Not always a cakewalk

As New York City starts collecting data on inequities in PTA fundraising, the search is on for potential solutions

PHOTO: Chalkbeat photo
Families from Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn hold a bake sale.

When Susan Moesker’s son started sixth grade five years ago at Boerum Hill School for International Studies in Brooklyn, there was no active PTA. The school, she said, “has a wonderful and diverse student body,” which Moesker loved, but not all of the parents could afford to donate extra time and money to the school.

“We have families who have tremendous ability to give, and we have families who have no ability to give whatsoever,” she said.

So Moesker and other parents who could banded together, and through bake sales and chili cook-offs, raised about $800 that first year. The group stayed active, grew an executive board and reported $6,585 in revenue in 2016, according to its latest tax return available on Guidestar. But while the momentum was upward, the receipts remained modest.

So a couple of years ago, the PTA decided to spring for a gala — the type of fundraiser you might see at nearby P.S. 261, which raised almost $900,000 in 2016, or at P.S. 58, which raised $1.4 million, through a combination of donations, grants, and services parents pay for at the school, according to Guidestar.

Moesker’s PTA was able to secure a venue for free, and the gala and silent auction raked in about $36,000 last year. With the help of corporate matching of some parents’ direct donations, the PTA expects to pull in $83,580 this year, according to its online budget projection. While this is significantly more than the average $1,000 city PTAs raise, according to one city official, it’s still well below the million-dollar budgets of the richest PTAs.

It’s natural for parents to want to fill in perceived gaps in resources in their children’s classrooms. But since many public school parents can’t afford to donate large sums of money, the powerhouse PTAs are contributing to the already vast divide between wealthy and needy schools — a longstanding problem that is coming under new scrutiny.

Last month, the New York City Council passed a bill requiring the Department of Education to publish by December 2019 an annual report on how much each parent-teacher association or parent association is raising.

Although the education department already collects this information through each school’s principal, it is not posted anywhere for the public to see, says Councilman Mark Treyger, who sponsored the bill and is the chairman of the council’s education committee.

The bill requires the department to post the report on its website, deliver it to the council’s speaker and provide demographic information about the student population — race, ethnicity, English learner status — at each PTA’s school.

By making the data more accessible, Treyger says, he hopes to launch an informed conversation about how the city might address the “glaring disparities” that arise from the PTA Haves and Have Nots.

“I don’t believe your zip code should dictate the opportunities you receive,” he said in a recent interview.

What other cities are doing

Treyger’s bill isn’t the first time New York — or other cities — have wrestled with questions of fairness surrounding PTA funds, which schools may use to pay assistant teachers, fund electives or sponsor after-school programs.

In 1997, for example, parents at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village learned that one of the school’s teaching positions was being eliminated. Parents rallied, raising $36,000 almost overnight, nearly enough to cover the $46,000-salary of the teacher being ousted. Then schools Chancellor Rudy Crew blocked the parents’ effort and ordered a moratorium on similar PTA moves, saying it wasn’t fair to schools that didn’t have the same resources.

Today, regulations set by the Chancellor govern how parent associations can operate, including what they can spend their money on and what financial disclosures they have to make. For example, PTAs can’t pay for additional teachers in core subjects.

But inequities persist. At P.S. 334 The Anderson School on the Upper West Side, the PTA is already advertising and soliciting donations for its 27th annual auction next March. Suggestions for donated items range from $25 gift cards to $10,000 vacations. In 2015, the PTA reported revenue of close to $1 million, according to Guidestar and was ranked in 2013 as the country’s 10th richest PTA in a report by the Center for American Progress, a progressive advocacy group.

The parent organization at P.S. 6 on the Upper East Side showed revenue of more than $900,000 in its latest filing and is the 16th richest in the country, according to the same report. Its website suggests an annual donation of $1,200 — though also states “any amount your family is able to give” is welcome. The money helps fund assistant teachers for every classroom, performing arts programs, school-wide supplies, special programs and staff development among other expenses, according to the website’s breakdown.

To address this disparity, Councilman Stephen T. Levin loosely floated the idea, at the hearing on Treyger’s City Council bill, of a progressive taxation system, in which PTAs or PAs might donate a chunk of their raised revenue above a certain level — such as $100,000 or $200,000 — but didn’t say exactly where the money would go. Levin acknowledged, however, that such a tax would be “a pretty serious step” and wondered what other cities are doing.

The answer is that some are already experimenting with ways to make PTA giving more equitable. In the Santa Monica-Malibu school system, parents can donate directly to their schools if it’s to beautify the campus or sponsor field trips. But if parents want to pay for teachers’ salaries or school-day programs, they must also donate to another pool of money that’s then redistributed to needier schools.

