Photo depicting Mercedes Russell in dark green Seattle Storm t-shirt holding an orange-and-white basketball inside a school gym.

A South Seattle School Fundraiser Is Questioning School Fundraising Itself

by Ben Adlin

When parents and teachers from a dozen southeast Seattle elementary schools introduced an experimental fundraiser last year, the goal wasn’t merely to raise money for education but also to challenge the very practice of PTA fundraising. This year, even more South End schools and community groups are uniting behind the event and its growing emphasis on equity.

PTA fundraising represents a powerful but often precarious tool. On one hand, it constitutes a critical piece of many school budgets, paying for field trips, guest speakers, art and music instructors, teacher appreciation, direct aid to families, and more. On the other, by relying on donations from communities with drastically different levels of resources, it risks fueling already drastic race and income disparities among schools.

During last year’s fundraiser, believed to be the first of its kind in Seattle and perhaps the state, the 12 participating elementaries agreed not to compete against one another but instead to pool their earnings and share in them equally. The approach was designed to lessen the potentially disparate impact of fundraising and to support schools without sophisticated fundraising arms.

By most metrics, it was an overwhelming success. For many of the schools, all of which were classified as low-income, Title I schools in Seattle Public Schools (SPS) District 7, the event brought in more money — just over $16,000 apiece — than any past effort. For others, it was the first fundraiser in recent memory.

Yet some event organizers at the newly formed Southeast Seattle Schools Fundraising Alliance (SESSFA) felt the fundraiser, despite its successes, still fell short. Many members of the group wanted to center equity more fully and push back against PTAs’ growing role as a revenue stream for schools.

“This isn’t equitable,” cofounder Christina Jiménez, a Graham Hill Elementary parent and Seattle Public Schools (SPS) teacher, told the Emerald at the time, “but this is a move in the right direction.”

As SESSFA’s Move-a-Thon fundraiser enters its second year (the event kicked off on May 2), leaders have refocused their efforts on equity while working to broaden the fundraiser generally. Representatives from all 15 K–8 schools in District 7 are now on board, translation has been expanded to six languages besides English, and SESSFA has teamed with partners such as the Seattle Capoeira Center, Double Dutch Divas, and Seattle Storm center Mercedes Russell to build enthusiasm and get more families involved.

“We were able to sort of go into this year saying, like, ‘What do we want? What’s most important here?’” Jiménez said. “What felt really most important was being able to focus on our mission.”

Seattle Storm player Mercedes Russell demonstrates an exercise for the 2022 Move-a-Thon promotional video from SESSFA. Screen capture used with permission.

While half of the money raised for this year’s Move-a-Thon will still be split equally among the schools, a new equity-focused formula will divide the remaining half based on factors including each school’s number of BIPOC students, English-language learners (ELL), and students in special education programs.

Of the half of the proceeds distributed through the new equity formula, each school is expected to receive between 5% and 12%.

The 15 participating schools are Beacon Hill International Elementary, Dearborn Park International Elementary, Dunlap Elementary, Emerson Elementary, Graham Hill Elementary, Hawthorne Elementary, John Muir Elementary, Kimball Elementary, Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, Maple Elementary, Orca K–8, Rainier View Elementary, Rising Star Elementary, South Shore PK–8, and Wing Luke Elementary.

In general, the fundraiser works by asking students to complete various movement-based activities that appear on a bingo-inspired game board. Families are encouraged to ask neighbors, friends, or relatives to pledge donations based on each square or row of squares a student completes. A separate QR code on the bingo card links to an online donation page.

Activities on the bingo board invite students to move their bodies. “Cross the room in a duck walk / crab walk / bear walk / or roll across your own way,” says one square. “Jump rope, or pretend to, for 3 minutes,” says another.

The board also encourages kids to play games or try activities from cultures different from their own. For ideas, families can scan a QR code in the board’s center square and pull up instructional videos from community partners on things like foundational capoeira moves, or basic double Dutch.

With just a few days to go before the fundraiser draws to a close at the end of this week, the 2022 Move-a-Thon has collected just under $85,000. That’s more than SESSFA had raised at this point in last year’s fundraiser but still far short of the group’s $150,000 goal.

But while the event is technically a fundraiser, organizers said they’re more concerned with encouraging broad participation than how much money any one family or school can collect. Promotional materials for the event center on doing activities from the bingo squares, not fundraising, and any rewards given out by schools aren’t linked to the amount of money students bring in. 

At Graham Hill last year, Jiménez recalled, “a lot of kids would come up with, like, bags of coins, and be like, ‘This is for our school!’ So I think it’s important that we remember that every single dollar counts, that every single effort counts.”

