- NY Times
A Network Connecting School Leaders From Around The Globe
AMID the flurry of school notices coming home in my kids’ backpacks, the PTA donation envelope carries a nostalgic pang. I remember thinking, only four years ago as my first child entered school, that a modest contribution to the PTA was my only cash obligation to New York City’s public schools — beyond being a dutiful taxpayer, of course.
Back then, I could still be shocked by the insanity of the school supply lists, 20 items long. (Did anyone find the “construction paper 10 by 14 ONLY” or the packages of “ALL-BLACK” dry erase markers, and couldn’t the city purchase all this stuff far more cheaply in bulk and charge us less than we now pay?) I was blissfully unaware then that I would be adding to my working-parent duties the task of fund-raising for our school.
I’m not talking about making cupcakes for the bake sale to pay for field trips. At the school my children attend in Upper Manhattan, the PTA pays for professional development for teachers, to help them meet the demands of the new common-core curriculum (an underfunded mandate if there ever was one). Parents have also set up a 501(c)3 nonprofit group to raise money for in-school “enhancement” programs. Without it, the elementary school would have no art (though there are just 15 weeks of instruction, once a week, for most classes). There would be no science classes for the youngest children. Nor would we have a Junior Great Books literacy program for third and fourth graders. Middle school students would miss out on any exposure to a second language, as well as the 14 days of crosscurricular writing provided by the nonprofit Teachers and Writers Collaborative. And there would be no prep course for eighth graders taking the high school admissions test.
To pay for all this, parents raised $185,000 last year.
The holes parents are being asked to fill keep getting deeper. Since the 2009-10 academic year, the school — by no means unique or the hardest hit — has seen its budget reduced by more than a million dollars. It has lost “extras” like teacher-led after-school programs (some of which are now being supported by the PTA), then support staff, then teachers, then more support staff and more teachers. In response, parents have tap-danced for donations (at our annual talent show) and pleaded with passers-by on the sidewalk for donations. As the neighborhood has become more desirable, partly because of parent involvement in the school, the number of students who are eligible for free lunches has declined to about 40 percent, resulting in a loss of about $500,000 in federal money over the last few years. Our school is now in the familiar middle-and-working-class bind, not poor enough for assistance but not rich enough to make up for the loss of those federal dollars.
When the last school year ended in June, parents received a letter from teachers pleading for contributions to finance two full-time reading intervention specialist positions (estimated cost: $150,000).
“At present, there is no funding for reading intervention programs for students in K-4,” the teachers wrote. “Reading proficiency is a time proven, research-based predictor of both success in school and achievement in college and career. As such, reading intervention services are the number one priority of the classroom teachers in the elementary school.”
The letter went on to point out that “student abilities in the typical whole group classroom span from four to five years within a class. Without intervention services, that gap can span seven years in one class. As experienced teachers we all differentiate instruction, but the narrower the gap the more effectively we can close it.”
In many ways, I have loved fund-raising for my kids’ school. It has given me friendships with other parents, a precious sense of community, a better understanding of my school’s needs and challenges. Listening to my talented neighbors sing, watching my two boys help tote holiday trees they’ve sold, I’ve seen clearly that our community is giving its kids a civic education they wouldn’t get in the classroom.
Fund-raising has involved the entire school community. Parents help not only their own children but the entire student body. The programs we’ve paid for have kept many families in our community, so far, from fleeing the city for smaller classes and better-financed schools in the suburbs. We don’t have parents in the financial industries to subsidize assistant teachers in every classroom, as in the wealthier zones; but we do have a fair share of arts professionals with some flexible time — an actor who organizes our annual talent show and holiday tree sale, for instance, and a poet who devotes time to bringing outside art and writing programs into classrooms. Dozens of people in the neighborhood with no children in school contribute $10, $25 or more each year.
By the standards of other schools in District 6, where more than 80 percent of public school students are “free-lunch eligible,” we are rich, and our community, where children of postal carriers learn alongside those of professors, is richly diverse. If our school is suffering, others are surely suffering more. Yet should any public school have to beg on the street for support to teach kids to read, to expose them to art, science and a second language or to help teachers teach more effectively?
When I started fund-raising, I took to it with such hopeful diligence that I scoured Wikipedia looking for wealthy alums — until it slowly dawned on me that wealthy alums give to their colleges and prep schools; they barely remember third grade. When a grant application I wrote to pay for materials for struggling readers failed to get a response, I reached deep into my own pocket to buy them, with the help of matching funds from my employer. Now there are not enough teachers to help children use those materials.
This is insane. Literacy is the very heart of education. Our city must take responsibility for it. The city has already asked parents to do a lot, and we’ve rolled up our sleeves in a tough economy and pitched in. We’ve fought for the principle that the arts and sciences are not “extras” but essential to a well-rounded education. We’ve sustained lively, healthy communities in the process.
But the cuts have gone beyond fat, beyond muscle, and are cutting into bone — the bones that support the city’s future. I’m out of fund-raising ideas. The city’s leaders should do what it takes — whatever it takes — to provide enough money for well-rounded educations in every public school. Until that happens, I have a question for Bill de Blasio and Joseph J. Lhota. Can you tap-dance?