My “Why”: The PTA

There is a lot of talk in any venture, really, about figuring out your “why,” the idea being that if you know why you are doing something–eating more healthily, budgeting or saving money, embracing minimalism–you will more easily find the enthusiasm and will-power to commit to your goal. I have been thinking about this a lot, identifying my “whys” in life, because sometimes I forget the reasoning behind the decisions, or commitments, I’ve made and it’s hard to move forward productively without remembering my “why.”

I was already considering writing a “my why” post about the PTA, in an attempt to remind myself of why I am doing this thing that creates so much stress and busyness in my life. Surely there was a reason for committing myself to this position, and surely if I can articulate that reason it will help me identify what I’m hoping to accomplish and prioritize my efforts moving forward.

Then a comment appeared on my last post that really stopped me in my tracks.

“The PTA sounds like a joyless venture.”

Damn. I bet it really does.

It got me thinking, “Is the PTA a joyless venture? I mean, for me? this year?” If it is, I really need to figure out what the fuck I’m doing. That is when I decided to write my “why” post about the PTA. (This was weeks ago, by the way, but, you guessed it, I was really busy with the PTA.)

So why did I volunteer to be the PTA president at my daughter’s school, where I know that parent involvement is low and the administration is new and pretty much clueless about what needs to be done (as far as the events PTA most prominently participates in)? Would it be weird if I said those were two of my biggest reasons?

I am an educator. I’ve worked at a public school in California for 13 years. I also went to public schools for all my K-12 education in the States (about eight years). I know how broken public education is. I also know how incredibly important parent involvement is to the success of a school.

Do I think parent participation, and financial donation, should be necessary for the success of a public elementary, middle or high school? Do I think the amount of money a school or district can raise should determine whether or not schools have access to technology and other valuable resources, or offer arts, music, or language electives? Or even robust physical education, science and history programs?

No, I absolutely do not.*

Do I understand that right now, at this point in our country (and state’s–California is, after all, 48th in per-student spending) history, that it is the reality? Yes, I do. Of course I would like that reality to change, but I know it won’t in my children’s lifetime, so I have to work with the system I’ve got.

My daughter’s school serves a low socioeconomic population. 92% of the students quality for the free or reduced lunch program. Its families are predominantly of Latino and African-American decent, and the education level of the majority of parents does not reach the college graduate level (I know a few who stopped attending school in 2nd or 3rd grade and learned to read as adults). This is not a school with a large population of parents that are able to support their own students’ education in very effective ways, let alone step up to tackle the challenges of the entire student body.

Because so many parents are not able to take on parent leadership positions at the school, the ones who do shoulder increased pressure and responsibilities. Then they get burned out and stop participating, which leaves the school with even fewer people to help. And if very few people are helping, very few events are organized to promote community and inspire pride in the student body, and very meager funds are raised to support programs and offer valuable resources and opportunities.

So yeah, I could just say no, I’m not going to do it. And then probably no one would, and my daughter’s school would be worse off than it already was.

Could I get her into another school? Maybe. In SFUSD it’s exceedingly difficult to transfer your child to another school, especially if you’re trying to stay within the Spanish Immersion program (which is small and popular). But even if I could transfer her out, am I comfortable using my privilege to perpetuate an entrenched problem, without out at least trying to affect positive change first? No, I am not.

We all have the causes we feel passionate about. Public education just happens to be mine. Right now I can’t afford to work in SFUSD, but I can afford to send my daughter to a struggling school there, and I can afford to fight to make that school better instead of fight to transfer her to a “better” school.

Because I really and truly believe that a group of parents can help turn a school around. If there is enough active parent presence at a school to make other parents who have the resources to support the school send their kids there, or at the very least, for those parents to give the school a chance if their kids get placed there, it could absolutely turn around the culture of the school. And maybe, some day, enough schools will be successful enough that the majority of upper-middle class families won’t leave the city (or apply to private schools) when its time for their kids to enter Kindergarten. And then maybe all the lower-income students who have no other choice but to stay, will get a quality education that provides them with increased opportunities when they are adults.