Sample squares from the Move-a-Thon bingo board encouraging students to move their bodies and explore cultures different from their own. Screen capture from SESSFA Move-a-Thon promotional video used with permission.

Wealthier, whiter schools farther north in Seattle sometimes bring in six-figure sums through fundraising. Meanwhile schools in District 7, which encompasses most of Southeast Seattle and serves much of the city’s Black, Brown, Indigenous, and refugee communities, raise comparatively little. A few, such as Dunlap Elementary, lack formal PTAs to perform the function at all.

A 2016 study found that Seattle had the fifth-widest achievement gap in the nation between white and Black students among major U.S. cities, while a separate 2018 report concluded Washington’s achievement gap actually got worse during the previous 15 years — more so than in any other state.

“We are recognizing that we’re all part of this whole in District 7,” Jiménez said, “and we’re doing what we can to support our staff, to support our teachers.”

Despite the record amounts some individual schools earned during last year’s Move-a-Thon fundraiser, the proceeds represented just a fraction of what PTAs citywide typically raise for other SPS schools. That’s according to Vivian van Gelder, a board member for the district-wide Seattle Council PTSA and the advocacy and policy manager for the Southeast Seattle Education Coalition

Van Gelder, who consulted with SESSFA on the Move-a-Thon fundraiser, has spent years looking at how PTA fundraising differs across schools. She’s a lead proponent of the Seattle Council PTSA’s #TakeBackPTA movement, which aims to “take PTA back to our shared history and mission of family engagement and advocacy” and reduce the focus on collecting money.

After last year’s fundraiser, van Gelder crunched the numbers to figure out how the Move-a-Thon measured up to fundraising done by the district’s roughly 80 other PTA groups.

“I figured out that if they were to raise per-student what the district-wide average was,” she said, “they would have needed to raise $2 million instead of $200,000.”

Nevertheless, van Gelder sees SESSFA’s approach as an important paradigm shift.

“This is a mindset change,” she said of pooling fundraising resources. “I think what they’re doing is almost like a use case or a pilot for something that could be much broader, something that could actually cover the entire district.”

Site leaders from the 15 participating schools have been meeting regularly through online calls and breakout sessions since last fall to build consensus on how this year’s Move-a-Thon should grow. One of the biggest questions was how to more fairly distribute the profits.

Jiménez, who isn’t a site leader herself but still plays a coordinating role in the group, described the meetings as a delicate process of working toward equity and inclusion while also maintaining consensus. “Making sure everybody felt comfortable and on board was so critical to us,” she said. “How do you balance your mission with the importance that we’re all in this together?”

SESSFA site leaders formed a number of breakout groups and planning committees, including one tasked with hammering out the specific formula to equitably distribute half of this year’s proceeds. 

Coleading the equity team was Kerry Ward, the parent of a child at Emerson Elementary and the school’s Move-a-Thon site leader. To arrive at the equity funding formula, she said, the group “iterated on it for, essentially, as long as it took.”

“It was very hard not to over-engineer it and make it perfect,” Ward said of the model the body ultimately adopted. “If we had, we never could have come to an agreement in time. As it stands, we started in September and came to an agreement at the end of March or early April.” 

Ultimately, after identifying what variables they wanted to account for — including the proportion of BIPOC, ELL, and special education students — members tweaked the weightings of the formula until they struck a funding distribution that seemed fair to the group as a whole. The team wanted to ensure that while schools received money relative to their respective needs, every school would see at least a portion of the equity funds.

“Without the general goodwill that we built up in the first year, I’m not sure we would have been able to do it this year.” Ward said. “Each conversation, we came back wanting to stay together and adopt a solution that works for every school.”

As with last year’s fundraiser, where proceeds were evenly divided, Ward said the new hybridized equity approach is “not perfect either but definitely a step in the right direction.”

Sarena Li, the other equity team colead, said that despite all of the participating schools being located in District 7, they have considerably different levels of need among them.

“Even within South End schools, there’s a huge array of resources and wealth,” said Li, the site leader and son of a fifth grader at Rainier View Elementary. “South Seattle’s gentrified for the most part now, but the further south, the less resources [and] the more diversity.”

At Rainier View, money from the Move-a-Thon fundraiser represents the entirety of the PTSA’s budget, Li said. “The reason we have teacher appreciation week, the reason we can help support families, is because of this event.”

Li attributed much of SESSFA’s successful consensus-building to the idea that members genuinely care about one another, as well as the well-being of each participating school.

