Streams

At Two City Schools, Parents' Money Leads to Two Very Different Experiences

Wednesday, June 13, 2012 - 06:21 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. This post examines two schools at opposite ends of the fund-raising and spending scale.

In February, when Ronnie Najjar, the principal of Public School 89 The Liberty School in Battery Park City, decided to buy several $600 iPads for lower-grade classrooms, enroll teachers in a Common Core curriculum training program and hire part-time office and recess staff members, she turned to her PTA.

Within days, the parent group cut her a check for $18,000.

For parents at P.S. 89, who tend to know a lot about QuickBooks, budget balancing and the intricate workings of burgeoning nonprofits, it was a prime example of how things work at their school.

“We’re here to support Ronnie,” said the PTA treasurer, Gabrielle Steinfels, 46, who has a child there in third grade and in recent years helped the PTA raise over $200,000 each year, putting it at the mid- to high end of parent organizations in fund-raising. “That’s our job.”

At Public School 305 Dr. Peter Ray in Bedford Stuyvesant, where the PTA raises less than $5,000 a year, things work differently. There, more often than not, the administrators find themselves helping parents by doing things like collecting money for winter coats for homeless students, and this year, raising money for a family that lost all of its belongings in a fire.

“People make sacrifices when they can,” said the assistant principal, Bruce Copeland, about donations from parents. “But everybody here is struggling.”

In a school system where poverty is concentrated at certain schools (those like P.S. 305 in central Brooklyn, for example) and pockets of wealth are found in others (in the Battery Park area, where P.S. 89 is, as well as on the Upper East Side and in TriBeCa), the financial relationships between parents and their children's public school can vary greatly.

The divide between the have and the have-not schools has long existed. Public money is supposed to address some of the disparities, by providing extra funding for schools with high levels of poverty. And some enterprising principals and teachers have been able to obtain grants and corporate assistance for equipment and services.

But with some schools experiencing budget reductions of up to $1 million over the past five years, wealthy PTAs more aggressively amassing donations and some principals turning more readily to those organizations for assistance, the public school system has become a disparate collection of institutions.

The gaps have real consequences, dictating the number of computers a school has, the selection of books in the library, the quality of art supplies, and even how many teachers or aides a school can hire.

And so, as David Bloomfield, a professor of education at Brooklyn College, said, “Even if you're not going to be able to spend a lot of money yourself on your child’s public school, it helps to go to school where the high rollers are.”

The impact of the fund-raising trend is evident in a closer examination of schools, like P.S. 89 and P.S. 305.

P.S. 89 is housed in a sleek brick building in Battery Park City that was constructed in 1998. It has spacious classrooms, a library, a science lab, plenty of PTA-financed Smart Boards, and wide, pleasant hallways decorated with colorful artwork, like a five-foot-tall Brooklyn Bridge constructed by third graders out of cardboard and commercial-grade rope bought by the PTA.

By all standards, it is an elite public school, populated by the offspring of lawyers, doctors and real estate agents, some of whom could have afforded private school but opted to go public — at least for now.

Most of the students are white (60 percent) and a mere 10 percent receive free or reduced lunches. (To qualify for free lunches, a student must be in a family with an income of no more than 130 percent of the poverty level, or $29,055 for a family of four. Children in a similarly sized household where the income is no more than $41,348 are eligible for reduced-cost lunches.)

P.S. 89 is also a high performing school: 85.9 percent of its students are proficient in reading, according to statewide exams, and 90.2 are proficient in math.

By contrast, P.S. 305 is housed in a hulk-like building on Monroe Street in Brooklyn. It has outdated air-conditioners, a recently refurbished library with too few books to open and a gymnasium in need of repairs. The school does not have an art room. More than 83 percent of its students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Just 30.3 percent are proficient in reading, and only 50 percent are proficient in math. And unlike at P.S. 89, most of the students are black (82 percent).

