by Ben Adlin
For almost three years now, parents and teachers representing more than a dozen Southeast Seattle schools have been meeting regularly to discuss the pernicious problem of PTA fundraising, all while planning one of the biggest fundraisers their schools have ever seen.
Organizers are keenly aware of the apparent contradiction in their work. They know that PTA fundraising typically perpetuates, and even worsens, racial and economic disparities in education. So they’ve structured this particular fundraiser to be different: Rather than competing against one another, the participating schools pool the proceeds, splitting half equally among themselves and sharing the other half according to an equity-based formula.
The parents (mostly mothers), teachers, and other volunteers hope their growing coalition can not only build support for Southeast Seattle schools but also help usher in a new paradigm in fundraising and community advocacy.
“As PTAs, we’re working to intentionally redistribute the wealth that PTA fundraising can create,” said Christina Jiménez, one of the cofounders of the Southeast Seattle Schools Fundraising Alliance, or SESSFA. “We want folks to realize that by this collaborative fundraising, that’s more important than what you can do on your own.”
SESSFA launched its first collaborative fundraiser as a cautious experiment among 12 South End schools in 2021. The schools asked for donations from the community, then divided them equally — a historic first in Seattle. Organizers also far surpassed their $120,000 goal, bringing in almost $200,000. They’ve since redoubled their efforts, working to make the event’s impact more equitable and bring on more South Seattle schools.
Last year’s event included 15 schools and added a redistributive component, portioning out half the proceeds to schools based on factors such as their numbers of BIPOC students, English-language learners, and students in special education programs. That fundraiser set a goal of $150,000 and collected nearly $400,000.
The current SESSFA Move-A-Thon fundraiser, which kicked off last week, is the largest by far. The coalition now includes all 17 elementary and middle schools in Seattle Public Schools District 7, which stretches from Rainier View north to First Hill, representing more than 6,500 students.
With more schools to share the proceeds among, organizers this year have set an ambitious $500,000 goal. For most of the participating schools — nearly all of which are categorized as low-income, Title I facilities — the event is the only fundraiser of the year.
Any donations that come in before April 30 will be considered part of this year’s fundraiser and distributed accordingly. Money received after that date will be rolled into next year’s event.
While past Move-A-Thons have successfully brought in record amounts for many District 7 schools, the money raised represents just a small fraction of what schools in more affluent areas often raise through PTA fundraising. In areas farther north, which are typically whiter and wealthier than much of South Seattle, individual schools sometimes earn six figures from a single auction.
After the first SESSFA fundraiser, 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, crunched the numbers to figure out how SESSFA’s 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, they would have needed to raise $2 million instead of $200,000,” she told the South Seattle Emerald last year.
One of the schools participating in the SESSFA Move-A-Thon for the first time this year is Asa Mercer International Middle School, on Beacon Hill. Palmira Figueroa, the mother of an eighth grader at Mercer, a PTA member, and a part of SESSFA’s equity work group, is working with families, teachers, and administrators to help pull off this year’s fundraiser.
“This is the district that, I believe, is the most diverse district in the Seattle Public Schools,” she said, adding that having all District 7’s middle and elementary schools on board this year is “a good portrayal of how community work can actually change and engage the general community.”
Figueroa said she volunteered to support the Move-A-Thon as a way to directly address the stark inequities in fundraising across Seattle’s stratified neighborhoods. She has two students in Seattle Public Schools and has served on other PTAs, including a school in a more affluent community farther north, which she did not want to identify.
“The amounts of money raised there were alarming to me,” she said, “knowing the inequity that was causing.”
“Every child in this public school system is my child, you know?” Figueroa continued. “And any child that is not getting what they deserve has an impact on my own child. I just wish that everyone felt the same way.”
A 2016 Stanford University study found that Seattle had the fifth-widest achievement gap in the country between white and Black students among major U.S. cities. And there’s little evidence it’s improving: A separate 2018 report concluded Washington’s achievement gap actually got worse during the previous 15 years — and by more than in any other state.
While school fundraisers in wealthier areas of the city might fund field trips or additional full-time staff for special programs, money earned by District 7 schools — which serve much of the city’s Black, Brown, Indigenous, immigrant, and refugee communities — typically covers more modest expenses: things like basic school supplies, teacher appreciation, and even gift cards and direct aid to families in need. One school’s PTSA recently helped subsidize snacks for special-education classes after the group learned teachers had been buying the food with their own money.
PTA fundraising is often regarded in the education community as a practice dominated by wealthy, white parents. In part, SESSFA has tried to counter that by making the Move-A-Thon more accessible to South Seattle communities. The nonprofit’s equity work group, which crafted the fundraiser’s redistributive model, also attempts to ensure that families both understand what the Move-A-Thon is all about and have a say in how it operates.
Figueroa said one of her goals as a member of SESSFA’s equity group was to broaden outreach to families disconnected from PTA fundraising efforts. Many in District 7 simply don’t have the time or opportunities to get involved, she said, which can limit PTA efforts to ensure fundraising efforts benefit those who need it most.
