by Ben Adlin
All across Southeast Seattle this week, elementary students have been hopping, dancing, stretching, and occasionally even crab-walking as part of a fundraiser for local schools. What makes the event unique, however, is how the money will be divided: For the first time, participating schools will pool the proceeds and share in them equally.
“There’s no school collaboration on this scale ever before in Seattle,” said Bao Ng, a PTA member and the mother of two current students and an incoming kindergartener at Maple Elementary, one of 12 South Seattle schools cooperating on the new fundraiser. “This is a really, really big deal, and it makes me hopeful for our future.”
The decision to team up with other area schools stems from the growing recognition by parents and teachers that typical PTA fundraisers, although a crucial source of support for public schools, also contribute to profound racial disparities in education. Wealthier, whiter communities farther north in Seattle sometimes raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for extra programs, staff, and services. Meanwhile, many South Seattle schools struggle to cover basics like school supplies.
While the Southeast Seattle Schools Move-a-thon technically ends on Friday — students turn in their activity bingo cards next week — the event website will accept donations through mid-June, organizers said. As of Thursday, the event had secured less than a third of its $120,000 goal.
Dividing the money equally is designed to lessen the fundraising gaps between the schools and ensure even those with the fewest resources have access to money for critical programs such as field trips, teacher recognition, and even direct payments to families that have lost jobs or income during the pandemic.
“If you look at a map, the farther south you go, the smaller and smaller PTAs get,” Ng said. “They don’t bring in a lot of money, because we’re in the South End, and they just don’t have the people to support all the things that need to be done.”
The PTA fundraising disparity is one of a handful of factors, including geographic displacement and sharp neighborhood differences in wealth and income, that has led to Seattle having one of the worst racial opportunity gaps in education among major U.S. cities. A 2016 study found that Seattle had the fifth-widest disparity in the nation between white and Black students, and a blistering 2018 report found that Washington’s achievement gap actually got worse during the previous 15 years — more so than in any other U.S. state.
“It’s just gotten out of control in this city, and it’s a problem across the country,” said Christina Jiménez, a teacher at Dunlap Elementary and a parent of three students at Graham Hill Elementary. “When we fundraise for one school, what’s the impact it has on another? It’s big in this district … We have schools 10 minutes away that are raising money for new curriculums and tutors, and then we have schools that need it for rent checks.”
Against that backdrop, some parents — including Jiménez herself — have been hesitant to put much energy into fundraising, feeling they’re only contributing to the problem.
“As long as PTAs are raising any kind of money, especially an ongoing amount, we are creating haves and have-nots between schools,” she said. “I was feeling that as long as I’m doing this for Graham Hill, I’m creating inequities.”
The new fundraiser, by contrast, is designed to level the playing field by ensuring that individual schools work for mutual benefit instead of hoarding community resources for themselves.
While the approach is still unusual, it’s gaining popularity among equity-focused education advocates. Public schools in Portland, for example, already put about a third of money raised by individual PTA fundraisers into a common fund. And last year a $100,000 grant from the Seattle Foundation to help families pay for basic needs during the pandemic was divided equitably, based on need, among a coalition of seven South Seattle schools.
Proceeds from the Move-a-thon fundraiser will be split up equally among the participating schools rather than based on need. Organizers say that will be easier to manage, though they’d like to explore how future joint fundraising events could distribute money more equitably.
“This isn’t equitable, but this is a move in the right direction,” Jiménez said, noting that the entire Move-a-thon is a volunteer effort and that some communities are unfamiliar with fundraising. She said later that Dunlap’s PTA likely wouldn’t have done a fundraiser at all this year without the Move-a-thon.
All 12 of the schools participating in the Move-a-thon fundraiser — Beacon Hill International Elementary, Dearborn Park International Elementary, Emerson Elementary, Graham Hill Elementary, Kimball Elementary, Maple Elementary, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, Rainier View Elementary, Rising Star Elementary, South Shore K–8, and Wing Luke Elementary — face significant resource shortages.
All are located in Seattle Public Schools District 7, which serves much of the city’s Black, Brown, Indigenous, and refugee communities. All are classified as low-income, Title I schools. Needs are even greater in the wake of the COVID pandemic and economic crisis, which have hit marginalized communities most severely.
The goal for the Move-a-thon fundraiser is to raise $120,000 in total funds, or $10,000 per school. By comparison, Ng said, PTAs at wealthier schools in the city, such as Montlake and Cascadia elementary schools, sometimes raise six-figure sums through fundraising.
So far contributions for the Move-a-thon event are coming in well below the goal. As of Thursday evening, nearly $35,000 had been collected. That works out to less than $3,000 per school — just a fraction of North End schools typically raise year, Ng said.
“Most of our communities are low-income families, so it’s very hard when it comes to donations and fundraising,” said Ayan Elmi, a PTSA board member and parent of two students at South Shore Elementary who is helping organize the Move-a-thon fundraiser at that school.
Elmi, who was born in Somalia and immigrated to the United States from Kenya when she was 11, said that members of her community have been redoubling their efforts to bring attention to the fundraiser, tapping social networks and using word-of-mouth to drum up support.
“Maybe they’re not able to give money, but maybe they go to their local halal store” to ask for sponsorships or just help spreading the word, she said. “We’re doing this because we really do want the best for our kids.”
Organizers are also asking for support from outside South Seattle. “The point is not just to draw from within our community,” Ng said. “There are many, many strengths within our community, but there are many more resources outside our community that I hope we can draw on.”