This spring while third graders at P.S. 89 spent time studying Native American Indians, building wigwams and corn husk dolls, the ones at P.S. 305 spent their time preparing for the statewide exams. Meanwhile, the PTA at each school plotted ways to raise and spend its money.

At P.S. 89, that meant meeting on a regular basis with the school principal about her needs and the PTA's earnings, according to Ms. Steinfels, the treasurer, who spends a few days a week at a desk in the school office “processing income and paying bills” and occasionally meeting with Ms. Najarr.

Parents at P.S. 89 pay for laptops, a dance program, a chess club, upgrades to the gym and the library, music and art offerings, and an assistant to work in the playground. They give teachers $400 each to purchase whatever school supplies they want, and another $200 later in the year if they have exhausted their funds. They also help out with miscellaneous things that Ms. Najarr thinks the school needs.

As for Ms. Najarr, she keeps track of where the teacher money is going. “I’m like an accountant,” she said. “I manage this for the PTA.”

To help make up for city budget cuts, which have cost P.S. 87 more than $400,000 in the past five years, the PTA hosts a fall music festival that raises more than $4,000, a holiday dance party that grosses $5,000, and a $75-a-ticket gala, which this year was called “The Bollywood Blockbuster.”

When PTA members banter about their concerns at meetings and in private, they sometimes worry that the number of events they host may be wearing parents out.

Of course, there is also the nagging concern that they won’t meet their financial goals. “There is always that moment of doubt,” said the PTA president, Sarah Cassell, the mother of a fifth grader at the school. “But then we always end up raising what we need.”

For the PTA at P.S. 305, the challenges are different and can be far more dispiriting, according to its PTA president, Na’shon Brown, 32, the father of a third grader at the school. Trying to persuade people who are already strapped to give to their school is not easy, said Mr. Brown, who works a night shift with the Metropolitan Transit Authority. “We’re trying to increase what we raise. But there’s not a lot we can do.”

He and his fellow PTA executive board members often meet at a table cluttered with forms in a former classroom, which also serves as a large storage area for the school. There, beneath a sign that reads “Great Work Grows Here,” they plan events and brainstorm ideas.

But in several instances this school year they have had to come to terms with the need to reduce their financial expectations from the hospital care workers, secretaries and blue-collar workers who make up their parent body, not to mention the parents without stable housing or jobs.

Suffice to say, no big chunks of cash have come their way, despite Mr. Brown’s frequent pleas to parents. Yet this academic year alone, he said, the school has lost close to $100,000 from its budget, a fact that he repeats frequently at meetings.

Still, there have been some successful initiatives: a candy sale, which brought in about $1,000, and Picture Day, which netted another $1,000, according to the treasurer, Angela Spratley, who has three children at the school.

And regular movie nights have proved a popular draw, with more than 50 people attending the recent showing of "Mr. Popper’s Penguins," a film about a clueless New York City businessman who inherits a gaggle of penguins. The PTA charged $3 per student and sold water, hot dogs and Capri Sun drinks slightly above cost.

With some of this year’s $5,000 income, the P.S. 305 PTA is sending its fifth graders on “a nice, end-of-year trip” to Rye Playland on Tuesday, hopes to rent out a prom hall in the neighborhood for them, and has purchased sashes for their graduation ceremony, Ms. Spratley said.

But while P.S. 89's teachers can rely on its PTA for their classroom supplies, the teachers at P.S. 305 are on their own. They also routinely step in to help students with things like senior dues, prom dresses and other needs.

"A number of teachers will pitch in for everything from notebooks to pencils — anything parents can't provide," said the parent coordinator, Lorrie Ayers.

Sitting in his makeshift office one recent afternoon, Mr. Brown said he had hoped the PTA could provide a lot more. He had come in with dreams of fixing the school gym, maybe even adding books to the library, and helping to make up some of the city money the school had lost.

All this, he said, will have to wait another year. “It’s just been slow in coming.”

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