When Rainier View administrators didn’t allow bingo cards to be distributed to students in class for this year’s Move-a-Thon, she noted, site leaders from other schools offered to help pass out the materials themselves.

“They gathered around us,” Li said, adding that Jiménez even delivered flyers with a bunch of treats for Rainier View teachers. “The way that they’ve supported us, knowing that we’re not in the same situation, has been incredible.”

Ayan Elmi, one of two site leaders from South Shore PK–8, also served on SESSFA’s equity team. Much of the group’s goal this year was to take the expectations out of fundraising in an effort to make the event more welcoming.

“It’s not about how much money you can bring in,” she said, “it’s about activity!”

Elmi, who has kids in fifth grade and pre-K at South Shore, knows firsthand the intimidating effect that fundraising can have on parent involvement. The feeling that she needed to raise money to be a part of PTSA long kept her from volunteering at all. 

“I felt like I needed to fundraise in order to be part of that community,” she said. “And I felt like, ‘I don’t have any connections. I don’t have anybody that has that kind of money.’”

As part of helping more families feel welcome this year, Elmi has also worked with her counterpart at South Shore, site leader Hodan Mohamed, to incorporate different cultures into the various activities students are asked to complete.

“We had families coming up to our teachers saying, ‘Hey, you know, I love the fact that this is in my language, but I would love to include more about my culture, about my own community,’” Elmi said. 

In response, the bingo board now includes more flexibility, more robust translations, a wider array of activities, and inspiration from community partners like Double Dutch Divas, a community-focused double Dutch group.

“The way we’re doing double Dutch? We do that back home too, just a different version,” said Elmi, who was born in Somalia and immigrated to the United States from Kenya when she was 11.

Given the young age of many of the students, the activities can be relatively simple — anything that’s both culturally relevant and encourages kids to get moving. “Like back home in Africa, we used to carry water on our heads. So what if you put something on your head while you’re walking in a line?”

Elmi and others said last year’s Move-a-Thon did more than raise record amounts of money for Southeast Seattle schools. It also built a network of mutual support and encouraged more parents like her to get involved. This year she even began serving as South Shore PTSA’s copresident.

“I love the fact that many schools that I never would have learned about or connected with, I get emails from their principals now,” she said.

Owing to the different levels of resources available in local communities, as well as to varying support by school administrators and the makeup of schools themselves, the Move-a-Thon fundraiser looks different at each school. 

At South Shore, Elmi said, organizers have poster-sized versions of the bingo board hung around campus, including in the school’s gym and lunchroom. Volunteers have handed out snacks and water, and middle schoolers at the school, which serves pre-K through eighth-grade students, have also been helping to jazz up younger students and explain how the activities work.

“It’s really been amazing to see the enthusiasm of the middle schoolers,” Elmi said. “They’ve been helping us a lot with telling the kiddos to bring back the bingo boards.” The older students have also led activities in the library, art classes, and during breakfast.

One of the District 7 schools new to the SESSFA Move-a-Thon this year is John Muir Elementary, where Julia MacCracken’s daughter is in first grade. MacCracken, who said she was only casually involved in PTA last year, volunteered as a site leader after seeing a presentation on disparities in school fundraising. 

“I started learning more about, like, what it actually means for education to be underfunded,” she said, noting that some schools, for example, don’t have full-time nurses. “I think it’s a huge motivator to get involved.”

At John Muir, the Move-a-Thon event kicked off on a rainy Monday morning, with the help of parent and teacher volunteers and a group of student leaders from nearby Franklin High School. Gates were festooned with blue and yellow ribbons and balloons and the high-school students lined up with cowbells.

As each student arrived, some carrying backpacks nearly as big as themselves, the high schoolers cheered and encouraged them to run onto campus through a tunnel of whoops and high-fives.

Many of the younger students were at first bewildered, but by the time classes started they were dancing, playing tag with a parent dressed as the school mascot, bouncing basketballs, and skipping over jump ropes.

“Seeing the kids, their liveliness, you can’t not love them when you see them all together,” MacCracken said.

At Emerson Elementary, the PTA launched this year’s fundraiser with a Saturday family event featuring Double Dutch Divas to help get kids up and moving. 

“I didn’t invent double Dutch, but I brought it back!” founder Angie Mosely, also a paraeducator for a student at Chief Sealth International High School, told the Emerald ahead of the event. She said the group’s exuberance and the inherent contagiousness of double dutch itself appeals to families of all backgrounds and breaks kids out of their shells — often to the surprise of parents.

“They say, ‘OK, well, little Johnny over there, he doesn’t talk, but don’t take it personal,’” Mosley said. “When Double Dutch Divas get there, he’s paying attention, he’s focusing. When it’s time to exercise, he’s exercising.”

