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.

PTA Fundraising – Where There’s Money, There’s Tension

Last week the New York Times published an article about parent fundraising in NYC schools where gentrification has taken hold and the tensions over who can or cannot give, who decides how much to ask for and what kind of tension this creates at a school.  It’s no surprise to those of us entrenched in this process that there is a constant balancing act of making sure those that can give do, and those that can’t give financially are not made to feel like they are left out of what a school fundraiser is trying to achieve.  As PA (no T at our school) Co-President I get the same emails every year – a chunk of parents say the $600 annual fund ask is way too low compared to other schools like ours, and some parents email to say that it’s too high and makes them feel bad they can’t make that number.  Money is tricky that way.  Everyone sees this amount as somehow personal instead of what it is:  how much the PA spends per student in one year.  With a 600K PA budget, that would be around $600 for us.

But, there is a much bigger issue here.  Our PA budget has tripled in the last 5 years, and our fundraising has tripled as well.  This has happened while our Department of Education budget (called Galaxy – you know, ’cause it’s sooo big?) has shrunk 20-25% in the same time frame.  At least.  Parents are now paying for furniture, paper, textbooks, part-time librarian, art supplies, professional development for our teachers, instrumental music, science kits and even substitute teachers (yes, you read that right.)  Not to mention chess, assemblies, dance, movement, art and kindergarten assistants.  It’s absurd.  And it results in two huge problems: First, it lets the DOE and New York State off the hook for cutting school budgets over and over again.  In the worst bit of irony this year, as parents seethed with anger that a 3rd testing day was added to the State Standardized Tests, we the parents had to foot the bill for the test prep materials.  It’s criminal and unacceptable, but we had no choice.

The second problem that no one is talking about with all of this parental money now being used so that a school can function – not flourish – function, is the inevitable tension that’s created between the teachers, administration and the parents.  When teachers have to rely on parent money to stock their classrooms, to pay for professional development, to fund new academic initiatives, both sides are left in an increasingly uncomfortable position.  From the outside it looks like everyone should be thankful that parents are able to fill this gap.  From the inside there is resentment and a feeling that all of this fundraising gives parents too much say in how teachers do their job.

I’ve come face to face with this tension more than once, especially this year as the Galaxy budget has been slashed to the point where only staff salaries are covered.  When parent money is used to fund academic programming, parents want, and I think deserve, to understand how these programs will work.  There is an opportunity for this to be an incredibly positive experience – teachers and parents working together to make amazing things happen for our kids.  But there is an inherent inequality in the collaboration.  Teachers are in charge of our kids, all day.  The principal will make decisions about where to place our kids every year.  While they may think parents hold all the power, in fact parents are fairly powerless.  The money changes that to some degree, but not in a good way.  Teachers see parents as being intrusive, overly demanding and, my favorite term, “crazy.”  Parents see the teachers as being ungrateful, obstinate and dismissive.  Meanwhile, all we want is the same thing – the best possible school for our kids.

So where does this leave us?  After 5 years on the PA Executive Board of my school, including one as Co-Treasurer and two as Co-President, through two principals and 5 years of budget cuts I have to say we’re left in a terrible place.  Every year I watch hundreds of our parents spend thousands of hours volunteering for our school, mostly to raise money.  Most of them work full-time and then go home to their kids to do homework, projects, enrichment, whatever.  And I hate to say it, but it makes me ill when I take a step back and look at it.  I don’t know how we got to this place, but I know it’s not right.  Last year I wrote that parents should riot in the streets.  The right thing would be for all of this energy to be aimed at our politicians, to demand that the schools be funded so that all of these essential programs are funded by the city and state like they are supposed to be.  If we can figure out how to really, effectively do that, our schools, parents, teachers, and ultimately our kids would be way happier and everyone could get on with what their real job is in this system.