While no schools outside District 7 are participating in the project, other schools have provided some support. PTAs at several North End schools paid for prizes to reward the Southeast Seattle students for their participation in the Move-a-thon, Ng said. And the PTA at Hawthorne Elementary, which is within District 7 but isn’t participating in this year’s event, paid for translating materials into languages including Somali, Chinese, Amharic, Vietnamese, and Spanish.
PTAs at participating schools have also made efforts to add culturally relevant activities to the Move-a-thon event itself, for example by encouraging students to learn traditional dances or games from Somalia, Vietnam, and the Philippines.
Often students include their families in the activities.
“We made sure that kids included their grandparents, to maybe do a little dance with them from their culture,” Elmi said. “I’m relearning something I haven’t played since preschool.”
One persistent tension around PTA fundraising is that the organizations historically have been dominated by white people. That can chill participation by People of Color, who often aren’t made welcome in the space.
“PTAs serve a really important function in schools, but PTAs were not designed for and by POC communities,” said Erin Okuno, executive director of the educational justice-focused Southeast Seattle Education Coalition. “If we look at who’s often involved in PTAs, does it include the families with POC students? Does it include families that have traditionally been left out of schooling?”
“The overall structure of who’s in charge of the PTA, what the PTA’s all about, is still not POC-centered,” Okuno said.
While PTAs might take steps to better integrate Communities of Color, “Access is not equity. Access is exactly what it is,” Okuno said.
Kerry Ward, a PTA member and parent of two students at Emerson Elementary, acknowledged that she “and most other members of our PTA are white,which has sometimes created challenges connecting with the school’s largely POC community.”
“We had a parent volunteer to make us a ‘sizzle reel’ — essentially a video we could use to drum up excitement and engagement about the event,” Ward said of the Move-a-thon. “But it was so late-stage that one of the things we struggled with as a group was how we make sure the video reflects our population in terms of diversity.”
The PTA also made Move-a-thon materials available in multiple languages only to later learn that many immigrant and refugee families were unfamiliar with the concept of a fundraiser.
“It’s sort of a constant thought process,” Ward said. “We need to engage all the time in asking ourselves, ‘Is this the best approach?’”
Ward said she joined the Move-a-thon effort because she feels it’s necessary to support students and teachers, but stressed that it won’t be nearly enough to address disparities. She urged schools outside District 7 to join in future fundraising efforts.
“We are not designed to be a Southeast organization. We’d love to see some North End schools or more affluent South End schools to join us in service of the mission of distributing funds more equitably,” she said. “It might mean that white parents have to sacrifice. I think that’s something that all white people should be asking themselves.”
Some PTAs are also working to recruit more members of color in an effort at better reflecting the student population. While progress has often been slow-going, many said they’ve actually had more success during the pandemic, as what were formerly in-person meetings have moved online.
“Our enrollment has really grown because of Zoom,” said Sharon Holden-Joshua, a PTSA board member and the incoming PTSA president at Rainier View Elementary. And parents aren’t just showing up, they’re making their voices heard.
“When parents come into Zoom, they’re speaking up — it doesn’t matter what language — and that’s what I appreciate,” Holden-Joshua said. “That’s what I hope as far as a mission: that parents continue to speak up and support their children.”
“Nothing can replace in-person education, but Zoom is here to stay,” added Holden-Joshua’s husband, Mario Joshua, who provides Spanish language interpretation for the PTSA. “So much communication that wouldn’t have been possible for a working person, who has a family to take care of — they could just Zoom in.”
Elmi, the site leader at South Shore Elementary, said Zoom has allowed her to participate in meetings more consistently.
Most of the PTSA meetings start at 6:30 p.m. or 7 p.m. on weekdays, Elmi said. After busing to and from the event, she often wouldn’t get home until 10:30 p.m. or later. Now she’s able to attend from her phone and sometimes manages three or four different meetings in one night.
Organizers of the Move-a-thon event said teaming up with other PTAs has pushed them to explore what else the groups might do besides fundraising to more broadly support students and teachers.
“If we get away from this movement of each school scrambles for their own,” Jiménez said, “then we can really think about community and equity.”
That might mean shifting away from fundraising toward a more advocacy-forward approach, focusing less on fundraising and more on pushing for a higher standard at all public schools. For example, some South Side schools don’t have full-time counselors on staff — which PTA leaders said will be necessary as students work through more than a year of pandemic-related stress.
“Family counselors is going to become a big issue,” said Holden-Joshua at Rainier View. But rather than PTAs being expected to fundraise to fill that need, she and other parents say it’s time to commit more public resources to hiring full-time counselors.
“We’re hoping the district will look at that a little more closely, because … the children will need it,” she said.
For all the novelty of the new Move-a-thon fundraising arrangement, she said the project’s biggest benefit so far has been building the kind of relationships that allow for more mobilization.
“It’s brought us together, and unity within the community and especially the South End,” Holden-Joshua said. “It allows us to be more engaged in our community — in students’ lives as well as our own.”
Her granddaughter, a first-grader at Rainier View, has been diligently checking off her Move-a-thon activities, and recently spent an hour exploring Gene Coulon Park in Renton. The activity has encouraged more exercise among the whole family.
At the same time, Holden-Joshua’s role on PTSA is having an impact of its own.
When she was named incoming president of the group, Holden-Joshua said, “My granddaughter said, ‘Well I’m going to be a president, too.’ So we’re influencing each other.”
Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.
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