McKinley Elementary might be the new face of San Diego Unified’s neighborhood schooling movement.

Just 10 years ago, McKinley’s enrollment had dipped so low the district considered closing it down. Today, test scores are up, and the school has more parents wanting in than it has seats to offer.

San Diego Unified trustee Richard Barrera, who represents schools in this area, points to McKinley as the quintessential story of what can happen when a group of parents decide to reclaim their neighborhood school.

But a couple important things happened at the same time. Housing prices shot up between 2000 and 2010, and families in the neighborhood became more affluent. McKinley established a prestigious International Baccalaureate program, so it could offer parents a challenging and curriculum. And parents started a foundation that raised enough money to fund the IB program.

The money parents raised drove the changes to the school in a big way. And because Barrera and district officials have pointed to McKinley as a glowing example of the neighborhood school model, it’s worth understanding what role money and philanthropy played if other schools are to follow McKinley’s lead.

School foundations are nonprofit entities, usually run by parents, that raise money for individual schools. You’re likely to find them at affluent neighborhoods like La Jolla and Scripps Ranch.

They allow parents to raise money that stays at the school and can be used for enrichment activities – things not covered by the general budget, but which could make the school more attractive, like playground equipment, art instruction or after-school clubs.

Foundations aren’t new to California, but they’re still sort of the new frontier of school fundraising. Officials in San Diego Unified don’t expressly encourage them, but they don’t intensely regulate them or turn away donations, either.

In 2011, school foundations in San Diego Unified raised about $6.5 million, nearly all of which stayed at the individual schools that raised it.

Betsey Zbyszynski, president of McKinley’s foundation, said parents started one after they realized bake  sales and other traditional ways of raising money required too much effort for too little profit.

So they took fundraising to the next level. In addition to galas and jog-a-thons, parents organize a chili cook-off that feels more like a street fair. There you can enjoy craft beer and live music while kids play in the bounce house or get their faces painted. Tax disclosures from 2015 show that year’s event brought in close to $90,000 – a big chunk of the $142,000 the foundation raised that year from all sources.

The chili cook-off also requires a tremendous amount of work. Deb Ganderton, McKinley’s principal, told me the parents who lead the event have to put their professional lives virtually on hold for three months while they get permits lined up and organize the event.

In theory, parents at any school could start a foundation and raise funds this way. But in practice, not every school has parents with the kind of money or social capital that would allow them to give up huge pieces of their time to raise money for the school.

But for the foreseeable future, McKinley parents will have to continue raising funds if they want to keep the programs they’ve grown to love.

That prestigious IB program the school offers costs about $150,000 more per year to operate than a traditional neighborhood school. This year, the district started providing more support to the 11 IB schools in the district, but it’s not enough to cover everything.

International Baccalaureate programs are internationally accredited schools that originally catered to children of diplomats whose parents moved around a lot but wanted rigorous schools wherever they were sent.

Fittingly, the program itself has an international focus. Ganderton said the goal is for students to “learn locally, think globally.”

But global thinking is expensive. In addition to the extra staff members required – a Spanish teacher, art instructor and someone to coordinate the IB program – principals and teachers require ongoing training. And for the past several years, McKinley parents have footed the bill.

Not only that, but all teachers in the same grade level must take extra time to jointly plan lessons.

To accomplish this, McKinley parents pay instructors to come in to teach art, music and gardening. Teachers have two hours once a week to plan units, during which time their students rotate through ceramics, music and gardening classes. In 2015, parents paid more than $40,000 for those extra instructors and another $36,000 for the Spanish teacher.

This can be a double-edged sword. The insidious thing about school foundations is that they can start out paying for extra enrichment opportunities, but, over time, they become budget staples.

In 2008, when the district first felt the impact of the recession, parents in La Jolla fundraised money to hang onto their teachers. At some schools in Scripps Ranch, parents faced pressure to go door to door selling gift-wrap or cookie dough so their kids could have art or music.

On the other hand, the district rewards schools whose parents fundraise with greater autonomy and flexibility. In 2014, the district signed an agreement with schools in the La Jolla Cluster that would allow them more flexibility in things like how they structure their curriculums, choose textbooks and hire teachers.

McKinley, too, may have gained an advantage. Between 2008 and this year, the district offered McKinley little more than moral support to sustain its program. When I asked Barrera what the district did, specifically, to support McKinley in the past few years, he said the district took a hands-off approach: “What did we do? We didn’t mess with them. We essentially left them alone because what they were doing was working.”

McKinley’s story shows us that schools really can be transformed. But it takes a tremendous amount of time from teachers, principals and parents to make the change real. And, of course, the money helps.

Mario was formerly an investigative reporter for Voice of San Diego. He wrote about schools, children and people on the margins of San Diego.

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