Sometimes a Picture Really Does Say it All

I wish we had a real Parents Association office so I could hang this on the wall:

140 Education Conference: My Session on Parental Engagement in the Schools

Two weeks ago I spoke at the #140 Edu conference on meaningful parent engagement in the schools.  I had never been to a #140 conference and now I’m a huge fan both of the conference and of Jeff Pulver, the organizer, ring leader and all around fantastic guy behind the conferences.  Every presenter has a short time span – 10 minutes – to talk about their topic and share their ideas with the audience and it runs straight through except for one brief lunch break.  Held at the 92nd Street Y one of the really fun and unexpected parts of the event was hanging backstage in the green room, which is lined with pictures of all of the famous people who have spoken at the Y like Bill Clinton, Barbara Walters and many more.

Being among so many wonderfully passionate and excited education advocates from across the education debate, across fields and even professions was exhilarating.  The conversations in the outer lobby were just as rich and rewarding as the presentations going on in the main auditorium.

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Parents as Meaningful Partners in Education

This post was originally written for the White House Champions of Change series and was published last week by Parenting on the Mom Congress blog.   As I prepare for my speaking gig at the #140 Conference on Education I thought I’d share what I’m working on and what I plan on talking about…

How many times during the year are you in your child’s school?  How many times have you been invited inside the classroom to celebrate the good, as opposed to deal with the bad?  Could you articulate what your child is supposed to learn this year?  Do you know the academic goals?  The discipline procedures?  The expectations being set for your child – or more importantly if any expectations are being set for your child?  These are the questions I grapple with every week along with my fellow Parents Association (PA) CO-President, other leadership parents, our administration and our teachers as we try to figure out how to create a strong bridge between home and school and engage our parents in a real way.

One thing I’ve learned since being involved in my daughters’ large NYC public school is that there is a disconnect between the amount of information teachers think they are giving parents and the amount of information parents feel they are receiving.  After attending the Parenting Magazine Mom Congress and meeting women from all 50 states plus the District of Columbia, I know that our school is not unique in trying to figure out this dilemma.  The common theme is that parents want concrete, clear goals for their children.  They want to understand how material is being presented – particularly in math – and they want to know how to help at home.  It’s impossible to be a partner in anything, let alone your child’s education if you don’t what you’re working toward.

What do parents need from teachers and administrators to be effective partners?

  1. Clear curriculum goals for the year.  Just like in college when everyone gets a syllabus why shouldn’t elementary schools kids have the same framework for their learning over the course of the year?  Of course teachers should have wiggle room, and the ability to update as the year goes on, but seeing a roadmap for the year gives everyone a plan they can refer to when goals seem elusive.
  2. Celebrate the positive.  Invite parents in the classroom for end of curriculum open houses so parents can review their child’s body of work, see the work of all the kids, connect with each other, and feel a part of the classroom.  Tell parents when kids are excelling or do something special rather than just the bad behavior or struggles.
  3. Curriculum mornings or evenings on a grade wide basis to talk about literacy and math.  Put materials in non-educator speak, demystify acronyms and take questions.
  4. Monthly parent newsletter or email from the teacher for curriculum updates.  Clear, short and to the point.  Teachers seem to think that kids tell their parents everything that is going on in the classroom – they don’t, not by a long shot.

It’s not a bridge unless both sides are willing to meet halfway.  So parents – don’t come in angry, defensive and entitled.  I’m not talking about when things have gone very wrong and a child was harmed – I mean stand up and have a conversation about issues before they turn into debacles.  Articulate what you need and where you are coming from without boiling over with anger.

Engagement works both ways.  We throw a huge teacher appreciation dinner midway through the year as well as provide dinner for the teachers during parent/teacher conferences.  These events are filled with homemade food, a lot of thought and hours of volunteer time, but it’s important to let teachers know we value their time and hard work.

In the end it always boils down to clear communication.  The more parents know the more they can help.  And if the grownups can’t figure out how to talk to each other how can we ever expect our children to do better?

Why Aren’t Parents Rioting in the Streets?