Do I really think I can make a difference? Probably not. But I think that if more parents made the choice to stay and to try to affect change at a struggling school, we absolutely could make a difference. And right now, I’m not ready to give up on that possibility. If I won’t do it, how can I hope that others will do it for me?

You know what they say, be the change you want to see in the world. I want to see upper-middle class parents stay and fight for the struggling school in their area, instead of leaving that school, and those students, to their perpetual cycle of disadvantage. I want them to send their kids to the school where not all the students look like their kids (even though most of them won’t, if given the choice,). I want the parents with the resources to stay and make the powers-that-be change the system, because when we don’t stay, when we leave the struggling school, we not only perpetuate the system that created it, we condone it. When we all we can muster is a, damn, it’s just not right, and then go along our merry way sending our kids to the “better” school as we shake our heads dutifully at the injustice of it all, but don’t actual do anything to change it, then we are a part of the problem.

And I get it, we’re all part of some problem, some really important, some deeply entrenched, crippling-our-society or destroying-our-planet problem. We can’t all be the solution to every problem. But we have to acknowledge that, we have to own our part in the problem while we continue making the choices that perpetuate the it. I am a part of a lot of problems that I don’t know enough about, or that I’m not yet willing to change my life in an attempt to address (because I will admit that I am absolutely ABLE to not perpetuate the most important problems, I’m just not willing to do anything about them yet – it’s hurts to say that, but it’s true).

And I get that these our children we’re talking about. These are the people who depend on us to make the best choices we can for them, to put their best interest first. And I get that every situation is different. Sometimes we need an aftercare option that isn’t available at a certain school. Or a child has special needs that require resources not available at a certain school. Or there is a certain program that we’re really interested in that is only offered at one school. Or maybe we just can’t get to a certain school when we need to be there. Maybe our parents sacrificed everything to give us better choices than they have, and we are going to do the same for our kids, no matter what. Maybe we live in an affluent area that doesn’t have a struggling school.**

But if we do have a choice, and we choose to avoid one school because of its API score, or its student population, we’re making that choice at the expense of other people’s children, other people who don’t have a choice. When we aren’t willing to send our kids to a school that other kids don’t have any choice in attending, well, we need to recognize that we are perpetuating a system of inequality, instead of fighting to make it more equal.

{I recognize that I am invested in my daughter’s school because it HAS a program I am passionate about (Spanish Immersion) and it’s located relatively close to me (though there are schools closer). Also, it has an after care program that I really like. Those things help me stay invested even when other factors are a cause for concern.}

I know this went off on a pro-social justice school tangent. And maybe the connection isn’t immediately apparent. But I guess what I’m saying is, my why is that I want to send my kid to the school most white, upper-middle class parents won’t send their kids, and I want to be an active member of the parent leadership there so that positive things happen. I want the students at that school to feel like someone cares enough about them to make sure the things that students at other schools take for granted–the resources that make their classes more interesting, and the events that make their school a place they can be proud of–happen at their school too. Because kids notice these things. They recognize the difference. They internalize the injustice. They learn that they are not as important, in the eyes of, well, pretty much everybody.

I want to show other people, by my example, that it is okay to send their child to the school that none of their friends are sending their kids too. That their kids can be happy there, and thrive. That their kids can learn things at that school that they can’t learn at a school where everyone looks like them. And that the students at that school deserve their support.

And yes, being PTA president makes my life more stressful and busy, and yes there are days I wish I could walk away from the responsibility. But I CAN do it. I have the time and the energy and the financial means, at least for the time being. And I’m not ready to walk away until I really and truly don’t have those things anymore.

I know I perpetuate a lot of really big problems, but I’m not prepared to perpetuate this one. Maybe some day I will say enough is enough. Maybe some day I will take my kid out of this school and use my privilege to give my daughter opportunities the kids at her school won’t get. But I’m not there yet. And as long as I’m able to do something positive at my daughter’s school, I will be doing it. Right now leading the PTA is the best way I know to be a positive presence. Hopefully, in the future, there will be other ways for me to do good thing at my daughter’s school. And hopefully, by then, someone will be ready to take the responsibilities that I’m shouldering now.

