The ever-smiling Gwynne Rivers, co-president of the Parent-Teacher Association at Emily Dickinson Public School 75 in the Upper West Side, was picking up her kids from school on West End Avenue. She was still basking in the success of a fundraiser, which took place in May and raised thousands of dollars. Exactly how much she declined to say.
“Our auction went very well. We auction anything from tickets to Broadway shows to dinner,” said Rivers. She and the PTA team have built strong ties with the community and businesses across the city. Some of the items PTA members bought and contributed; others were donated through local city businesses or friends of the school.
Run by parents of students at the dual-language K-5 school, where many children learn Spanish as well as English, PS 75’s Parent Teacher Association has been able to fund extra-curricular activities for the school’s 635 students — programs that aren’t covered by funding from the New York City Department of Education.
In 2011, the parent association raised about $154,000, including more than $90,000 from the auction. That’s far less than some other schools on the Upper West Side, where PS 87 hauled in $645,000 that year. PS 75 is hardly wealthy, with 57 percent of children receiving free lunch, and fundraising expenses eat up a chunk of the proceeds, but it’s still able to raise enough money in its largely upscale neighborhood to make vital cultural programs possible.
“We have art studio class, where artists come in and speak to students,” said Rivers proudly. “We have a student chorus, ballroom dancing, chess and a student talent show, too.”
An additional $324,000 in 2011 came in as income from an after-school program, used by the larger school community; those funds are used to pay for that program’s operations.
PS 75 takes up three floors of the school building, but it is not alone. The top floor is occupied by Middle School 250, West Side Collaborative School, where Parent Association president Paul Reggio is finishing his fourth and last year. The experience of the students at the elementary and the middle school are strikingly different.
In 2011, the middle school parent association brought in no revenue at all, according to its financial statements submitted to the Department of Education, and had no money in the bank. Today, says Reggio, it has $5,000. The association raised the money “basically through parents and the kids doing candy sales,” said Reggio. “Modest things like dances and so forth.”
The 177-student school, with students in sixth through eighth grades, offers no sports or music. What MS 250 does have, and PS 75 largely does not, is funding from the federal government under Title I, which in New York City predominantly goes to schools where at least 60 percent of children live in low-income households. (According to its principal, PS 75 will begin receiving Title I funding next year.) In 2011, the middle school’s Title I funding totaled nearly $112,000 — almost $650 per student from the federal funding alone. Much of that money this year went to an additional math teacher for MS 250 — important for a school that received a “D” on its most recent progress score in math and English.
It also runs a modest after-school program called Occupy West Side, created to keep students engaged in structured after-school activities instead of hanging out on the street. It’s staffed by parents donating their time. “They can stay and use the computers and we have volunteers that watch them,” said Reggio.
The tale of two schools at 735 West End Avenue is also being played out in buildings elsewhere in the city where multiple institutions co-locate. Schools with powerhouse PTAs that can finance perks for their students occupy the same buildings as neighbors that rely almost entirely on federal support to fund expenses beyond core operating costs. In many other cases, privately and publicly subsidized schools are located within just a few blocks of one another.
In a sampling of PTA financial statements from five districts around the city – one in each borough — more than a dozen are much like PS 75 and MS 250, with privately and publicly subsidized schools coexisting in the same space, and providing different educational experiences as a result.
Principals can spend most of their Title I funds however they wish, which education policy experts say gives school leaders valuable latitude they can’t find elsewhere in their budgets.
But the funding is unpredictable. Next year’s Title I funding will be cut by 5 percent across the board, as part of the federal budget sequester, and funds to New York City have declined by more than 8 percent over two years. Schools can never be certain how much they’re going to get until they determine the number of free-lunch students for the year and Congress agrees on a budget for the program.
It all makes planning multi-year projects and contracts difficult.
“Buying computers, and class trips or additional teachers are really a lot of things that the Title I schools can’t do with any consistency because you don’t know from year to year how much is going to be available,” said Dr. Meryle Weinstein, assistant director of New York University’s Institute on Education and Social Policy.
That’s where a strong PTA can make all the difference. It’s not an association’s ability to pull in large sums as a one-shot fundraising effort, said Weinstein, but rather its ability to rake in large sums on demand, continually, that sets them apart.
“For a school to have a PTA that can consistently come up with these funds to fill these gaps is incredibly important,” she said.
At the West Side Collaborative School, Reggio knows his child’s school doesn’t have all the assets its neighbor downstairs has, and sees the gap only growing wider.
“Emily Dickinson is a bigger school and has a different demographic now; the demographic has changed financially and racially,” said Reggio. “Today parents are really looking into scores and teachers. And PS 75 has made that transition a lot quicker than we have.”
Local elected officials on the West Side are well aware of the gaps between co-located schools, and would like to see them to share resources with one another. City Councilmember Gale Brewer, a candidate for Manhattan Borough President, wants to see co-located schools begin to share not just their street addresses, but also their programs and facilities.
“You might have two principals, but if you’re able to work on one soccer team, one art class, one Mandarin class, that’s how you can save and provide good education,” said Brewer. “What makes it work is when there is shared space. Means everyone’s on the same grade and that would mean a shared library, shared art room, shared black box theater, auditorium, cafeteria.”
Local Community Education Council member Sonya Hampton, who has been a part of public education system for 12 years, contends that “richer versus poorer” parent teacher associations within a school building or a community create tensions among parents. “I know hard-working parents that cannot make those meetings, and at the same time they are so tired of being pushed around that they give up. This has been going on for a while,” she said. “The only people being affected negatively are the children.”
For Rivers and Reggio, the relationship between the two schools on West End Avenue has not flourished as either had actually wanted. Rivers described the relationship as “polite” and said that she wanted MS 250 Parent Association to get more involved in shared events.
As for Reggio, “This is my last year here,” he says wistfully. “I was reluctant in the beginning but this has been a great experience for me. And I am leaving the PTA here a little stronger.”
Additional reporting by Curtis Skinner
This story has been corrected. It previously said that PS 75 has a French-language program as well as a Spanish program. It also indicated that the school raised $343,629 in 2011; $187,224 of that total was in fact funds carried over from previous years.