It’s around 2 in the afternoon before the big event, and a dozen or so mothers whose children attend LaSalle Language Academy move purposefully around the lobby of the South Shore Cultural Center. There is much to do.

Table clothes must be spread across three lines of folding tables. Boxes filled with more than 100 items for the silent auction have to be unpacked and artfully displayed. Then, once everything is set up, the moms have to rush home and swap their sweat suits for formal attire.

This evening soiree, which draws more than 300 guests and nets more than $80,000, is one of two main fundraising events put on every year by Friends of LaSalle Language Academy, a non-profit affinity group that exists to give the school a variety of extra programs. Proceeds from the dinner-dance and other efforts—like a candy sale in which children sold more than $50,000 in chocolate pecan clusters, and even interest on money sitting in a bank account—add up to more than $170,000 of extra cash for the Lincoln Park magnet school.

LaSalle Language Academy uses those funds to offer its 563 students a full array of extracurricular activities, performances by professional dancers and artists, and overseas exchange programs. They also buy the teachers classroom supplies and treat them to lunches during professional development days.

The extra money also makes LaSalle Language Academy the envy of almost every other Chicago public school.

Only 18 of the city’s public schools—less than 3 percent of some 600 elementary and high schools—have parent or community affinity groups that have raised more than $50,000 in any of the past three years, according to a Catalyst Chicago review of charitable tax documents for 41 public school fundraising groups. (About 249 elementary schools and 43 high schools have parent groups that registered as charities but weren’t required to file tax returns because they raised less than $25,000. Other such groups may exist, but have not registered with the Illinois Attorney General’s office or filed federal tax returns.)

There’s a vast difference in bottom-line impact between such well-heeled and connected groups and the parent organizations in most other schools. Most of the latter are traditional parent-teacher associations or parent-teacher organizations that don’t raise even a fraction of the money that LaSalle does. Many of them would like to do more, but don’t have what’s needed to do so, such as parents with disposable income and free time to organize events. A number of schools, many of them in poor neighborhoods with a student body that is overwhelmingly low-income, have no active parent group.

Raising big money is almost exclusively the purview of a few handfuls of North Side schools, with significantly higher enrollments of white, middle-income students and test scores above the district average. Among the top five fundraising schools, three are in Lincoln Park, three have at least 90 percent pass rates on standardized tests and all but one have poverty rates lower than 50 percent. Overall, the district’s average pass rate is 40 percent; the average poverty rate is 85 percent.

Chicago Public Schools CEO Arne Duncan argues that all city schools are underfunded, even those in relatively wealthy North Side neighborhoods like LaSalle. Still, for the overwhelming majority of schools that do not have the capacity or external connections to tap private funding, the district provides assistance through its partnerships programs, Duncan says. “We need to work through Principal for a Day, local churches, local businesses, to get them to really step up,” he says.

Businesses that partner with schools contribute an average of $10,000 a year, says Cynthia Greenleaf, director of partnerships for CPS’ Office of External Resources and Partnerships. And schools on the South, West and North sides have partners, not just the ones in well-to-do areas.

“Clearly we try to put businesses in schools that need help,” Greenleaf says. “Businesses usually want to be in those schools.”

However, efforts like these that attempt to level the field do not address what some see as an advantage for schools that already have a lot going for them. “Schools that do well already are the ones that have better [connected] groups,” says Principal Paul Zeitler of Sheridan Math and Science Academy, where a parent fundraising group pulls in about $10,000 a year that has covered the tab for drawing boards and televisions. “They are already the haves, and then, they have more.”

Though concerned about equity, few advocates or school officials would suggest limiting fundraising or trying to persuade donors to give to a general fund for all schools. “People want to be able to see where their dollars are going,” says Diana Nelson, executive director for the Cross City Campaign for Urban School Reform.

However, Nelson argues that central office could be proactive in encouraging schools that have well-developed fundraising machines to partner with those that are struggling and show them how it’s done. “Too often we go to other cities to look at examples of excellence when we could be sending study teams to schools across town,” she explains.

Essentials vs. extras

Nearly every school gets some state and federal poverty money for low-income students, but those in areas with better-off students, such as Lincoln Park and Hyde Park, don’t get much. In these cases, “we’re really pushing and encouraging families to support what is going on in their schools,” Duncan notes.

None of the district’s top fundraising schools gets any federal poverty money and seven of them have lost state poverty funds over the past five years.

Poverty grants were created to bridge the financial gap between the basic costs of public education and the additional resources schools need to educate poorer children, who arrive at school with fewer academic skills than children from middle-income families. On the other hand, private funds are often raised to pay for “extras” that enhance students’ overall education experience.

For instance, compare how poverty funds are spent at Sheridan, where the poverty rate is 70 percent, to Norwood Park Elementary, a neighborhood school where only 12 percent of students come from low-income families.

Zeitler says he feels compelled to spend nearly all of his school’s $342,000 poverty money on teacher’s aides for kindergarten through 3rd-grade classrooms because research shows that lowering student-teacher ratios helps raise performance among poor children. At Norwood Park, however, the principal uses all of the $96,100 raised by parents to pay for extras including enrichment programs that allow above-average students to be pulled out of class for accelerated lessons.

Poverty grants pay for academic essentials like tutoring that help students catch up and keep up, while the extras afforded through fundraising pay for things that may help keep children engaged in school, Nelson says.