*I believe public education should be funded adequately enough to make parent involvement peripheral at most (I’m bringing treats for the Halloween party!). I think the reliance on parental support to provide resources, and even the funding of full-time positions, shows the absolutely failing of our society to prioritize public education, and to fund it adequately. I believe that the fact that the location and economic status of a school’s student population overwhelmingly determines its resources, course offerings and overall student outcomes, is a moral failing of this country.

**I’m sure for many people there is no struggling school to avoid, but in San Francisco, I see many upper-middle (or straight upper) class families not get the school in their (or some other) affluent neighborhood, or simply not get one of the few schools that raises $300K+ a year, and they immediately pull their kid from the district and put them in a private school and/or eventually move out of the city all together. Here, it is very common for upper-middle class families to avoid the struggling school.

{I realized, 2000 words in, that identifying my why didn’t really answer the “is PTA a joyless venture,” so I will be addressing that question later this week.}

7 Comments

  1. I agree. Whole-heartedly. I’m a big believer in community building and a big part of that is being involved with the community and enacting change. Which is why I’m really opposed to people selecting schools outside their community. It perpetuates segregation and disadvantage.

    I have 11 years of condo board experience. It’s different from the
    PTA based on the population I served (adults, not kids), but it was a hard job. I stayed for 11 years, sacrificing time and energy because of my belief in community. If I was going to scream from the rooftops about it, I knew I needed to model it. And I plan to do so again.

    That said, it is a hard job. And can seem thankless. But you are making a difference, even if it doesn’t feel like it.

  2. I completely understand your reasons for staying in the PTA and what you’re doing is wonderful. I like to think that I would do the same if I was in your position.
    Promoting equality in everyday life is so important.
    Although I live in one of the most equal countries in the world, we still have the same issue here to some extent – school atmosphere differs between areas, problems accumulate, and some parents choose schools from “better” areas if they can. However this does not happen much because differences between schools are still quite minor and most parents consider the proximity of school as very important.

  3. Reading this I thought ‘Oh, it is just like being really involved in political action groups and showing up to do more than vote during elections’. It is why finding 5 families to donate $100 each is not as good as finding 100 people to donate $5 each.

    Who runs our schools/ Who runs our government? Who is invested in our schools as part of our community ~and who is happy to let DeV** use public money to fund private schools that teach ‘faith ideas’ (not always religious) rather than science.
    I remember why and when SFUSD changed from community based schools to lottery from all the neighborhoods…… the consequences were not what was intended but are still powerful.
    Keep writing your elected representatives, stay active in your community. (HMMMM maybe you could jump from teaching to being a supervisor in SF. Not sure that would be a job improvement.) Good wishes!

  4. Bravo! I know how much our PTA president works, so I admire your commitment and, of course, your reasons for doing it. Our PTA is small but mighty… we raise a fraction of what nearby schools do but still manage to help fund a gym teacher and the restorative justice counselor and host a lot of fun events for the kids. School finance is a thing that drives me bonkers – our state’s economy is thriving but we are 44th in spending last I checked. It is so hard for low-income to make up as much of the difference as affluent schools. I have a hard time participating in many PTA activities (like, I can’t leave works for 3 hours in the middle of the day to man the book fair) but I am doing my best to throw money at it when I can’t be there – I can deliver 7 bags of chips for nacho sales at the Halloween party 🙂 And I was really proud to help the PTA host a school board candidate forum. Now I’m rambling but keep up the good work. I do firmly believe what you do makes a difference.

  5. This 100%. Our children are also in the economically diverse community public school and I joined the PTA last year (not president because there was someone else to take that role), but trying to increase community/parental involvement and plan fun things for the kids that make them feel a part of the school community (and have some fun!) because all the kids deserve fun events, not just the “rich” schools.

  6. I love that you’re doing what you’re doing. It’s so very important, for all the reasons you listed. We’re homeschooling Isaac for many reasons – medically and developmentally, he wouldn’t do well in a school setting right now – but I imagine he will be in PS in the future. Private school wouldn’t have the services he’d need to succeed, and the ones in our immediate area aren’t very diverse.

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