Streams

Looking for a Job? Chances Are, the PTA Is Hiring

Wednesday, June 20, 2012 - 05:27 PM

School budget cuts, rising expenses and grander ambitions for student activities have driven up the cost of sending a child to a New York City public school. Earlier this spring, SchoolBook asked parents to tell us about their school-related spending. Journalists followed up on the hundreds of responses we received, resulting in a series of reports on SchoolBook, in The New York Times and on WNYC. You can find previous reports here.

Kelli Holsopple, a New York City actress, has a passion for Shakespearean comedies, Greek tragedies and perhaps more remarkably, the Parent Association at the East Village Community School on East 12th Street.

At a time when the earnings of some of the city’s top-netting public school PTAs is gaining notice, Ms. Holsopple, 35, represents a growing faction of New Yorkers who do not view ballooning school coffers through the prism of educational equality or public school politics. Rather, they see it as rent money.

That’s because Ms. Holsopple, 35, receives about $13,000 a year from the parents at the progressive school, which serves children in prekindergarten through grade five, to provide students a historical drama program in which they pretend to be wan-faced immigrants detained on Ellis Island, spindly Irish laborers laying track for the Transcontinental Railroad, and ecosensitive farmers on a make-believe “Peace Farm.”

Of her employers, she has one seminal point to make: “I am grateful.”

The PTA provides half of her $26,000 part-time salary; the principal picks up the rest, said Tricia Davies, chairwoman of the Parent Association's fund-raising committee and the association's treasurer-elect.

There is no centralized accounting of how many New Yorkers owe their livelihoods to public school PTAs. But parent association Web sites -- which often include lists of the activities parent dollars are now responsible for -- suggest that if you are an actress with an appetite for history, an entrepreneurial bongo drummer, a yoga instructor all right with teaching downward dog to 6-year-olds, or even a skateboard champion looking to earn some extra cash, currying favor with the city’s better-off PTAs is just good business.

With more and more of them paying for art, music and movement classes, not to mention running their own after-school programs, it’s no surprise that they are often hiring.

This is true, in part, because the budgets that city principals are assigned have dipped 13.7 percent on average over the past five years, with some of the city’s 1,700 schools losing around a million dollars.

But it also speaks to the way some public school parents have toiled in recent years to provide some of the same programs that private schools offer.

Ms. Holsopple, who helped develop the East Village Community School program for the Phoenix Theater Ensemble, where she is an artistic director, also teaches at Trinity a private school on the Upper West Side.

The Vital Theater Company, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, provides hands-on theater workshops in five public schools in the city, including Public School 166, the Richard Rodgers School of the Arts and Technology on West 89th Street and P.S. 452 on West 77th Street.

Like many theater companies, Vital does this to help offset the cost of its own productions, said Linda Ames Key, the company's education director. It puts on children’s musicals based on best-selling picture books, like "Pinkalicious," the tale of a girl who downs so many pink cupcakes she contracts pinkitis, and "Angelina Ballerina," a series about a mouse who lives with her family in a fictitious town called Chipping Cheddar.

Without PTA money, Ms. Key said, her theater company would have to cut its productions by more than 60 percent. “It would have a devastating effect on our company. They’re part of us,” she added, referring to New York City PTAs. “They’re part of the reason we can do this.”

Ask Luiz Louie, a 38-year-old skateboarder from Chinatown, about the parents who run New York City's PTAs and Mr. Louie, who in 1999 opened Louie’s Skateboarding School, is effusive. “I love New York City PTAs,” said Mr. Louie, who also goes by the name “Louie Louie.”

Mr. Louie teaches nearly 50 aspiring elementary school skateboarders how to ride quarter pipes and perform tic-tacs and ollies during popular after-school classes at schools like P.S. 11, the William T. Harris School in Chelsea, where he is paid close to $10,000 a semester by the school’s PTA.

“If the school stopped these classes, I would be home crying,” he said.

For recent education graduates unable to find work because of Department of Education hiring freezes, parent associations have turned into unlikely allies. Some schools, like P.S. 6, the Lillie D. Blake School, on East 82nd Street and the Anderson School on West 77th Street spend hundreds of thousands of dollars a year on otherwise out-of-work teaching assistants, most of them young, to help buffer students from mounting class sizes.

And while their salaries, from $12 to $15 an hour at most schools, have been a point of contention with the United Federation of Teachers and some PTA members themselves, these teachers see the work as a welcome respite from the unemployment line while they wait for the economy to stabilize.

Josiah Houston, 26, a fourth-grade teaching assistant at Nest+M, a gifted and talented school on the Lower East Side, was a doorman and a waiter before landing the job, which he called “a blessing.”

Ten years ago, when she helped found the New Amsterdam Fencing Academy on the Upper West Side, Larissa Gonzales said, she never would have thought that this much of her business (25 percent of it) would come from PTAs.

She started her company on Sept. 12, 2001, when her first week as coach of the Stuyvesant High School fencing team came to an abrupt end.

“We were just two starving artists, too poor to know better,” Ms. Gonzales said.

Now she teaches in a dozen schools, including P.S. 3, the Charrette School, and P.S. 75, the Emily Dickinson School, on West End Avenue.

PTAs may have cash to burn, but some have rigorous hiring procedures and high expectations. Some PTA board members conduct detailed interviews with teachers and applicants. Other PTAs ask teaching artists to write lengthy proposals. And teachers who are invited into schools say they are now expected to host end-of-term showcases and assemblies in school auditoriums so parents can witness the progress their children are making.

Ms. Holsopple takes frequent videos of the drama workshops she teaches and posts them on a private YouTube link for parents to see. For her part, Ms. Gonzales often holds an end-of-term fencing demonstration.

“They’re aggressive consumers,” said David Marquis, the founder of Marquis Studio, a 36-year-old nonprofit that provides arts programming in 75 different schools across the city, with an estimated $200,000 of his income funneling in from parent associations.

“There are schools we are in now that I know we are there by the good graces of the PTA,” Mr. Marquis said.

Additional reporting by Chris Palmer and Chelsia Rose Marcius.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of this post inaccurately reported Tricia Davies' Parents Association title.

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