More Schools Are Not Poor, Not Rich, Just Squeezed

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Students at Public School 9 Teunis G. Bergen in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn, started the summer with the grim news that they would lose four teachers next academic year unless parents raised $160,000 — and soon.

The principal of the school, Sandra D'Avilar, told the parent-teacher organization last month that she would have to cut the teaching staff because the school now had fewer children officially designated “poor,” and so had lost $360,000 in federal Title 1 funding.

A school must have at least 60 percent of its students below the poverty rate, defined as eligible for free school lunches, to qualify for Title 1 money; P.S. 9’s rate dropped to 59.1 percent.

P.S. 9, with 600 students in prekindergarten to fifth grade, is not the only school coping with a loss — real or looming — of hundreds of thousands of dollars in Title 1 funding. Several dozen more schools are in the same fix: too rich to qualify for the federal aid and too poor to rely on parents to fill the gaps with extravagant fund-raisers.

The problem is partly a consequence of gentrification, when neighborhoods that feed into schools begin to attract more middle-class families. It’s also a consequence of something that many schools strive for: improvements in academics and environment that entice middle-class families to enroll their children there.

Like at P.S. 9, that tip in the student population's poverty rate can undermine those very improvements — especially if a school is in the middle, with inadequate resources to make up the difference.

Altogether, about 87 schools in New York City are caught in a squeeze, where more than half of their students — but fewer than 60 percent — are considered poor, putting them just shy of qualifying for the federal money, according to the city’s preliminary budgets for 2012-13. The definition of poverty varies with family size; for a family of four, the city defines it as less than $29,000 in annual income.

Another 32 schools will be in the same boat as P.S. 9 by the 2013-14 school year, and will be scrambling to deal with a cutoff of Title 1 money for services like teachers, aides, literacy programs and basic supplies, which the federal program has sustained.

Schools like P.S. 11 Purvis J. Behan in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, have already experienced the loss.

Five years ago, the school's poverty rate was roughly 70 percent. But the median family income jumped to $95,000, according to 2010 census data, from $68,000 in 2000. And when its poverty rate dropped to 58 percent for 2011-12, P.S. 11 lost its Title 1 funds.

At P.S. 9, Ms. D'Avilar said she was not shocked to learn about the loss in Title 1 assistance.

"The last three years, I watched the poverty rate go lower and lower," said Ms. D'Avilar, who has been principal since 2004. "It wasn't until going into the budget and seeing the money gone that it hit me."

City officials say they give schools time to adjust to their changed status.

“We monitor all our schools,” wrote Marge Feinberg, a spokeswoman for the New York City Department of Education, in an e-mail. When schools dip below the 60 percent poverty level, they are allocated one additional year of Title 1 assistance.

“Grandfathering gives schools a year to transition and plan for aligning resources if funding is no longer allocated in the next year,” Ms. Feinberg said.

Still, the loss came as a blow to the P.S. 9 community. Parents began scrambling to make up the difference, as Gotham Schools reported last week. In an Op-Ed article in The New York Times, a parent wrote about the school’s conundrum.

Ms. D'Avilar said parents just don't have the means to make up the difference; the median family income is roughly $50,000.

"It appears like our families are doing better financially, but they're not," she said. "They all feel the crunch."

Nevertheless, parents sent out an urgent call for help. As word spread, hundreds of neighbors and community members donated, in amounts from $5 to $1,000. So far they have raised $48,000.

While impressive, it’s barely enough to save one teacher. And the parents at P.S. 9 know it's not sustainable. Typically, the largest fund-raising event of the year is a silent auction that raises $20,000, roughly half of the parent-teacher organization’s total budget.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. The teachers whose jobs may be cut have started looking elsewhere for positions, Ms. D'Avilar said. "They don't want to leave. We had a lot of crying and sadness," she said.

In some ways, like many other schools that lost Title 1 money, P.S. 9 is a victim of its own success. As the school population's poverty level slipped below the threshold, parents were able to raise money to upgrade the library and the playground. That and other changes made the school more attractive to more middle-class families.

“There's a lot of families with small children coming into the neighborhood,” said Ivana Espinet, the mother of two children at P.S. 9 and a member of the school leadership team. “There’s people on the waiting list to get in.” Based on Department of Education records and prekindergarten enrollment projections, the school will have more than 650 students in 2012-13. Two years ago, it had 484.

To be sure, the Title 1 loss amounts to roughly only 7 percent of the school’s budget, but Faye Rimalovski, the mother of a rising second grader, said the repercussions were real.

“When you start losing teachers, that’s when it starts counting,” she said.

