The main point I've learned along the way is this--no one cares about your child's long-term health, welfare, and education except you as parents. Don't compromise your standards, but also don't expect organizations to change at your pace. You don't have to have institutional support (and in many cases, won't) to support your child. You also may not have support from other parents. That's okay, too. You do have support elsewhere around the country and world, and we are now a global society.
* If you want your child to walk or bike to school, find ways to do it whether or not your community or school supports it (hint: if walkers and bikers are dismissed last in your child's school, that's not support). I have some proven, road-tested suggestions for you in my book , but I'll give them to you here for free. Am biting my lip about the vehicles-parked-on-sidewalks problem ( see video here ). Please, if someone could change this practice, that would be great! (If your child takes the bus, please note that my county's school buses are not allowed to idle, especially prior to the children boarding. See my video on this here . Check your school district's policy on this--I'd say this is one worth getting involved.)
* If you want your child to eat a healthy lunch without GMOs or fruits and veggies on the Dirty Dozen list , you have to pack it, at least in my part of the country. The pace of change at schools is very slow and it will take possibly an entire generation yet to match what you can do at home.
* If you want your child to have a healthy break during each school day (also known as recess), it has been required in my county since December 2009 in grades kindergarten through 5th but you will most likely need to advocate for this ( here are the details ). It cannot be taken away for behavior, to finish a test, to make up work, for inclement weather, or any other reason, and PE does not count as recess. FYI, before this was instituted, I asked my child's teacher when was the most convenient time during the day for me to take my child out for 15 minutes for a break, that I would come each day to do this (which would have meant taking a work break to do). She began honoring recess the next day and every day thereafter. I sent in a bunch of decks of cards and some dice (that's really all kids need) for rainy days.
* If you want your child to have a school garden and you keep getting the runaround (or, if you're at either of two schools I know where school gardens are actually forbidden), you can start one at home. I have yet to see one homework assignment or life lesson that can't somehow be related to the garden. My older daughter has never had a school garden, but she has had a home one for the last 11 years. Children don't wait. They grow up. She leaves for college in a year (and she is noticing which ones have farms and gardens, and which don't, by the way). (If you do want to do a school garden, here's how to start a middle school garden in just two weeks . And here is a summary of that middle school garden's lessons . Don't make this harder than it needs to be, folks. As my friend Bob says, "it's just dirt.") (Note: if you don't get a new garden in by September 15, you can pretty much kiss another school year goodbye because here's what you'll hit up against as excuses from everyone under the sun, when you could already be gardening under the sun: Tests. Holidays. Wait 'til next semester. Brief winter cold. Spring break. Tests. Summer. And, there you go, another school year is gone again.)
* If you want your child to be a true lifelong learner despite the "teach-to-the-test" environment of school, here are some ideas: First, I noticed that my children were becoming less curious about things as they got more into the elementary school drill-and-kill style and I discovered that their questions were being ignored when they desired to go deeper on subject matter. They were being told things like, "That's not on the test. Don't worry about it." I noticed that this was causing them to stop even having questions over time. I gave them each a little notebook and told them to jot down their questions while in class and we would talk about them at dinner. Okay, fine, I understand why a teacher may not have time to answer when a second grader asks, "What is the purpose of the tongue?" but do I want her to stop questioning? No.
Another technique I used was asking my children each day, "About what did you wonder today?" When I ran an environmental blogging club at my younger daughter's school, I took the students for a "wonder walk" to start each club session. It is shocking to me how little time today's students spend asking questions and wondering. These are critical skills for the future, and frankly, important ways to enjoy and experience life.
* If your child is not having a learning experience you think is necessary, give it to him or her. Here is my list of things I believe kids needs to learn in life (following my review of the book The Dumbest Generation), and I did not expect these things to be taught at school.
Additionally, I am requiring science fair participation even though my younger daughter's school does not (I am not quite sure how this is even going to work, but we'll try). If your child says he or she is not interested in science, you may want to ask him or her to answer the questions in this Topic Selection Wizard for topic suggestions in their specific areas of interest. Science is a very broad subject area, and your child may be surprised to see what fascinating topic areas are included. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics touch everything in one way, shape or form, and these STEM subjects are filled with opportunities for our children now and in the future. If your child's school is neither encouraging nor embracing these areas, there are many ways you can do so at home.
* If you want your child to go to school without advertiser messages during their impressionable years, good luck with that. Getting into the schools is the Holy Grail for advertisers, by the way--I know because I worked with them at Turner Broadcasting and I know exactly what their marketing objectives are in "buying" your children and calling it community service. You're pretty much fighting an uphill battle here (at least where I live) as other parents will look at you like you have three heads if you suggest "something is rotten in the state of Denmark." I found it was best to spend my effort teaching my children to be discerning consumers as schools allow advertisers to destroy the sanctity of a commercial-free learning environment (which children are required to attend, by the way).
* As for your school's Wellness Policy? Forget it. It will eat you up trying to ensure that it is enforced (unless you care about the kids with allergies--an average of one per classroom, and growing). Just do what you can, and give your kids the tools they need to make good choices, and intervene when truly necessary. Do try to at least write a note to help the next group of parents--see If You Say Nothing, You Support It . Things will change over time out of necessity when more and more people see what an unhealthy environment is doing to our children.
Time is a non-renewable resource--spend it where you can make the greatest impact in ways that matter to your family's values. I guess, maybe, that is the most important lesson of all.