In Portland, a central foundation collects one-third of the proceeds any school raises above  $10,000. So for every dollar past this mark, 33 cents go toward equity grants that are delivered to the district’s under-resourced schools.  

It’s not clear in New York City whether rules governing PTAs and PAs would permit donations to other schools or efforts to compel gifts to other organizations. To be legal, PTAs would likely have to adopt clear disclaimers, stating if or when donations could be redirected, said Cliff Perlman, an attorney with New York-based firm Perlman and Perlman, which specializes in non-profit legal matters.

“You’re giving money to an entity and expecting” it to be used “a certain way,” Perlman said. The recipient “is supposed to honor that intent or not take the money.”

Others worry parents will be less inclined to donate if the money isn’t going to benefit their children, resulting in a smaller philanthropic pie for everyone.

And in Malibu, fury over the district’s plan to share PTA funds between the Santa Monica and Malibu schools fueled a desire among some Malibu parents to separate from the district. It still includes both communities but has agreed to establish separate fundraising models.

A voluntary approach — for now

Ben Arthur, a former parent at P.S. 87, the William T. Sherman School on the Upper West Side, said the “blamey-shamey” critiques that wealthier PTAs sometimes weather are unfair.

“These are rational people who are being faced with schools that are being underfunded comically, criminally, by the state,” he said. “It’s really not the fault of P.S. 87 parents that they’re being put in a position to fill these massive gaps.” In 2016, the school’s PTA pulled in more than $1.8 million in combined donations and programs that parents directly pay for, according to Guidestar.

Abigail Edgecliffe-Johnson, another parent at the school, says its auction and fairs are so successful because parents not only can donate more money than parents at other schools but also have the time to devote to planning events and have access to high-value items to put up for bid. Parents who work on Broadway might donate tickets to hot shows, and Arthur, through his connections to the music industry, once secured a three-hour recording session at a local studio for auction.

At the same time, “It is not fair that we are all in public schools, but our school has the ability to fill those shortfalls,” Edgecliffe-Johnson said.

So in 2015, she and Arthur co-founded School 2 School, which raises money for schools in District 7, a needy district in the Bronx. Last May, a Bronx elementary school teacher turned to School 2 School when she needed art supplies for her students. She wanted them to illustrate stories they’d written, but she didn’t have sketch pads, crayons and glue sticks for her students to use. She filed a $690 request on School 2 School, and four months later it was granted, along with another $122 to help finance other activities.

School 2 School has raised $18,814 and funded 40 projects over the past three years, according to its website.

“Your generosity provided my students with essential resources to inspire them to do their best writing,” she wrote in a thank-you comment on the fundraising page.

But some contend that concern about PTAs is just another way to avoid addressing more fundamental inequities and divides.

Marco Battistella, a public school parent who just finished a two-year term as co-chair of the Chancellor Parent Advisory Council, said that the composition of the city’s PTAs and their ability to fundraise usually come down to a school’s demographics, and ultimately to economic integration in schools.

“Yes, there are in fact some schools that raise significant amounts of money and many schools —a majority of schools — they raise very little money,” Battistella said. But “the way to go,” he said, “is to make sure that the demographics in the school are more equally distributed.”

“To be blunt,” he said in written testimony over Treyger’s bill, “no number of bake sales will ever cancel the ill effects of continued systemic underfunding of NYC’s public schools by the state government.”  

How I Teach

Why this Memphis educator wants students to know that scientists aren’t just ‘white men in white lab coats with crazy hair’

PHOTO: James Johnson
James Johnson teaches 6th-grade science at Chickasaw Middle School in the Memphis neighborhood of Westwood. He was one of five Memphis educators selected by nonprofit New Memphis for its first class of the Educators of Excellence Awards.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Eight years ago, James Johnson was doing everything right to become an attorney.

He was interning for the United States Department of Justice, but said the experience actually shifted his ambition from the courtroom to the classroom.

“I witnessed firsthand how juveniles and young adults who committed non-violent crimes were doing so as a means to survive,” Johnson said. “Most of the defendants were from Southeast D.C. which has a high concentration of poverty, crime, and failing public schools. I often wondered to myself, would their future have been different if they had an excellent public school education.”

Now, Johnson teaches 6th-grade science at Chickasaw Middle School in the Memphis neighborhood of Westwood. He was one of five Memphis educators selected by nonprofit New Memphis for its first class of the Educators of Excellence Awards.

He said he wants his students, the majority of whom are students of color, to never limit themselves in what they can become. For example, he asks his students to draw a picture of what they think a scientist looks like.