“Part of my feedback was, like, how can we gather priorities, information, and obstacles that these families really go through without talking to them?” said Figueroa, a Latina and immigrant who has helped with translation efforts for the project. “I found the group to be absolutely open, and we are actually doing it now.” As she pushed for, SESSFA is reaching out to other organizations in the community to welcome them to the table.
“The reality is that if you make the decisions without the real, lived experience of what it feels like to actually be a family that is underserved, you are not going to make the right decisions,” she said.
Being a fundraiser, an inescapable focus of the Move-A-Thon is money. But to families, school faculty, and — perhaps most importantly — students, SESSFA’s messaging prioritizes participation, not dollar amounts. Fundraising materials have been translated into as many of District 7’s dozen-plus spoken languages as SESSFA could manage, including Somali, Tagalog, and Vietnamese. Organizers partner with local groups such as Double Dutch Divas and the Washington Capoeira Center to craft Move-A-Thon activities that not only reflect backgrounds within District 7 but also encourage families to try activities from cultures different from their own.
Each year, organizers have told the Emerald that they’re confident that if they can foster authentic, organic engagement by as many families as possible, the donations will take care of themselves. And judging from the amounts raised in past fundraisers, so far that’s been true.
As the event grows, however, SESSFA leaders acknowledge they’re anxious about when the volunteer energy or community goodwill might run out.
Jiménez, who’s spent years working with other parents and teachers on Move-A-Thon planning, said she’s feeling the strain this year. With more participating schools, there’s not only a higher monetary goal but also more work needed to build consensus at virtually every step of the process. “There’s a little bit of pressure to ensure that folks are feeling this is going to be worth their while,” she said.
Alaron Lewis, a founding member of SESSFA and the site leader for the Move-A-Thon at Kimball Elementary School, said part of the anxiety comes from high expectations resulting from the fundraiser’s early success. She said the first year’s $120,000 target was a “stretch goal” that initially felt to her like “a crazy-ass number.”
“And then we did it,” Lewis said. “And part of what that did was it set up this, like, ‘Wow!’ expectation that has, I think, also been challenging.”
“We keep raising the stakes, raising the number of people, and raising the goal, and it adds to the pressure of doing it,” she explained. “The number of students that we’re serving has been really wonderful but has also complicated that conversation.”
While this year’s half-million dollar goal might sound lofty, for example, it’s about on par with what last year’s Move-A-Thon raised on a per-student basis.
Organizers also want to keep nudging the fundraiser’s redistribution model even further toward equity, which must be done without alienating member schools. One somewhat controversial new provision to this year’s agreement among PTAs, for instance, specifies that if individual PTAs engage in their own fundraising efforts, 5% will go toward SESSFA to fund equity-based grants.
“We added that very transparently with the idea that that percentage would gradually increase over time,” Lewis said, although she acknowledged how those increases might work is still unclear. “We’re fighting the good fight, but when the rubber meets the road, it gets really hard.”
Growing pains aside, SESSFA’s fundraiser appears to be succeeding at its goal of raising awareness of the potential problems of PTA fundraising. The Move-A-Thon has inspired conversations in other parts of the Seattle Public Schools system, including among PTAs in North and West Seattle, about how to make their own fundraising efforts more equitable.
Even the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History has recognized the fundraiser as noteworthy, requesting materials for an exhibit on philanthropy. Organizers sent the museum two copies of its 2022 activity board and a water bottle from the Move-A-Thon’s inaugural year.
But despite the growing momentum for collaborative school fundraising, does it actually manage to reduce inequities among schools? That’s still hard to say. A 2022 dissertation by a University of Portland researcher looked at a redistributive fundraising scheme in Portland, Oregon — one that SESSFA looked to for guidance — and concluded that the policy “was not sufficient to disrupt the inequitable concentration of fundraising dollars in schools serving primarily White and affluent students.”
While the specifics of the equity redistribution in Portland were different than the SESSFA model, the study said that in part the effort fell short because only a portion of proceeds were distributed according to need.
No similar studies have been published about the SESSFA fundraiser, although it’s undeniable that the Move-A-Thon has so far led to record-breaking donations for District 7, which has access to far fewer resources than most other parts of the city.
Rather than argue collective fundraising is a misplaced effort, the Oregon paper suggests that even more aggressive equity policies might be needed to offset disparities in education. Further, it found support among most participants for “sharing even more in order to support equitable outcomes.”
SESSFA members say they’re committed to doing exactly that, even if that path is a challenging one. Members have formed an advocacy working group aimed at identifying ways that PTAs can ensure a basic level of support at schools without having to focus overwhelmingly on fundraisers. Steps might include more collaborative fund-sharing at the district level or policy changes at the state level to guarantee positions like librarians or school counselors.
“I think this group really wants to move to systemic change, but I think that doing systemic change in such a white supremacist culture, like the educational system in the U.S., is hard,” Figueroa said. “I think it’s moving in the right direction, it just takes so much organizing work.”
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: The Murshed family jumps rope together at a Move-A-Thon event. (Photo: Alex Garland)
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