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San Francisco parents raise private funds to support public school

Under CC license from Flickr user Kevin Krejci
Alvarado Elementary School

Steve Sacks is the PTA President at Alvarado Elementary School in Noe Valley. He takes a lot of pride in this small school and the education it provides to just over 500 students.

On a tour of the school, he shows off the vegetable gardens, the kiln in the art room, and points out the tiny improvements parents have added over the years, like installing hooks to hang artwork on the school’s concrete walls.

The school isn’t perfect: the science room doesn’t have a sink; the tarnished hardwood floors haven’t been refinished in years; and the hallways and classrooms lack outlets.

“The school district is buying every new school a whole bunch of tablets, and we're wondering where we are going to charge them!” Sacks says, as he points out future work projects for the PTA.

However, the school is the first in the district to install solar panels on its roof; its art education program is one of the strongest in the city; and its student body is economically and culturally diverse. This year, over 40 percent of Alvarado Students qualified for free and reduced lunches. Sacks says the PTA works very efficiently with the school to help make existing programs stronger.

“We have about 200 members of the PTA at the school. Membership is $10 and our strong membership allows us to put on events. Some of them are geared toward community building, some of them are geared to make money,” he says.

Fifteen or so parents show up to tonight’s PTA meeting in the school cafeteria. All but one are white. Sacks says that’s a typical attendance, and they’re working on ways to get more Latino parents to join them.

Kelly Danson is the PTA treasurer. As parents grab slices of pizza, she explains how they’ve spent their $332,000 budget so far. At about $640 per student, the budget has paid for things like an extra school bus, math tutors, and art supplies. They even paid for a part time science instructor, something Sacks is amazed they even have to consider.

“There's a science requirement in standardized testing, and there is no budget for a science teacher, how do you do that?” he says.

Another thing that’s not in the district funds is a writing curriculum. So, tonight, Robert Broecker, the principal of Alvarado, asks the PTA if they will fund one.

“It’s gonna sound like I’m selling knives on TV, but it is a value of $48,000 and because we are good customers, they are giving it to us for a much reduced cost,” Broecker says.

The PTA puts it to a vote, and the motion passes unanimously.

“There is no curriculum for writing in the SFUSD. So we just bought it for $12,828,” Sacks says. It’s another reason why it’s so crucial for the PTA and the school to work together.

“Per pupil funding of students in [California] is ranked 49th. Mississippi is the only state lower than us. So parents step up and they give a little extra here where they can, a little extra there where they can.”

And he says it took a while to get here. Fifteen years ago, they were happy if they raised just a couple thousand dollars at one of their auctions, where now they’re able to raise tens of thousands. Sacks says the year 2008 was also a key turning point for them.

“In 2008, when the economy tanked and when schools budgets were slashed, the parents here came together and rallied, and we actually were able to increase fundraising. We've been able to maintain that level and increase that level ever since. So part of it was created out of a sense of dire necessity.”

That necessity may change next year, now that Governor Jerry Brown is promising more money to California schools. But Sacks says the PTA isn’t planning to pull back just yet. This school depends on its PTA to survive.

Read more about PTA funding for San Francisco elementary schools in the winter edition of the San Francisco Public Press

Crosscurrents San FranciscoEducation
Angela Johnston is the Senior Producer of Uncuffed and an editor in the KALW newsroom. She holds a Master’s degree in journalism and graduated from KALW’s Audio Academy program. She’s worked for KALW in numerous roles - from the deputy news director, to the health and environment reporter, and she's covered everything from lead poisoning to climate change. Her work has aired on KALW, KQED, Reveal, and The Pulse. She also freelances as a producer and editor for Cosmic Standard and AFAR Media. Outside of work, she loves to swim in the bay, surf small waves on her longboard, read, backpack, cook, and garden.