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Walking the Walk: How Three DC Moms Are Revolutionizing Educational Grant Giving

By Amal Disparte and Julia Bozzolo

June 12, 2018

This past year was a year of reckoning for public school teachers across the country. Strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma turned the spotlight on education spending and the realities of teaching in public schools.

Public school teachers in DC receive some of the highest teacher salaries in the nation, but just like their counterparts in other states, it is still 20%-30% less than their college-graduate peers in other professions. Income figures may differ state by state, but one thing is a constant: All teachers pay out of pocket to support their schools, classrooms, and students. National research shows that, on average, public school teachers spend $500 out of pocket for their classrooms, many spending four or five times that amount.

In what other profession does one need to pay for the most basic tools to do their job effectively?

For such a small city, the disparities between DC’s school communities and the resources they enjoy are staggering. Our school lottery system has been a double-edged sword. Year after year, it has provided an opportunity for parents living in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods to enroll in schools with stronger financial parental and community supports, while simultaneously undercutting the potential for those same supports in their neighborhood schools. In 2017, three out of every four children in DC did not attend their neighborhood school. This opting-out system has left under-enrolled schools in wards 7 and 8 where the economic reality of the student body creates undue financial burdens on the teachers serving them.

The responsibility of providing schools with the extra funding they need for basic supplies, student experiences, and teacher support now rests squarely on the shoulders of the school community. DC does a fairly good job of distributing funds equitably across the city, but the ability of parents and the local communities to support their schools financially is inadequately distributed. It is here that we see the fissures and inequity.

Last year Janney Elementary raised nearly one million dollars at their gala. Mundo Verde Charter School raised thousands of dollars for holiday bonuses in a week with a single email. Two Rivers Public Charter School is able to send every 6th grader away to a camp for a week at no cost to parents. These are all wonderful, amazing feats, that should be celebrated and praised—no wonder these schools have some of the longest waiting lists in the city—but they bring into stark relief how the other half lives. In schools with no PTA and boosters, teachers are routinely paying out of pocket for their student’s most basic and personal needs: paper, food, socks, underwear, deodorant, metro cards, and the list goes on.

“So what are you going to do about it?” That’s the question we asked ourselves when we had our kids at JO Wilson Elementary, a Title 1 School in NE DC with only a fledgling PTA. With the blessing of the principal, we started an annual fundraising event, The Taste of H, to leverage the greater NE community, rather than the school parent body, and raised more than $200,000 in 4 years. It was in reviewing this success that we observed the failure of our current system. JO Wilson had our booster, but what about the schools that didn’t?

Surely there was a way to support all teachers at once, across all schools. Our solution was to create GrantEd Foundation. GrantEd’s mission is to equalize access to funding for DC public school educators by simplifying and expediting the grant application process, thereby maximizing the reach of donor dollars. This year, we began piloting our program, providing teachers in partner schools in Wards 7 and 8 with fast-cycle micro-grants of up to $500 that they can apply for in a 60-second video using their cellphones. Now in our third grant cycle we are moved by the modesty of their requests and the inordinate appreciation for a gesture so small as to prevent them from spending their own money to teach our kids. But they don’t just teach with paper, pencils, and dry erase markers, they teach through doing, through experiences. Their capacity for finding interesting ways to do their jobs is not only inexhaustible, it’s required. How can a community with means anticipate these needs and provide for them? That may be a lot to ask of small parent groups and PTAs, but a much more reasonable ambition for an agile, centralized fund with the technological infrastructure to keep up with the pace of teachers’ needs by being at the ready when they turn to their wallets, to one more time, fund it themselves.

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