“Overwhelmingly so each year, I get the same images of white men in white lab coats with crazy hair,” Johnson said. “I share this story to say when students don’t see role models that look like them, they don’t see a reality of endless possibilities and opportunities.”

Read what he has to say about the future of the schools, the best advice he’s received, and how teaching influenced him as a principal.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I would definitely have to say that my experience interning for the United States Department of Justice threw me a complete career curveball. I had my sights set on becoming an attorney, but my experience in D.C. soon shifted from the courtroom to the classroom. I witnessed firsthand how juveniles and young adults who committed non-violent crimes were doing so as a means to survive. Most of the defendants were from Southeast D.C. which has a high concentration of poverty, crime, and failing public schools. I often wondered to myself, would their future have been different if they had an excellent public school education, access to high-quality jobs and career opportunities, adequate healthcare, or even affordable housing? We can’t expect for individuals to thrive and become productive citizens of society when there are high levels of inequality and social injustices concentrated in certain neighborhoods or among certain groups of people. I realized that the real crimes start when students are not properly educated or invested in by adults. I thought that if I became an educator that I could help interrupt the marginalization of our young people one child at a time. Eight years later, I’m doing just that.

How do you get to know your students?

I get to know my students by attending sports events, after-school activities, and church periodically in the neighborhood where I teach. This makes a world of a difference when you are trying to build relationships with students. The more that you can connect with your students outside of the classroom, the stronger your credibility and relationships will be with your students. I remember when I was a child, I was always shocked when I ran into my teachers in public, mainly because I was that problem child who gave everyone the blues and was afraid of what they would say to my parents. As an educator now, students shouldn’t feel a disconnect or separation from their teachers. They should be connected and excited to see us because we really are a part of their extended family and village.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

I hope no one judges me for saying this, but to me, the best lessons to teach are outside of the textbook and about life. I think sometimes we get so caught up in teaching from the curriculum and focusing so much of our energy on standardized testing that we forget we have a whole child in front of us. As a science teacher, my job is to teach my students to observe the natural world around them, ask questions from their curiosities, think critically and ultimately solve problems. If I’m not teaching them things like why it’s important to be a team player or how to persevere in the midst of challenges or why they should care and want to give back to their community or even why it’s important to have integrity and self-respect, my curriculum means nothing. When I teach my students about life I’m essentially setting them up to actually apply their knowledge to future experiences that they will have and to me that’s the true goal of education.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

The Westwood community is full of rich history and many of the community members that I know are dedicated to do whatever it takes to create a brighter future for our students. Unfortunately, it’s an aging community and a lot of the young professionals in the area have moved to different parts of Memphis. Every year, during the first week of school, I lead my students into an exercise where I give them one clean sheet of white copy paper along with some markers and crayons. They have to draw up a picture of what they believe a scientist looks like. Overwhelmingly so each year, I get the same images of white men in white lab coats with crazy hair. I share this story to say when students don’t see role models that look like them, they don’t see a reality of endless possibilities and opportunities. When I ask students what type of career they want, it’s always something around sports or entertainment. That is all they see. Not knocking those industries, but our students deserve to be exposed to more than just that.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

I remember during my second year of teaching, I had a goal of reaching out to all of my parents by the end of the second week of school. I vividly remember calling one parent and she assumed that it was about something negative. I told her that I was actually calling to introduce myself and wanted to learn more about her child, what she wanted me to include in the curriculum, and ideas on how she could get involved in the school based on her schedule. The parent was shocked and kept reiterating the fact that no one had ever called her at the beginning of the school year with anything positive to say. She said, “every time I get a phone call from the school, it’s about something negative.” That really stuck with me and helped me realize that moving forward I would continue to make positive phone calls home to parents as much as I could. When a parent is working hard all day, it makes their day when we call them to share positive news about their child and exciting things taking place at school. No parent wants to hear something negative about their child every time a teacher calls home. We need to reach out to the parents not just when we are having issues, but to share good news as well.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I think the most difficult part of teaching is the emotional rollercoaster that you will experience throughout the year. This work is heart work and if you don’t love children then you will not last long in this field. Several of my students go through things that you would never imagine and the trauma that they face has to be addressed in order for me to teach them. Although I have no control over what occurs outside of the school building, what I can control is the type of support and encouragement I give my students to persevere through some of the obstacles and challenges they face on a daily basis.

