Million Dollar PTAs – It’s Not All About the Money

This past Sunday The New York Times published an article, Way Beyond Bakesales: The $1 Million Dollar PTA, and my Co-President and I were featured in front of the PS 87 mural.  We’ve been waiting to see how this article would shape up since we gave Kyle Spencer a tour of our school a few weeks ago.  It’s not an easy decision to talk to the press about our PA fundraising because it’s so easily taken out of context and on the surface it looks absurd.  Since Kyle herself is a public school parent at a fairly affluent public school, and the articles she’s written before on the subject seem fair enough, we figured we should show her our absurdly run down, crowded school and be able to explain how and why we use the money we raise as we do.  But, as with anything, it’s incredibly hard to really get a full picture from a brief article – especially one that is meant to attract as much buzz and comments as possible.  Luckily for me, I have my own platform to write about what really goes on and why we raise this money.

First, the issue that bothered every parent at PS 87 – we don’t raise $1.57 million dollars.  We raise about $700K.  An enormous number to be sure, but no where near $1.57 million.  That other $800K or so, that’s our after school program.  It’s pretty amazing, was started over 30 years ago by a group of PS 87 parents, and has about 450 students enrolled across the 5 days.  Parents pay for the classes just like they would any after school program and the program runs on those fees.  No fundraising, no profit.  But we report our income as one to the IRS.  Hence, the total reported on GuideStar.

Second, as I tell all reporters who call us about this issue, I really wish they would look at the official DOE budgets for the schools in question.  Believe it or not the budgets are fairly transparent.  (Though don’t even try to ask a DOE official to explain the budget – they can’t.) No reporter EVER does this!!! Click on over to the budget.  It’s fun!  It’s actually awful, but since my Co-President and I have spent the last 2 years pouring over it, it passes as a good time for us.  Let’s take that bottom number, heck, I’ll even round up to an even $6 Million.  Now let’s divide that by the number of kids in our school:  A super comfy 963.  What does that leave you? $6,230/student.  Take that Horace Mann!   Now, for extra credit go ahead and plug in another school – any school, maybe one that doesn’t raise the kind of money we raise, and see what their per student funding looks like.  Told you this was fun.  Almost as much fun as charting the budget cuts over the last 5 years.  25% but who’s counting.  (Oh yeah, that would be me)

Third – We pay the full price for every program we bring in.  That sounds perfectly normal right?  Well, no.  Many schools in the city and beyond qualify for arts, chess, music, wellness and other programs for free.  And they should.  These foundations raise money from outside sources so they can provide enrichment in our public schools where it’s desperately needed, especially since these are the first programs to go in budget cuts.  But, these programs charge schools like ours full price.  What does that mean?  If we want the Wellness In the Schools healthy lunch program we pay $25K for it.  If we want a coach at recess we pay $30K for it.  If we want chess we pay $30K for it (for only 2 grades, I should add.)  And we are happy to do it, because we can and because our parent body and school have decided it’s a priority.  But if we don’t raise the money we don’t get those programs.

What else wouldn’t we have?  Books, paper, cafeteria tables, most of our chairs and desks, text books, art supplies, substitute teachers (what a luxury), and an endless litany of other things that once upon a time were the responsibility of a government to provide in the name of public education.

So what is the real problem here?  As I’ve written before, raising this kind of money comes with all sorts of problems.  Does it let the city and state off the hook?  I hope not.  And that’s the other bone I have to pick – not with the article but with many of the comments.  If there’s one thing our parent body can’t be accused of it’s being politically apathetic.  Sometimes my Co-President is the ONLY one at all of those ridiculous meetings that the DOE holds at night, where they pretend to care what parents think.  And we are so in the face of the Chancellor, our elected officials, Albany, hell, we’ve even been to DC on more than one occasion, that one fine DOE official sent an email to someone high up I won’t name and told them to tell my Co-Prez to “back the fuck off.” Only he cc’d my Co-Prez by mistake.  OOPS!

