Parent associations provide critical, but uneven, support

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Please note the clarification at the bottom of this story. The amount of money P.S. 7 Milton Fein School communicated to the city council through the education department was in error.

Bake sales, seasonal festivals, movie nights, potluck dinners — all things that may feel like small events, but show a school’s parent association might be doing more than many might think.

Money raised by public school parent associations funds special programs, support staff, even school supplies. More and more, they are becoming essential for some schools, but completely missing on campuses where it’s needed the most, prompting the city council and the city’s education department to take a closer look.

The belief is this fundraising practice may help expose systematic racial inequalities in schools, prompting the city council to ask education officials to release an accounting of money raised by parent associations citywide. Released earlier this month, the numbers showed a stark contrast throughout the city: Some schools — mostly in wealthy neighborhoods — were pulling in millions of dollars. Some, primarily in low-income areas, had raised nothing.

It’s possible parents at those schools simply don’t have the money to contribute, officials said, and schools can lack those additional programs usually funded by such groups as a result.

P.S. 7 Milton Fein School on Kingsbridge Avenue did quite well, according to the report, raising around $2 million. P.S. 81 Robert J. Christen on Riverdale Avenue raised less — nearly $40,000, but was $40,000 more than P.S. 207 on Godwin Terrace, which had nothing in its parent-generated coffers.

In the end, it seems P.S. 207 simply failed to report what its parent association made, but even still, it wasn’t much, according to its new parent association president, Neli Ciriaco. That’s because when Ciriaco’s predecessor stepped down, the group’s bank account was closed, she said, leaving the next group of members with nothing to start with.

“It was a hot mess, it was really bad,” Ciriaco said. “For now, we have no fundraisers, because we have no bank account.”

Tiffany Lankes, communications director at the Education Trust, said the new data wasn’t completely accurate, and could be unreliable.

Still, she said, the trust has studied school funding in the past, and schools are often underfunded and struggling. According to Chalkbeat, P.S. 207’s economic need index is 88 percent. The index figure is calculated by assessing students who qualify for or are living in temporary housing, and provides a rough estimate of the number of students who are struggling financially. Nearby P.S. 7’s index is nearly 80 percent, while P.S. 24 Spuyten Duyvil has a score of only 27 percent.

Ciriaco and the remaining parent association members held an expedited election to re-start the group. She and her fellow volunteers have been making rounds, attending trainings and education department meetings.

“Our main focus is how to help parents get more informed,” Ciriaco said. “District 75 has outreach for kids with special ed. Parents, we don’t know that. We want to bring workshops like that.”

Parent engagement is crucial, Ciriaco said. A recent meeting attracted 10 parents. It’s not a large number, but more than the first meeting. She hopes that, in time, they’ll be able to draw larger crowds.

“We have a hectic schedule now, and I’m just thinking, ‘When am I going to have the time to cook, to do my own laundry?’” Ciriaco said. “It’s a lot, and we’re starting from the ground, from zero, from nothing.”

Ciriaco has two children at P.S. 207 — a daughter in third grade and a son in kindergarten.

“There’s a lot of things to learn, that I have to be there five days a week,” Ciriaco said. “They have to keep a tight ship, making sure everyone is working together well, attending trainings, and getting the group off the ground.

Parent association fundraising can fill some resource holes at schools. Last year, for example, P.S. 81 used parent association funds to purchase emergency walkie-talkies for classrooms. Stephanie Cruz, that school’s parent association treasurer, said P.S. 81 parents keep open communication with teachers and school administrators to decide how to spend money.

“NYC schools are notoriously underfunded,” Cruz said. “We are impressed with what our administrators and teachers at 81 are able to accomplish with the budgets that are given to them. At 81 we are lucky that we are not funding holes, but rather supporting the things that the school and parents want.”

P.S. 81’s Economic Need Index is just over 44 percent, according to Chalkbeat.

Ciriaco is ready to revive P.S. 207’s parent association, taking on the work her predecessor left for her.

“I’m like, ‘Well, what should I do?’” she said. “Move forward. I’m not a quitter, I’m going to move forward. I have no skills whatsoever, but whatever.”

Ciriaco is prepping a coat drive this month, and if it’s successful, another in January. The parent association also is planning a fundraiser on Valentine’s Day. In the past few years, P.S. 207 raised money to purchase computers for a parent resource room.

What is she looking at next?

“I think another after-school program, to really help kids,” Ciriaco said. “There are some kids that really need extra help. You don’t need to have an (individualized education program), but there’s always something that’s going through their minds. And they can’t concentrate.”

One Friday morning earlier this month, Ciriaco assembled the new parent association at P.S. 207 for the first time, where each of the parents shared ideas for their coming fundraisers.

“This is the first time we have sat down the whole committee, today,” Ciriaco said. “And it was exciting.”

CLARIFICATION: The parent association of P.S. 7 Milton Fein School raised just under $25,000 for the past year, not the $2 million reported in a story that appeared in the Dec. 12 edition. The larger amount — which was reported to the city council by the education department — was submitted incorrectly, according to P.S. 7 parent association president Richard Espinal. The parent association did not respond to a reporter’s questions prior to publication.

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