What was your biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

That parents of students in underserved communities don’t care about their child’s education. That is definitely not true. I serve in a neighborhood that has its fair share of social and economic challenges, but my parents are always concerned, involved and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure their child is successful in school. Some parents did not have a great experience when they were in school so they’re definitely not going to get involved if they feel like they are being judged or looked down upon. As educators, we must always remember that the parent is the first teacher in a child’s life. In order to truly serve the student, we must create welcoming environments in our school and build relationships with our parents. An engaged parent translates into an engaged student and positive academic outcomes.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Right now I’m reading this book called The University of Success by OG Mandino. It’s an awesome collection of stories from folks who share their wisdom from challenging life experiences. I have always been fascinated with learning from my elders, especially my grandparents, and this book reminds me so much of them and other influential role models in my life growing up.

Scared of robots? Here’s how one Detroit science teacher helps students deal with complex machines and instability at home.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Maxine Kennebrew, science and robotics teacher at Denby High School in Detroit, previously worked with robots at auto plants in the city.

Before she became a teacher, Maxine Kennebrew’s days were measured in hard numbers.

I could say, ‘Okay this was a good day, we ran 1,000 engines today,” said Kennebrew, who formerly was a systems engineer for a Detroit automaker. “It was very tangible what I was accomplishing. In teaching, you can’t always measure what you accomplish, but you can feel it. The end of my day usually feels a lot better than it did.”

Now she’s combining her skill sets as Denby’s new robotics teacher, guiding students through a certification program that the district sees  as a step toward training students for careers. Last month, FANUC, a manufacturer that supplies robots to the Detroit auto industry, donated eight robots to high schools in the Detroit district, including Denby High School, where she teaches science.

The armed-shaped devices delivered to Denby two weeks ago can be programmed to automatically carry out a huge array of tasks like handling food or sorting pills.

“These were everywhere” at the manufacturing facilities where she used to work, Kennebrew said, adding that she hopes the class will help students find jobs with good pay.


“The cool thing about this robot is that it can record your motion and do it again,” said Alantis Clayton, a junior at Denby. “It’s like training a pet to do something.”

Kennebrew started at Denby as a long-term substitute teacher six years ago, when the school was part of a state-run recovery district. She went on to become a certified chemistry, physics, and now robotics teacher.

Our conversation with her started with robots, then branched off into forensic science and the challenges her students face at home. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Alantis Clayton, a junior at Denby High School in Detroit, practices picking up sections of pipe with a recently donated industrial-grade robot.

What’s the hardest thing about basic robotics?

At Chrysler, I trained older autoworkers to use new robots. They were scared of the machines, they were scared to touch them. They had to learn to interact with them, to do cooperative work with the robots. My first day with the students in class felt very similar. They would all point to what they needed the robot to do, but no one wanted to press the button.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Talk about chemistry if you’d like — you’ve been teaching robotics for less than a month!

My students have not had consistent science instruction. I don’t think they had a science teacher last year. My entire goal is to make them understand what science is and to make it fun, so they want to come to class. So I’ve arranged for lectures for them from people who use chemistry in their daily lives

The first one was with the state police forensics department, and they were amazing.

I was so proud of these students. The detective said it was his favorite class. He had 54 slides, and he never left the first one because they asked so many questions.

What’s something happening in the community that affects what goes on inside your class?

Stability. I don’t think adults realize how much instability affects the students. When you hear talks of school closures, talks of a business closure if their parents work there.

I feel like there’s always worry in their brains, and it’s hard to get them to be normal students, because you want to acknowledge what they’re going through but you don’t want it to stop them from growing and learning.

It’s hard to say for the next 90 minutes, ‘Ignore what’s going on outside of here, ignore the worries you have.’ It’s hard to place such a high importance on being in class when you know what they’re going through.

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Cheyanne Robinson, a junior at Denby High School, practices with a robotic arm donated by the manufacturer FANUC.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I always went to really good schools, and it’s hard to stand in front of the students and put on a happy face when you know things aren’t fair. It’s hard to do.

I try to be as real with them as possible. Things aren’t fair, but we’re not going to let it stop us from achieving what we can achieve.

I’ve borrowed materials from anyone who will loan them — the Detroit Children’s Museum, the Science Center.

I don’t want them to think that because it’s not here in front of you there’s not a way to get it done.

Do the new robots help that feeling at all?

The new robots did make me feel better. I want my students to feel special but I also want them to feel normal, that they go to school and that is what’s there because it is supposed to be there. They should have an AutoCAD  lab and a coding lab and a robotics lab. They should have electives to choose from. It makes me feel better because there are kids on a waiting list to get into the class, who come by my room and ask if I have space for them. But I’m still angry because it is not the normal — yet.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

That I can only control what’s inside of my classroom and make sure my classroom is an amazing place.