And parents, who say they already lost a dance teacher last year to budget cuts, say something is wrong with a financing formula that penalizes schools for being desirable and leaves them hanging at a critical time of growth.

“We shouldn't have to raise money; every school should have what they need,” Ms. Espinet said. “We pay our taxes and we're entitled to a good education for all our children.”

Ms. D'Avilar agrees.

"I heard about children going into their piggy banks because they want to help save our teachers," she said. "They shouldn't have to do that."

Amy Ellen Schwartz, director of the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University, who has studied Title 1, said the way the funds are distributed in New York City is different from almost anywhere else in the country.

The federal government allocates Title 1 funds to the city based on the overall number of low-income students. The city then divides the pool among schools where more than 60 percent of the students are eligible for free lunches. In Staten Island, the cutoff is only 45 percent because the city uses average rates of poverty by borough. It’s a sore point for some principals left in limbo in the other boroughs.

Principals can use the money however they wish, with three requirements: 1 percent must be used in programs to engage parents, 5 percent to help teachers earn certifications and 10 percent for ongoing teacher training. Additionally, a portion of Title 1 funds is tied to individual students who are in the homeless shelter system.

Some say the all-or-nothing formula is unfair.

“The rich have enough money,” Ms. Schwartz said. “The poor we help. The ones in the middle genuinely have issues, and nobody much talks about it. It’s like there's this middle that doesn't exist, and it’s horrifying.”

A school spokeswoman wrote in an e-mail, “Per federal law, Title 1 funds should be directed to schools in most need.”

In Flushing, Queens, P.S. 165 Edith K. Bergtraum is sandwiched between a gentrified area and one that barely changed economically. To the west, one neighborhood has a median family income of $85,000. To the east, the median is $30,000.

Now that the poverty rate for P.S. 165 has dipped to 57 percent, the school will no longer receive federal dollars. Just two years ago, the Title 1 money amounted to $281,000 — equal to the salaries of roughly six entry-level teachers — of an $8 million budget.

What put the school below the Title 1 eligibility level was a shift of just 16 students, out of 599.

Some school officials say that given the small number of children who can affect the poverty rate, the problem is a bureaucratic one: the poverty level is set by responses to school lunch forms, which collect information about family income to determine eligibility for free lunches. It’s a large reason that schools make a big deal about seeing those forms returned every fall.

At P.S. 9, five children made the difference. Ms. Espinet said P.S. 9 has a 100 percent return rate for the forms, but most schools don’t.

At New Utrecht High School in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, one-third of the 3,000 students receive public assistance and automatically count toward the school’s official 59 percent poverty rate.

But Mitchel Kubiak, assistant principal at New Utrecht, said he believed that the actual poverty rate was much higher. Almost 30 percent of his students (920 to be exact) don’t return their forms, and each form is worth roughly $1,000 in federal funds, he said.

New Utrecht has seen its budget shrink by $2 million in the last two school years, he said, with another $500,000 endangered for 2012-13.

Schools like Baruch College Campus High School in Midtown Manhattan don’t have problems with forms. But the poverty rate there has gone down, and the $300,000 in Title 1 money that the school received over the last three years has evaporated, said Alicia Pérez-Katz, the principal of Baruch.

Her school now has a poverty rate of 58 percent. To save math and science teachers, Ms. Pérez-Katz increased average class sizes to almost 40 students, up from 25 four years ago. The school had bought computers, but now cannot afford to fix broken ones.

“Our school is like being in the middle class: You pay a lot of taxes, but we’re not quite making it,” said Johanna Van Straaten, a former PTA president at Baruch, whose son just graduated. “We spend more than we bring in.”

Ms. Van Straaten said Baruch’s PTA considers it a good fund-raising year if it brings in $20,000. This year it raised $15,000. So it dipped into its reserves to help the school pay $3,000 for printer toner and copiers, among other things.

After-school programs and arts and music classes have been cut. The school and the PTA used to rent a gym for student sports, because the building doesn’t have one. They’re not sure how they can pay for that now.

“That's life and reality,” Ms. Van Straaten said. “In some ways children should see that not everyone has everything. And to help others fund-raise to be part of a community is one good thing that comes out of needing more. That's a learning experience in itself.”

Not everyone is quite as sanguine.

“We were planning for extracurricular teachers in the fall,” Ms. Rimalovski of P.S. 9 said. “Now we have to take a huge step back just to save the teachers we already have in the school.”

She added: “You think in public education everything should be covered. It’s not. When we get hit for $160,000, it hurts all of our children.”