“Kids need some passion in order to stay in school,” she says. Students whose parents don’t raise a lot of money may also attend schools that have no recess, no music and no chess club. “Little is there to keep them coming.”

Feeling the pressure

No matter how well-off families or communities are, some are finding it difficult to make up for lost school funds, especially when they’re earmarked for educational expenses. Parents at some schools in gentrifying neighborhoods, like Audubon Elementary in Roscoe Village, are feeling pinched, but they are quickly learning that following the fundraising footsteps of LaSalle Language Academy will not be easy.

The community surrounding Audubon has been changing for some time. Old apartment buildings are now hip condominiums and wood frame houses are renovated and attracting young, middle-income families who are beginning to move in as working-poor families move out.

Gentrification has taken a toll. In the past five years, enrollment at Audubon has declined as families who replace those who move away are less likely to choose public schools. Audubon has lost basic and poverty funding, says Principal Linda Sienkiewicz, who wants to hang on to all her staff and programs.

At the top of her wish list is a partnership with Redmoon Theater, an eclectic theater group that uses puppetry, acting and music to help teach reading and language arts. But the partnership will cost $21,000 and at the moment, more fundamental needs are on the chopping block. “By next year, we will lose half of the time of the counselor, the music teacher and one special education teacher,” Sienkiewicz says.

Supportive parents are helping make up the difference. Sienkiewicz has already persuaded Roscoe Village Neighborhood Group to donate $30,000 for one teacher’s salary for next year. And when the kindergarten teacher wanted new classroom rugs, Sienkiewicz suggested asking parents to buy them. They did.

But volunteers to raise larger sums of money are lacking. An LSC member who spearheaded a direct mail solicitation last year that brought in $3,000 has since left, and no one has picked up the ball. Linda McBride, an active parent volunteer, says raising money is not her strong suit. “I am a little overwhelmed,” she says.

Parents who can raise big bucks are usually well-connected professionals with time on their hands, McBride explains. Audubon is in transition—the poverty rate has dropped from 90 percent to 69 percent over the past five years—but still does not have a critical mass of middle-income parents.

Meanwhile, the need for someone to help bring in more money grows every year. “CPS covers the basics,” McBride says, “but the basics keep getting redefined. To me, some of the basics are reasonable class sizes and art integration.”

While Sienkiewicz says she is willing to take on the task of raising outside money, she has some misgivings. “It takes a chunk of time and we are supposed to be instructional leaders,” she argues.

Sienkiewicz is retiring next month. As LSC members search for her replacement, they’re keeping an eye out for a good fundraiser.

‘Great if we could do more’

While Audubon council members are waiting for more parents with deep pockets to arrive, parents at Ebinger Elementary are coming to terms with the idea that they might never get there.

Five years ago, they had hopes of raising enough money to give their children’s Edison Park school a boost. Looking down the road at other public schools in the area, such as Norwood Park, they saw what a boon parent fundraising could be.

In 2000, they created the Ebinger School Foundation and got to work. But the money has yet to materialize. “Let’s put it this way, we aren’t raising the kind of money that will buy you a teacher,” says PTA President Lisa Sabres, whose daughter is in 5th grade. The foundation raised just over $35,000, according to the group’s 2004 taxes.

On paper, Ebinger is like other schools in Norwood Park or Sauganash—mostly white, low poverty, high test scores. The difference is that Ebinger families, who aren’t poor, are not wealthy either.

“We are a working, middle-class neighborhood,” says Michele Atkinson, president of Ebinger’s foundation. “We have a lot of firemen and policemen. In most families both parents work just to pay the bills. If the wife doesn’t work, then they are struggling on one income.”

Ebinger’s foundation hosts an annual fundraising event, but instead of a formal affair, it organizes a casual dance party with an open bar. Tickets cost $10 and in place of a silent auction, there’s a raffle with a $5,000 grand prize. Last year, the event netted $6,000.

With proceeds from previous events, the foundation bought computers for classrooms and lighting for the school auditorium. But the facility could use sprucing up, Sabres says, and a $500 donation from Home Depot for paint and bathroom caulk “didn’t really make a dent.”

Schools with high poverty rates, though, would still rather be in Ebinger’s position. Even with a hefty poverty grant, Bateman Elementary still cannot afford to buy all of the new books, equipment and staff that it needs, says PTA member Virginia Hansen.

Ninety percent of Bateman students are low-income but because fewer students overall are enrolled, the school lost $110,000 in poverty funding over the past five years. But looking to parents to raise extra money is not feasible, Hansen says. “Just to get parents to come to meetings, we have to give out treats like cookies and juice,” she says. Two of the most active members of Bateman’s PTA, whose membership totals four, have already seen their children graduate. Hansen, who works in the school’s cafeteria, is one of them.

“I went to fundraisers for other schools and I was just wowed,” Hansen says. “We do what we can, but it would be just great if we could do more.”

Back at LaSalle Language Academy, Principal Amy Weiss Narea says parents’ fundraising provides the extras that help her school flourish. Students are admitted by lottery and 93 percent performed at or above grade level on last year’s standardized reading tests. The school is considered the gem of its neighborhood.

“One of the keys to our success is the tremendous family involvement,” Narea says. “It really helps us out. Parents are very generous, [but] I don’t think they would be as generous if the money went into a general pot for all schools. Because it goes to their children, and all the children at this school, they go way above and beyond.”

Intern Cassie del Pilar contributed to this report.

Sarah Karp is a Chicago-based writer. E-mail

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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