The reason we raise so much money is not because people can write a check.  If it were that easy we’d have no fundraising committee and wouldn’t have hundreds of volunteers spending ridiculous amounts of energy and time planning, recruiting for and executing events all year long.  Parental engagement at this level is exhausting and most of our parents work full-time.  One of the most insulting aspects to the ignorant comments was this assumption that the vast majority of parents at our school can afford private school and expect the same experience at their public school.  How being able to make a donation of $1K or even $5K to a school is the same as affording $40K to a private school is beyond me.  But, aside from that – it’s absurd that parents wanting art, gym and text books is somehow akin to privilege.  Everyone should be outraged that this is a reality, not that parents expect this for their children.

I could go on.  And in person, trust me, I do.  But what I want in the end is for everyone to realize that issues like PTA fundraising are NOT the real issue when it comes to inequality in our schools.  Not by a long shot.  Start with the incredibly shameful lack of commitment to quality public early education and Pre-K – that is the big division that is the hardest to ever make up.  You would have thousands of kids entering Kindergarten ready and able to learn and start to recognize letters and numbers – imagine that.  And then take it from there – to the lack of teacher training, kids living in poverty, lack of healthcare, on and on.  Looking to a handful of PTAs to figure out a way to share their fundraising instead of asking Cuomo to pass the millionaire tax to fund our schools at adequate levels is absurd.  And what a gift this whole “debate” has been to those powers-that-be.  When is the New York Times going to do that story?  That’s the real million dollar question.

Writes Like an Angel – Lisa Belkin Dishes with the Blogging Angels

There are certain women journalists who have inspired me as an essayist and writer waaaay before the word blogging was invented.  Anna Quindlen was one and Lisa Belkin the other.  Aside from writing for The New York Times both women had a voice that spoke to me as a young woman starting out in the world – in college and afterwards – as they wrote frankly about work/life balance, feminism and in varying degrees, motherhood.  As a Film major and American Studies major in college I was steeped in the cannon of feminist literary, social and film criticism.  But few mainstream journalists were talking about the real issues on the ground in a way that made “women’s” issues a normal, worthy part of the public discussion.

I always looked forward to Lisa Belkin’s New York Times Magazine stories and later her Life’s Work columns.  When she launched The Motherlode blog on the nytimes.com site I was thrilled.  Not only is it an enormously vibrant community but it gives further discussion to so many of ideas and stories in the paper that normally would be a “lifestyle” piece and nothing more.  It also has a way of really tapping into the current ethos (and neuroses) of our current state of parenting like nowhere else.  Last year I was such a fangirl that Amy Oztan took pity on me and swung me an invite to a lunch Lisa Belkin held for parenting bloggers at the New York Times cafeteria.  We’ve been trying to get her on the Blogging Angels podcast ever since, but coordinating schedules is never easy.  Then, last month at BlogHer, Nancy Friedman luckily attended the same session as Lisa Belkin and jumped a the chance to have her record with us right there in the hotel in San Diego.  Unfortunately Heidi had an outrageously fabulous event to attend at the same time and couldn’t make this podcast, but we did our best and Lisa Belkin was a guest angel extraordinaire!

Listen in and hear all the scoop on the New York Times and bloggers, the future of journalism and all sorts of dishy stuff on parenting, mom blogging and what it all means.  Really, all that in a mere 40 minutes.  She’s that good.

Lisa Belkin Podcast  or listen on iTunes!

I’m in The New York Times (or at least my avatar is)

I got a super surprising Google alert today that I thought was a mistake.  There was my Twitter handle – @beccasara – and there was “New York Times” next to it.  So of course I had to click on over.  And my Harry Potter tweet was featured in the #trendingNYC column in the City Room Blog.  Screenshot and all.  My avatar will look familiar to those of you who play the Wii – it’s a Mii – or as my girls call it the Momii.

Fun way to start the day!  Does this count as press?

