I can tell people have been avoiding me. Around my kids’ school, in local businesses and on the internet. I’m pretty sure some of my acquaintances have been pretending not to notice my attempts to get their attention. I don’t blame them. They know that if they make eye contact with me, there’s a pretty good chance I’m going to ask them for something.
To parents: “Hey — are you going to volunteer at my kids’ school’s Homebrew Fest?”
To proprietors of local businesses: “Hey — are you going to sponsor my kids’ school’s jog-a-thon this year?”
To online friends: “HEY COME TO THIS THING TO HELP MAKE MONEY FOR MY KIDS’ SCHOOL!!! OR ARE YOU ARE SOME KIND OF A MONSTER WHO HATES CHILDREN???!!!”
I would avoid me, too. I bore myself to sleep at night thinking about federal grants and San Diego Unified’s budget cuts.
Despite all the different jobs and passions I’ve dabbled in, I would never have imagined myself as a hyper-involved parent at my neighborhood elementary school. I grew up in a time and place(s) when parents pretty much sent their kids to the local school and got what they got. What we got, in the public schools and Department of Defense schools I attended as an Army brat, included art, music, libraries, second languages and other “extras” not available to a lot of kids these days. If there were any parents raising funds to cover what we considered the basic amenities, I was blissfully unaware of them.
As an adult, the various crises in public education in this country remained largely theoretical to me. Until I became a parent, at which point, predictably, it got personal.
My wife and I did our due diligence in this strange (to us) environment where school choice is the norm, consulting websites and more experienced parents. It turned out the default school for residents of our particular quadrant of North Park was Jefferson Elementary, which, despite being an International Baccalaureate school and sharing other characteristics with its cluster-mates McKinley and Birney, was pretty much considered a no-go zone among the landed gentry.
The backstory is a little complicated, but suffice it to say that a vicious cycle had taken hold in which the affluent, educated, native English speakers of our increasingly trendy neighborhood were not seeing families who looked like themselves reflected in the school demographics, and therefore perpetuating the dearth of said-looking families by not enrolling their own children at Jefferson. Also, and intimately related, the test scores weren’t so hot.
As much as I wish I could say I was immediately dismissive of the intel I got from unreliable sources, the truth is that I just happened to fall in with a group of parents who also saw the absurdity and inequity of the situation. Families in one of the most popular and politically progressive neighborhoods in town were pretending that their “struggling” local elementary school didn’t exist; so this group of idealistic parents was trying to break that cycle.
After taking the school tour at Jefferson, it became clear that its reputation as a “tough” or “troubled” school was nonsense. The group of families who got together back then became the founding members of Friends of Jefferson, our school foundation, for which I currently serve as president. (For the uninitiated, a school foundation is a nonprofit that raises funds to exclusively benefit one school or a group of schools.)
My twin girls are now in their third year at Jefferson, and our whole family has been thrilled with everything about the school – the teachers, the principal, the curriculum, the facilities, the fact that we can walk to school and, not least, the friendships they have made with schoolmates from totally different backgrounds than theirs. At age 7, my kids understand many of the implications of their privilege, which most of us don’t learn until late adulthood, if ever.
Although the school more than met our expectations from day one, Jefferson has improved each year. It already had the prestigious (and expensive) IB program in place; but in my kids’ kindergarten year, Jefferson rolled out the science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM) magnet program, funded by a substantial federal grant shared between four elementary schools. We currently have an eye-popping amount of technology, and teachers who have gone through extensive professional development to learn how to integrate STEAM concepts and materials into their curriculum.
Another thing we have is a robust gardening program, thanks to our foundation. Once a week, every kid from kindergarten through third grade attends a standards-based class where they learn about everything from life sciences, to food waste, to global markets, all while they are elbow deep in garden soil and inspired with fresh air.
As these programs were being implemented, I was excited insofar as they dovetailed with what I considered the foundation’s primary mission: to recruit local families to the school. Jefferson had to compete for enrollment with charter schools, private schools, magnet schools and traditional schools whose demographics didn’t scare off your average North Park homeowner. That this arms race of academic opportunities and marketing ran counter to the idea of public education was not lost on me. But, I rationalized, more socioeconomic and ethnic diversity improves outcomes for all students, and that’s what bringing more local families back to the school would provide. Fundraise we must, and fundraise we shall!
These days, though, it’s sinking in that things like the STEAM program and the garden classes are more than just recruiting tools; they are truly enriching aspects in the education of my kids and their schoolmates. And given the alarming developments in national political discourse and policy, the global perspective of the IB program suddenly feels subversive in the best, most comforting way.
Because of their socioeconomic privilege, my kids would have access to these values and activities regardless of where they went to school; but for these opportunities to exist, for free, for every kid, is what the promise of public education is all about. I’m happy that the percentage of Jefferson students who live in the neighborhood has risen from 39 percent to 48 percent in the last three years; however, now I’m more interested in preserving the quality of the school for all the students regardless of where they live, and more frustrated that these advantages are not equally distributed throughout the entire district.
At Friends of Jefferson, we have started to figure out how to make money. Our handful of big fundraisers have earned enough to pay for a part-time gardening teacher, and to support after-school clubs and field trips. But the federal STEAM grant sunsets at the end of this school year, which means we will be losing the staff position it funded (luckily, the materials we have accrued will last for a good while).
The IB program, which is sacrosanct according to both the principal and Superintendent Cindy Marten, nonetheless requires begging, borrowing and stealing to fund in the best years. If Friends of Jefferson continues in the footsteps of much more established foundations, like the one at McKinley Elementary, it’s possible that we will be able to fill in prospective cuts. But that brings me to what sucks about foundations.
Parents have to do so much work for something that our taxes are supposed to cover. It’s exhausting. In well-funded districts (and countries), school foundations are not even a thing. Don’t get me wrong: It’s extremely rewarding to see that you’re making a difference in your community, and it truly is a privilege to have the luxury of being able to dedicate time, money and expertise that most people don’t have or can’t spare, to something you believe in. But it shouldn’t be necessary.
The even suckier thing about foundations is that they are, to some extent, undeniably complicit in perpetuating inequity. They are capable of improving outcomes for students at sites where the conditions and demographics allow foundations to flourish; but in schools where parents don’t have the time, skills or inclination to advocate and fundraise, and in neighborhoods that don’t include supportive and vibrant business communities, students are at the mercy of the district’s budget, the principal’s skill at deploying it and the overall school climate.
In a perfect San Diego Unified School District, we would not need school foundations. In a country that made public education a priority, parents, teachers and administrators would not have to fight and hustle for educational resources. But because we are not there yet, all we can do is be politically engaged and involved with our kids’ schools, and come up with ways to raise funds without alienating all of our friends. (Ahem, Homebrew Fest).
Andy Hinds is a carpenter, freelance writer and public school advocate. Hinds’ commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.