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How One Wealthy Manhattan School is Fighting Inequality

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published: ;
Bliss Broyard is the author of One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life—A Story of Race and Family Secrets, and serves as the Senior Editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

In many American cities, property taxes no longer cover all the things that used to be considered standard fare in public elementary schools: art, music, dance, working copy machines. As a result, parent associations, or PTAs, in affluent communities have morphed from peddlers of sweet treats and organizers of apple fests into fundraising juggernauts, with galas, festivals, and auctions, all organized by volunteers, and budgets to rival a mid-size nonprofit with a full-time staff.

Schools in low-income communities where the parents lack the time, and more importantly, the access to vacation homes and hot theater tickets to auction off, are out of luck. Of course, this differing ability of schools to raise money exacerbates existing economic inequities, but few parents from either side of the income divide have occasion to dwell on the other’s reality.

This may be changing. Two years ago, some parents from P.S. 87, a public elementary school in a wealthy neighborhood of Manhattan with a PTA that routinely raises over a million dollars per year launched a campaign called “School 2 School.” The purpose was to help fund schools in the South Bronx, which, until redistricting in 2013, was the poorest Congressional District in the country. The idea grew out of conversations with P.S. 87 school parent Lila Jorge, who had recently become principal of a South Bronx school and was shocked by the disparities between her child’s school and the school she was now overseeing.

Using the online fundraising site Donors Choose, parents from P.S. 87 are funding requests from teachers at various elementary schools (not including Jorge’s school to avoid any conflicts of interest) to purchase high-interest books for upper grade class libraries or educational STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) toys such as roller ramps and magnetic tiles for Pre-K classes—the kind of stuff routinely found in classrooms and family homes in more affluent communities. So far, School 2 School has raised almost $14,000 for 27 different projects at 11 different schools.

One of the founders, P.S. 87 parent Abigail Edgecliffe-Johnson, says that some of her fellow parents have reported involving their kids in choosing which project to fund as a way to talk to them about inequality. At the beginning of this year, Edgecliffe-Johnson, founder of the educational toy company RaceYa, spray-painted 200 pencils gold on her roof, which she then sold for $20 apiece, raising $1500 in two days for the School 2 School project. Bloomingdale’s got wind of her efforts and offered 25% off coupons to their outlet around the corner to sweeten the deal.

“Yes, we have so much money that our children’s pencils are dipped in gold,” jokes Edgecliffe-Johnson. Both she and another School 2 School founder, Ben Arthur, who also has two kids at P.S. 87, are quick to applaud their fellow parents’ commitment to filling the funding gap. But, says Arthur, “every time my child gets to do something cool, there is a distant chord that I feel of ‘Why?’” Why his kid and not some kid in the South Bronx?

Arthur originally proposed to the parent leadership at P.S. 87 a form of tithing, where some portion of the PTA funds raised would be set aside for schools serving low income students. (Tithing is an ancient religious tradition which involves giving away a tenth of one’s income.) Portland, Oregon, which adopted such an ordinance back in 1994, directed a million dollars toward high-needs schools last year, out of the 3.4 million raised by wealthier PTAs.

The legality of redirecting funds is unclear under the current version of the Chancellor’s Rules governing PTAs in New York City, which effectively tabled Arthur’s proposal. There was also some concern that parents might be discouraged from giving to the school if they knew that a portion of the money was going to be used elsewhere. (In fact, that happens in New York City already: When a parent association makes a grant to its principal to pay for cluster teachers or classroom assistants, that money must be funneled through the budget system known as Galaxy and a percentage is deducted by the Department of Education.)

For their part, Arthur and Edgecliffe-Johnson think that parents who are offered the opportunity to give money for other kids, in addition to their own children, will donate even more if they are able to. Last year, they organized online school supply ordering, which included an option to “top up” $10 that would go toward Operation Backpack, an organization that provides backpacks and school supplies to homeless children. Of the parents who participated in the online ordering system, half of them opted in.

Schools serving low-income students receive on average more public funding per student than schools serving higher-income kids, including federal Title I monies for schools where at least 60% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. But some of this funding results from grants that take significant time and effort to write, distracting teachers and administrators from other duties, and other monies are mandated for particular use, serving English Language Learners or for counseling services.

Also, it costs more to educate kids who often enter school less prepared than their wealthier peers, because of the need for smaller class sizes, learning interventions, and improving state test scores. Teachers lack the discretionary funds to buy those extras that can make school a welcoming place where students like to be.

One of the School 2 School recipients is pre-K teacher Ineabelle Morales, who works at Young Leaders Academy in Mott Haven in the Bronx. She had a Donors Choose request for two iPads for a learning center of math and literacy games. Each center serves four students, and they only had two iPads, so the kids had to share, which not only caused conflict but defeated the purpose of individualized online learning. Morales says that her kids and their parents feel grateful that some families in Manhattan consider them a part of their broader school community.

What would happen if the sort of sharing model that School 2 School embodies were to become the norm? Would there be the same enthusiasm among the local businesses who donate meals, books, or gift cards to the wealthier public schools throughout the year simply for the asking? Would the dizzying selection of stuff—educational game centers, woodworking classes, ballroom dancing—that makes school fun suddenly be available for so many in need?

Perhaps. Right now, Edgecliffe-Johnson and Arthur are modest about the impact of the School 2 School program. But it’s a start to a potential change of consciousness among parents at well-heeled schools to expand their sense of responsibility beyond their own children.

This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a nonprofit devoted to journalism about inequality.

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