Norwood Park Credit: Photo by Jason Reblando

Parents at Norwood Park Elementary, like those at any public school, worry about whether Chicago Public Schools has enough money to provide the best education for their children, But unlike others, they have someplace else to turn: local businesses and their own deep pockets.

The parents’ fundraising efforts are apparent outside the school. The dark-red brick building—the center of a nine-acre triangular park—is surrounded by light poles bearing green banners with fancy script. Each lists the name of a local business that paid $1,000 alongside the slogan, “Supporting Our Future.” A local bank branch gave the school $5,000.

Inside, hallway ceilings are strung with hundreds of “passports,” this year’s fundraising gimmick that builds on the spring dinner-dance theme, An Evening in Europe. For $5, parents can buy a passport that will display their child’s picture and gets stamped as if they’ve visited various countries.

Behind it all is the Norwood Park Foundation, created a year ago by the school’s PTA.

“We are interested in the big-ticket items,” says Mark Pullman, who sits on the foundation board. “We only want to do things that will raise real money.”

Real money for Norwood Park means netting about $100,000 or more a year—enough to make sure the school can retain a full-time, certified librarian, band and chorus programs and paid monitors to relieve teachers while students in 1st through 3rd grades take recess. Real money also helps defray costs for math and language arts enrichment for students performing above average.

A survey of parents revealed that they wanted their children to learn Spanish, so the school hired a Spanish teacher this year. Previously, when a number of students had deaths in the family, those extra funds paid for extending a part-time social worker to a full-time schedule.

Nearby families might not consider sending their kids to Norwood Park if it didn’t offer the programs that parent fundraising pays for, says local school council Chair Jonathan Jedd. “They know their child is getting the attention they need,” he says.

$800 for 3rd-grade art

In the past decade, the community surrounding Norwood Park on the Far Northwest Side of the city has increasingly become well-to-do. Older couples who move out of faux Victorian homes are replaced by families with young children. Houses that sold for $200,000 in 1990 now go for three times that.

The neighborhood’s transition has meant a richer and whiter student body for Norwood Park. During the 12 years that William G. Meuer has been principal, fewer students had to be bused in as more families living in the school’s attendance area enrolled their children. White student enrollment grew, while black enrollment shrank, and the poverty rate declined.

Now Norwood Park is eligible for only a token poverty grant. Parent fundraising accounts for any other discretionary money the school has, and it is successful because of parents’ experience and connections. One mother is a full-time event planner and has organized black-tie events for big downtown charities.

Parent’s own financial resources are a boon, too. Jeanne Stahmer, president of the PTA, says she paid $800 to buy her daughter’s 3rd-grade art project at last year’s silent auction.

Charitable tax documents from the 2003-2004 school year show that the PTA raised $133,900 and netted $96,100.

Meuer says CPS does not keep close tabs on what parent-sponsored fundraisers are paying for, but in the past, the district has pitched in extra money if he can demonstrate parents’ financial commitment to particular projects. For example, when the PTA bought a sound system and new lighting for the auditorium in the late 1990s, CPS contributed some funds for the equipment.

Parents’ fundraising is a teacher recruitment tool, of sorts, says Meuer, who boasts that 90 percent of Norwood Park’s teachers have master’s degrees, two are pursuing doctorates and two others won Golden Apple Awards.

Says Meuer: “When I interview teachers, they say Norwood Park is the promised land.”

Sarah is the deputy editor of Catalyst Chicago.

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