PREPARATION: Education Budget Cuts Protest

Image by infomatique via Flickr

This is the question an educator asked me yesterday.  A private school educator in New York City.  We were among over 200 people invited to Barry Diller’s IAC headquarters in Chelsea to have lunch and listen to the presentation for a brand new private school in Manhattan called Avenues The World Schools.  I wasn’t invited to this lunch as an NYC blogger, I was invited as the Co-President of the Parents’ Association of my daughters’ NYC public school and went there with my Co-President.  To be honest, it’s hard to explain this sort of event to people who have never been to a NYC media and money filled event.  This was not red carpet, this was not celebrity – this was the kind of thing that reminds you where the real power lies in this world.  Money.  Bankers, publishers and mostly bankers.  I haven’t been to something like this in more than 10 years – since I worked for a billionaire family here in NYC.  It made me sad.

That sounds weird right?  Here I was at an event where some of the top educators in NYC were pitching their new school.  I happened to be sitting at the table with the new head of their lower school and their head of the entire school.  These are serious people who have spent their life in education – in private, uber-privileged education.  Joel Klein, our ex-Chancellor was there and all I could think was he’s got some nerve.  You see, part of this school’s pitch was to show the incredible growing demographic of children under 5 in the city and the dynamic increase in the number of families staying in the city rather than leaving when school-age hits.  The irony to watching these men use these numbers to sell their school hit my co-president and me in the face.  For the last 4 years public school parents have been trying desperately for the Department of Education (DOE) to recognize this fact but they staunchly denied it.  As schools have become overcrowded and people are now waitlisted for their PUBLIC school the DOE has shrugged and said you can always take your 5 year old on the subway to another school.  Those numbers this school was using to show the need for more seats in Manhattan?  Those were our numbers – the ones we culled independently of the DOE – the ones that they finally admitted were true after years of arguing.  And there was Joel Klein smiling away in the front as these numbers flashed on the screen.

So after they show us the 30% increase in school age child growth what do you think their answer is?  Let’s create a school where the tuition will be $50,000 for kindergarten (yes you read that right.)  A for-profit school costing 100s of millions of dollars.  I won’t go into the curriculum goals or the giant presentation of what the building will look like when it’s completely renovated, etc.  The whole thing just left me sick.  And sad.  I keep coming back to the fact that it made me sad.  When I saw that educator I spoke about in the beginning I knew she’d have a good perspective on the school.  She herself had been involved in the creation of a new private school in Manhattan a few years back – and she still heads a large private preschool group.  We talked about how all schools have these goals and lofty ambitions but at the end of the day any new school is going to take whomever can write a check.  What I wasn’t prepared for her to say was “I don’t understand why parents aren’t rioting in the streets.”  And she meant it.  And she was right.

The same day I went to this event to see the future school which will educate the most privileged children in NYC who already have every advantage imaginable Governor Cuomo announced the steepest cuts to education EVER in New York State.  Most of it cutting the city’s education aid.  I sat in a room full of people eating petit fours and drinking wine who all earnestly talked about the dire state of education and how our children are falling behind in the world – so they were building a school that would service those for whom none of this was true.  And at the same time I thought about the teacher lay offs, crumbling buildings, slashed arts programs and lack of basic supplies that were about to become even more entrenched realities.  The NYC public school system has 1.2 million children in it.  That means there are at least 1.8 million parents I’m thinking who should storm Bloomberg’s office and Cuomo’s office and the White House and demand better.

But here’s the one thing that got me most of all.  In that beautifully windowed room, with gorgeous centerpieces and ladies in Armani and men who have been running the world forever there was a lot of passion about education.  There really was.  That is what made me sad.  Imagine if these resources and talents – and money – were being put towards public education.  Not for charter schools, not for tiny little programs – but a serious discussion about what it’s going to take to change our school system.   And I’m not going to talk here about unions – I know.  Trust me I know.  I used to joke about imagining a city where private school was not an option – how quickly the schools would change if those with the most power to change them had to be part of the system.  Now I’m not joking.  The inequality is so gross and glaring and this event just focused that to such a sharp degree that I almost feel like it’s hopeless.  Think I’m exaggerating?  Look at Egypt this week – now read this article in Think Progress about the greater income inequality in the US.  Then ask yourself – WHY aren’t parents rioting in the streets?

This post was republished, with permission, in the Washington Post. They made me sound a little nicer.  Thanks.

I also have a problem with people telling parents HOW they should be involved.  Check out this post about Thomas Friedman’s misguided op-ed for more.

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.