Parental Involvement in Schools – How Thomas Friedman Missed the Point

This past week Thomas Friedman wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times, U.S.G and P.T.A, about parental involvement making a difference in student achievement.  When I first read the article I yawned.  Tell me something I don’t know.  Kids do better when parents are involved?  Of course.  Kids do better when parents lay down boundaries, set expectations and create study spaces and structure?  Obviously.  None of this is new or interesting to me.  I’m not sure what his point was other than to say American parents have become lazy while first generation parents are way more effective at encouraging and pushing their children to excel.  Again – snore.  What was actually interesting to me in this article was how off the mark and off point it really was when trying to talk about the role of the P.T.A.

As Co-President of the Parents Association of my daughters’ large NYC public elementary school I have seen the benefits and limits of parental participation.  As budget cuts have slashed every cent of our school budget down to the very core – teachers and staff only – parents have had to pick up the slack to pay for everything from paper and supplies to substitute teachers to professional development for teachers.  Our parents are in our school everyday – helping in classrooms, overseeing a new healthy school lunch program, raising money, coordinating assemblies, dealing with overcrowding and rezoning issues – the extent of the involvement goes way beyond the normal into areas that used be covered by actual Department of Education employees but now have to be done purely by volunteers.  Yet, with all of this involvement the one thing Thomas Friedman harps on is perhaps the hardest to achieve – the extension of the school into the home rather than the other way around – and this cannot fully lie at the feet of parents.

Parents can only be as effective as a school lets them be.  A parent cannot help with homework if they themselves do not understand it.  Parents cannot help a child reach academic goals if those goals have not been clearly defined by administration and teachers.  Parents cannot be the regulators of technology in the home unless they have a thorough understanding of how that technology needs to be used for classwork vs. fun.  All of these aspects of helping a child succeed take some teaching from school to parent.  If schools truly want a partnership with parents then they have to be willing to put in the time and thought to let parents know what is expected of them, and the tools to make it happen.

Yes, there has to be some parental responsibility.  I am constantly working and talking with other bloggers about social media and technology in our children’s lives.  I often find myself repeating the same mantra, “Parenting doesn’t stop at the screen.”  So no your kids shouldn’t have their cellphones near them when they work at home, and there are endless ways to track your child’s online activity.  But, in my mind, while parents need to be pushing their kids to excel academically they also need to do something bigger – VOTE.  Vote for candidates that actually have a plan for education, not just charter school mania and Race To the Top.  Show up – at parent teacher conferences, at PTA meetings, at community board meetings – and make your voice heard.

Hold people accountable.  Your kids are a good place to start but don’t stop there. Hold administration and teachers accountable for providing clear and consistent academic goals and curriculum information (we’re still working on this at our school).  And hold yourself accountable for providing a space where your child can do their work, for making it clear that you expect your child to do their best, and to impart to your kids that school is important and that learning is something that never ends.   But, most of all, hold your elected officials accountable for funding schools properly, for giving teachers professional development funding instead of just putting all the money into evaluation systems and for giving our kids and parents the resources to learn at school and at home.

That’s the true power of PTAs – banding parents together to create a deafening voice that cannot be ignored.  Thomas Friedman may be sounding the bell of laziness and apathy (which is ironic since every other day we are told there is an epidemic of helicopter parents) but everyday I see the tremendous efforts of parents to enrich our school, thank and encourage our teachers and make public officials take schools seriously.  I don’t think we need the Education Secretary to tell parents how to get involved, I think we need the Education Secretary to look at successful PTAs and learn from us instead.

Do Dads Need Constant Praise for Doing Their Share?

In today’s NY Times Motherlode Blog, Marc Vachon wrote a great blog about why this whole idea of  constant appreciation can be belittling and demoralizing.  It’s an interesting post and really got me thinking about this whole idea of equal parenting.  In a perfect world we’d all be in a state of constant gratitude and self-validation without needing to be told we’re appreciated or thanked for every little contribution we make.  But family life is far from perfect, and while I agree that it can border on ridiculous if fathers feel like they need a pat on the back for giving their kids a bath, I also know that sometimes its nice for someone, anyone to just say thank you, damn it!

Read it here : Do You Thank Your Spouse Too Much? – Motherlode Blog – NYTimes.com

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