By Andy Hinds | Parenting
I bumped into a friend at a soon-to-be defunct grocery store in North Park, a guy who sometimes likes to bait me for my goody-goody populist idealism. He was coming in as I was going out.
“Hey, I saw that flier for your fundraiser for the PTA,” he said, as we blocked the exit.
“The foundation,” I corrected. Childless, this friend is unversed in the nuances of elementary school activism.
“Yeah, yeah, that. So, how can you guys get away with having a beer fest as a school fundraiser?”
He was speaking of the inaugural San Diego Homebrew Festival & Competition on Nov. 15, the biggest fundraising event ever thrown by Friends of Jefferson, the foundation that supports Jefferson Elementary, the North Park neighborhood’s public elementary school.
“Well, that’s the beauty of having a foundation,” I said. “We can kind of do whatever we want. It’s not like a PTA, which is a national organization where you have a bunch of rules and regulations. Anyway, the school is located right in the epicenter of the San Diego craft beer scene, so what could be a better way to get our community involved with the school than through celebrating beer?”
“Mmm, OK …” He was not totally persuaded.
“Look. Homebrewing is all science-y, right?” I said. “There’s, like, chemistry involved. Plus technology. And engineering. Also math, probably.”
“But it’s an art, too.”
“Sure, I guess.”
“Jefferson is a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Magnet school! Homebrewing is, like, the culmination of all those disciplines!”
“Yeah, but still …”
“It’s not like it’s gonna be at school,” I said, sensing his continued resistance to the idea. “It’s in the lot behind Observatory North Park — the old North Park Theatre. Kids can’t even go; it’s only for 21 and older. You can get tickets online at sdhomebrewfest.com.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Spare me the sales pitch.”
“You can get in for free if you volunteer,” I said. “You want to volunteer?”
“Maybe,” he said. “I’ll think about it. Hey, answer me this though: How is it fair that you guys are raising money just for your kids’ public school, while public schools in other neighborhoods where maybe they don’t have parents with the time or ability to raise money don’t have that luxury?”
“You’re right, it’s not fair,” I said. “It’s not fair at all. But it’s the system that we’ve got.” And then I launched into a detailed explanation of said system, the automatic doors opening with every wave of my arms as I drew graphs and pie charts in the air, including a sidebar about the unintended consequences of the “school choice” movement, through which we ended up with a vicious cycle wherein families who have the skills, time, connections and money to make a difference at their local school choose instead to go to a school that seems “better,” based on test scores, and, let’s face it, demographic data (i.e. race).
The long and short of my pro-foundation argument was that school budgets have been cut to the bone, and every year school administrations scramble to pay the bills for providing their students with a quality education. We want our principal to be leading the faculty and students, not scratching around for change under the sofa cushions. Yes, it’s true that since the majority of Jefferson students are classified as “socioeconomically disadvantaged,” the school is entitled to extra federal funds under the Title I program. But that money has a lot of strings attached and can’t be used for anything outside the fed’s definition of “help[ing] ensure all children meet challenging state academic standards.”
“But still,” my friend continued, “if the basic educational needs are met, shouldn’t that be enough to expect from a public school?”
“I guess you could say that,” I said. “And don’t get me wrong, Jefferson is a great school that offers way more enrichment-type-stuff than you would think, based on how people talk about the shameful state of public education. My kids have Spanish, dance and art classes in addition to the basics. But some of that is funded by a federal grant the school got that is going to dry up soon, some of it was offered for free by very generous outside educational organizations, and all of it requires a lot of juggling and begging on the part of the principal.
“And frankly, if we lost all those enrichment opportunities, my kids would be fine. Their teachers have been excellent, and the whole school community is just a pleasure to be involved with. If my kids lack enrichment, they can go to art camp, music lessons, language programs, whatever, because our family has the resources to do that. But most of their classmates don’t. We want the foundation to make enough money to fill at least some of those gaps so that all the kids can have those fun, inspiring experiences. We haven’t made anywhere near that kind of money yet, but that’s our long-term goal.”
“Furthermore,” I went on despite his raising a finger to indicate his desire to interject, “as you know, another goal of Friends of Jefferson is to make the school more attractive to local families. When parents can pick and choose between public schools in other neighborhoods or charter schools or private schools, the neighborhood school has to offer some ‘extras’ in order to compete.”
“So it’s like an arms race between parents at different schools, trying to out-fundraise one another and steal students from each other?”
“Not exactly,” I answered. “Take McKinley Elementary, for example, right down the road from Jefferson. They have an incredibly effective foundation, famous for throwing the SoNo Fest and Chili Cook-off, one of the biggest fundraising block-parties in the area. Their foundation makes enough money to fund Spanish, art, ceramics, dance, music and gardening programs. They don’t want to ‘steal’ any of our potential students, because, thanks to their foundation, most of the families in their zone are more than comfortable sending their kids there. But a number of kids from the Jefferson zone ‘choice’ into McKinley because it has more goodies than we can afford. The McKinley folks have been a great help with our efforts to get families from the Jefferson zone to go to Jefferson, but the success of their foundation has made their school really attractive to the families all over the area.”
“So why is McKinley’s foundation so much better than yours?” my friend asked.
“Well,” I continued, calling him a name not fit for a family publication, “they’ve just been at it longer. They were in a similar situation to Jefferson when they started their foundation many years ago. Jefferson has only had a foundation for a couple years. As McKinley’s foundation grew, the affluent, educated families in their zone started sending their kids there, parent involvement increased, donations increased, more opportunities became available to the students; then more local families enrolled, and so on. A virtuous cycle.”
“So you’re trying to start your own SoNo Fest, raise a bunch of money, and lure the rich kids to your school,” he observed.
“Kind of,” I responded.
“So then,” he went on, with the gleam of an impending gotcha in his eye, “what happens when all the affluent, hipster, white parents send their kids to Jefferson and displace the low-income families that go there now? What then, Mr. Bleeding Heart?”
“Well, first off, Mr. Black-hearted Cynic,” I said, “we are quite a ways off from that scenario. If we follow McKinley’s trajectory, by the time my kids graduate from Jefferson, we will have achieved something approaching ethnic and socioeconomic diversity (as opposed to the vast majority of students being in the same ethnic and socioeconomic brackets, as has been the case in Jefferson’s recent history). And diversity is the ideal circumstance for learning, according to research and also my bleeding heart values. Now, if North Park keeps getting whiter and more prosperous, and the diversity equation becomes totally reversed, I can only hope what I have always hoped: that as a country, we will build the political will to support the world-class education system our kids deserve. One where teachers are highly trained, highly paid, and highly respected, all kids are held to the same high expectations, and funding is truly sufficient and equitable throughout the country, so we don’t have to sell beer to pay for our kids’ art classes.”
“Yeah, that’s gonna happen,” he responded, rolling his eyes.
“Jerk,” I said.
“You playing cards tonight?”
“Yeah. You gonna volunteer at the Homebrew Fest?”
—Contact Andy Hinds at facebook.com/friendsofjeffersonelementary or firstname.lastname@example.org.