A conversation with Andrew Marshall, Una LaMarche, and Steve Hamill, co-presidents and vice president of PS 282’s Parent Teacher Organization
Becoming Involved with the PTO Executive Board
Andrew: My son started in the gifted and talented program, in kindergarten. For the first few years I wasn’t involved in anything. My wife and I would drop off our son, and that was it. Then he joined the chess team in the third grade, and my wife really got involved with that and she dragged me in. When you see how the sausage is being made, as the saying goes—I decided I could contribute in more ways.
Una: My son is in kindergarten, so this is my second year at the school as a parent. But I went to the school as a child, so my history is long, going back to the late 80s. We are not zoned for the school, but when my son got in for pre-K I had this really strong feeling that I wanted not only to send my kid here, but also to join the PTO and help the school—to lift it up in the community, get people to see it as it really is and to give it a fair shake.
Steve: My wife and I came in and thought, what can we do? There’s so much here that we loved, and there are things that we’d like to see more of, and the best way to do that is to jump in and get your hands dirty.
Our PTO’s Work
Steve: Our first priority is fundraising. We cover the music teacher’s expense for the school—which is like an endless treadmill, to raise enough money to make sure we can cover his fee. [Every class, K-5, has music once a week; the teacher also runs band and afterschool.] Four or five years ago, our chess parents tended to be the most involved parents, so all the PTO fundraising tended to be around chess. That was great, but it was just 10 percent, even 5 percent of the school. So we have started to focus on things that have a broader interest base.
Andrew: There’s an economy in and around a school. Parents buy school supplies, buy their kids snacks, take them to a movie. I always said, how can we capture more of this? Parents spend the money, why not spend it here? Why not buy a T shirt here, why not buy your kid’s water bottle here? Mother’s Day, Father’s Day—buy a little trinket from us. The year before the old principal left, the PTO raised $15,000. This year we are on track to do north of $120,000.
That puts us in the top 5 percent of all PTOs in the city. At the time we started ramping up our fundraising, we were still a Title I school, which means greater than 60 percent eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. I think that the amount of money we raise is incredible for our demographic.
Una: We have movie nights every month—they are one of our better fundraising events. Around 75 percent of our kids come from outside the zone, even outside the district, which makes an evening event tough, but we might get up to 50 kids. We make anywhere from $400 to $1000 on a movie night. Each committee gets an opportunity to select and sponsor a movie, and the proceeds are split.
Andrew: We realized there are licensing requirements so we got a license from Movie Licensing USA.
Una: Every month we do something. For Halloween, or Mother’s Day, we have sales in the lobby where kids can buy something for $1 or $2. But it’s constant, and it’s hard on everyone. In the future we hope to have fewer, targeted fundraisers so that we are not burning out. And the parents aren’t burning out, being asked to shell out every month for something.
Andrew: We did our benefit night [in May] and raised $15,000, which is good for us.
Assessing What Works and What Doesn’t
Steve: We tried a lot of new things this year, such as pizza Friday. At the end of the year, we will look at how much effort each activity or event took, how much it cost, and how much we made, and assess which were worthwhile. Then, we can decide to double down on things that were successful and maybe not do the things that were a lot of work but earned just a little money.
Andrew: We used to do the Scholastic Book Fair, but what we found was that the amount of work storing the books, dragging those carts out—it wasn’t worth the money we earned, relative to the time. We don’t do that anymore.
Getting Parents to Attend PTO Meetings
Una: Getting parents involved is a priority. We try as best we can to theme our PTO meetings, tagging to a specific issue that parents are facing. At one meeting we addressed the issue of homework, because while our community is still largely pro-homework, we have some parents who wanted to move toward a more progressive model. While we do get more parents to attend with the themed meetings, we, like most schools, still have a problem getting parents to come to our PTO meeting so I don’t want to sell this as something that has changed our lives.
