge help with this by sharing ideas with families including visiting museums, seeing movies or concerts, or other opportunities for learning outside of the classroom walls.  The PTA can also support this by bringing educational experiences onto the campus to help ensure that every family can participate.
  • After-school or summer learning can also be beneficial to students.  PTA can help facilitate classes or other educational experiences to make learning fun for the kids and keep the learning happening outside of the traditional school day. 
  • California State PTA has an online Resource Library to help parents find resources to continue learning at home.  You can search by keyword, grade level, school subject, or type of resource (video, website, PDF, etc.). 

Do you have a great suggestion for supporting student success?  Please share it with us and you may be featured on our social media.