How would our community change if every child grew to meet their full potential? How could elementary school parent groups (e.g. PTSAs, PTAs, PTOs), Bellingham Public Schools and the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation work together to better realize this vision? These are the questions being explored through a new collaboration between elementary school parent groups across the district.
For the 2019-20 school year, all 14 elementary school parent groups were invited to contribute 10% of their annual net income to be put into the newly established Parent Equity Pilot Fund at the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation. The money was then redistributed based on each school’s number of students eligible for free and reduced lunches, which can be a proxy for how many students at a school may be experiencing poverty. Each school gave at some level during this pilot year and each school received funds in return – with schools with the highest number of free and reduced lunch students receiving proportionally more.
“We weren’t sure what to expect for this first year,” said Kim Lund, executive director of the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation. “We knew that some schools were eager to take this step for several years, while other schools were just starting to think about collective fundraising to support students in schools outside of their own. We are thrilled that each elementary school made a contribution in this first year.”
“Parent groups are such an important part of our BPS community,” said Superintendent Greg Baker. “To see parent groups at all elementary schools step into this together, with the support of district leaders, school principals, and the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation, is truly amazing. I’m grateful for this collective commitment to support students across our schools, especially in the face of current and future challenges. They’ve shown that together, we achieve more than alone.”
Why focus on parent groups?
BPS began gathering data on parent group fundraising in 2017.
“What they found was really stunning,” Lund said. “While some schools struggled to hold together a PTA raising only $5,000, other schools in neighborhoods just across town were raising upwards of $65,000. That’s pretty remarkable.”
At the low end of the spectrum, funds amounted to $36 per student compared with $139 per student at the high end. As a result, some schools were getting new playground equipment, providing hundreds of dollars to each teacher for supplies, and providing enhanced after-school programming, while others struggled to pay for school gardens or community nights because of limited funds, and held a drawing for $25 gift cards for teaching supplies that only a few teachers would receive.
“PTAs and other parent groups are naturally siloed because they are focused on supporting their specific school,” said Kathy Dooley, executive assistant for the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation. “Through no fault of their own, they were operating with no idea that the level of fundraising happening at their school wasn’t happening at all schools. When we showed the numbers, you could just see the shock on parents’ faces.”
A key component of The Bellingham Promise is the concept of a One Schoolhouse Approach, which supports an equitable distribution of resources and services to ensure excellence for all.
“These disparities were fundamentally at odds with The Bellingham Promise and that sparked some reflection at the Foundation about what are other districts were doing,” Lund said. “That difference between schools exists nation-wide. I think in Bellingham, we just don’t think it can be that different.”
The data on fundraising disparities inspired a years-long process involving representatives from parent groups, district leaders and school principals, convened by the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation. The group examined the net income of each school’s parent group against total school enrollment and percentage of students enrolled in the free and reduced meal program, as well as examined funding models from around the country.
The group made a collective commitment to better realize the One Schoolhouse Approach to ensure that children in all schools have an equitable and exemplary educational experience.
“Columbia has a pretty robust PTA; we raise a lot of money that we’re then able to put back into the school,” said Lindsay Knight, parent at Columbia Elementary School. “We love the idea of sharing those resources in a way that allows everyone to have more. I think it really does come back to The Bellingham Promise, that every child should have the same opportunities to succeed.”
“Public schools are for all kids,” said Parkview Elementary School parent Jen Seltz. “And they will only work if all kids can have as close to the same opportunities as possible. This project is a first step at reducing the inequities built into the neighborhood school model, and I am proud we were able to contribute.”
The elementary equity project is already making a difference. This year, Birchwood Elementary School raised a little over $15,000 in the annual jog-a-thon, the most funds raised since it began. However, it was not enough to support all their needs.
“Choosing between our three family community nights that are so important to our school, all the K-5 field trips that will enhance student learning and provide them with many memories, or having Common Threads for our garden program and cooking in our classrooms would be very hard,” said Jami Pitman the president of Friends of Birchwood. “With the EEP gift we don’t have to make that choice.”
The hard work of elementary equity has paid off – literally. Thanks to generous donations from Morse Steel and RAM Construction, all schools will receive more funds than they gave this year. Both businesses were inspired to give after the Foundation reached out seeking business support to amplify this effort and validate that the equity project was valued by community partners beyond schools.
What’s next for this pilot project?
“The Foundation’s primary role is flame keeper,” Lund said. “We can be the facilitator and history keeper, inviting new school leaders to come in and orienting them to the intention and spirit of this project. Our hope is that there’s a sense of ownership and collaboration with the parent groups.”
The Foundation plans to continue these conversations and will facilitate participation for the 2020-21 year, hoping for even greater investment and impact.
Learn more about elementary equity at https://bellinghamschools.org/partners-in-funding/.
Contact Kim Lund at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to support these efforts.