Movement can be a powerful icebreaker, she said. After-school programs she’s led at local schools such as Hawthorne Elementary might start with double Dutch but lead to students opening up about issues like school, home life, or the loss of a loved one.

“The kids are not, like, privileged, you know what I’m saying?” said Mosley. “They need somebody to be there, not just to teach them double Dutch.”

“This is what it’s all about,” she added, “is unity in the community.”

Not all schools can manage the same fanfare around the Move-a-Thon launch. At Dunlap Elementary, which lacks an official PTA but has a growing group of parent and teacher volunteers, second-grade teacher Matt Burtness said organizers have been handing out bingo cards throughout school and working to spread the word.

At its heart, Burtness said, the event is about moving and giving — in whatever ways people can manage. “It’s kind of focused on that, the simplicity of it,” he said, as well as “emphasizing the fact that this is not a standalone Dunlap thing. … It’s not just for us, but it’s for our South End community.”

“It’s a lot of work for one individual school to do any sort of fundraiser,” he added. “Teamwork makes the dream work in that regard.”

There’s something of a contradiction at the heart of SESSFA’s Move-a-Thon fundraiser: Many of its organizers would like to see school PTAs move away from fundraising altogether. Parent-teacher groups, they argue, were created to advocate for students and build community, not to be extra revenue streams for public schools.

“We’re not proposing that collective fundraising is the answer. The answer would be to fully fund education,” said Ward, the equity team colead. “But as an interim step, if we can think about the good of the whole in terms of our student population across the city, that would only benefit us as a city.” The goal of the Move-a-Thon, in her eyes, is to create small changes that affect the way people think.

Van Gelder, who studies PTA fundraising, thinks part of the SESSFA project’s success is that it provides an easily accessible way for relatively affluent parents to examine how the apparently laudable goal of raising money for their schools can actually exacerbate racial and economic injustice.

“It is, in a way, helping them to understand how something that they do, that they think is benign or even noble, is actually perpetuating the outcomes that they claim, through their yard signs, to be trying to fight against,” she said. “It’s created this whole space of possibility that’s never existed before.”

Parents at one school might be raising money to save an elementary school drama program, for example, without recognizing that PTA funds at other schools go overwhelmingly towards subsidizing families’ basic needs. “I’m not judging those parents at all,” van Gelder said. “There’s just incredible siloing in this district.”

There are signs SESSFA’s approach to fundraising is already having an effect outside South Seattle. In response to last year’s Move-a-Thon, Jiménez said, a number of North End schools contacted the group to see if they could get involved or replicate the project in their areas. Some PTAs even made financial contributions. 

More PTAs, such as the one at Lowell Elementary on Capitol Hill, where Jiménez currently teaches, are also exploring how to scale back individual fundraising, either because they want to do it in a more collaborative way or because they believe in focusing more on community-building and advocacy.

One obstacle to reducing the amount of PTA fundraising is that there’s simply so much need across the district, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In District 7, some schools have scrambled to provide direct aid to families left jobless or unable to pay for rent or groceries.

“It’s tricky when so much of our funds go to families right now. For many in our communities, it’s like, ‘Well why wouldn’t we just do as much fundraising as we can?’” Jiménez said. “So for us, it felt like what’s more important is making small inroads, like chipping away and trying to really make sure we’re living our mission of decreasing the amount of fundraising we’re doing in school communities without fully eliminating it if a school isn’t ready.”

In addition to more funding for schools at the state level, she believes it’s time for the Seattle Public Schools board of directors to take action to address disparities in PTA fundraising. According to van Gelder, individual schools can accept donations of up to $250,000 without so much as seeking approval from the district’s board of directors, and there’s little regulation on how that money can be spent.

“There needs to be greater awareness or action taken around these discrepancies and how much PTAs are funding,” Jiménez said.

Despite feeling that far more action is needed, Jiménez said she’s been energized by the traction SESSFA’s Move-a-Thon has already gained within the community and the district as a whole.

“I think what’s exciting is that people who are hearing this want to take action, and not just to give money — to make the change in their communities,” she said. “There’s now groups of people who are interested in actually living that, and not just in the South End but in schools that have a lot more wealth.”

Editors’ Note: A previous version of this story misidentified the school where Christina Jiménez is a teacher. This article was updated on 05/13/2022 to clarify that Jiménez works at Lowell Elementary, not Kimball Elementary.

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: Seattle Storm player Mercedes Russell appears in the 2022 Move-a-Thon promotional video from SESSFA. Screen capture used with permission.

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