Steve: For next year, we’re considering tying meetings to children’s performances. This is probably true of other places, but some of our most active parents don’t actually come to the meetings. The number of people who are interested in the running of the PTO, the budget—that’s a small number of people. So we need things on the agenda that will bring people in.
In an all-neighborhood school it’s easier to stop by. But parent engagement looks different when you have 50 percent of the people coming from six subway stops away.
Una: We are going to try to introduce this expectation into the culture that every family gives $20 a month or 20 hours of volunteer time a year. At some schools, the PTA asks families who can afford it to give $800 a year—it’s just taken for granted that can happen. That amount is completely out of reach for us. But we do want to work toward full or almost-full participation.
Tours for New Parents
Steve: PR has become part of our role—to bring people in on tours and show them our school, and start to direct the conversation about 282. We probably had 50 percent more people on tours this year. We’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we love about the school, and how we articulate that to parents. The tours are really designed to show that off. The parents have taken over the tours, and I think that’s great, because we know what parents want.
Una: In the past, we would bring parents into this dark auditorium and we didn’t have any snacks. But this year we had coffee and baked goods: I baked muffins, and we got coffee from a local coffee shop. Steve made color brochures, we put together a PowerPoint, and we made a video of kids doing an enrichment activity. And we won Participatory Budgeting in 2016 to improve the lighting in our auditorium. We’ve really upped our game.
Steve: We give parents a survey afterwards, so we get feedback about what people like and didn’t like about the tour and the school. Now we have a wait list for pre-K.
Andrew: Right now we have three committees: The Green Zone, which gets grants for the school’s garden; Chess, which manages the chess team; and the Technology Committee, which is more of an advisory committee. The committees allow people to get involved without having to run to be a member of the executive board. Many people are afraid of taking on that commitment, so you can get your feet wet on a committee. You have a lot of autonomy.
For many years, the school has had a strong chess program, but let’s say five or six years ago, people really started to rev up around the chess—to promote it, have tournaments here, travel to state and national tournaments. It’s really a big deal and brought a lot of parents together.
It has also contributed to some division, because there are some who think that a lot of energy, a lot of resources, are going into chess, and to the gifted and talented program. We’ve observed that the G&T and chess parents are very involved; they donate money and come to events. The chess program also contributes to people staying at the school. It’s successful, and people want to be associated with succes
Andrew: This school has always been predominantly black and Latino. Its reputation has gone up and down. Over the years, because of its desire to fill seats, it has accepted people from all over Brooklyn. The zoned parents didn’t want to come here, so there were empty seats, and parents who wanted to escape schools in their neighborhoods, Crown Heights, Bed-Stuy, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene, even as far away as Canarsie, where I grew up—though some of those schools are coming up—would bring their kids here, especially if their kid got a G&T seat.
I don’t like the fact that the school is 90 percent black and Latino, and therefore perceived a certain way. But I think more than racial diversity in a school, you need socio-economic diversity. I think more diversity of ideas, thoughts, and backgrounds would help.
Dealing with Tensions and a New Principal
Andrew: The school went through some upheavals, with the previous principal being pushed out. There was a divide here along race and class. While some of the parents that drove the effort to replace the principal were on the PTO [board], it wasn’t a PTO initiative. Some parents felt the principal wasn’t supporting the school and academics the way she should have been, and that she wasn’t a presence at the school and didn’t provide good leadership. My role in that process was to try to soothe things a little bit, not to have it turn into a racial war. I felt that I was in a position to do that because I had good relations with the PTO, teachers, and administrators.
Partnering with Another School's PTA
Una: There can be a sense that schools are in competition with each other for funding, and, in some schools, for students, because we want to attract some of the same families. But when it comes to the PTO, we can only help each other. We are in a partnership with P.S. 133 where we staffed their benefit, and they staffed ours, because you don’t want to have all your parents working tirelessly throughout the night. That kind of partnership—to share ideas, to share manpower—is really valuable. A rising tide lifts all boats.