The Parent Teacher Association (PTA) of PS/IS 217 (217) is the largest organization on the Island and they are racking up some impressive wins for our kids. Test scores are up. A green roof is coming. Parent involvement is increasing and the feeling of community pride in our school is growing. The Gifted and Talented (G&T) program now boasts a wait-list of over 30 six-year olds for our incoming first grade. The PTA has fought, negotiated, petitioned and politicked tirelessly to win both, among a long list of others.
The WIRE sat down with some PTA Presidents, past and present, to discuss this long history of advocacy for the youngest Islanders and their families, including newly elected Erin Olavesen, whose term begins at the end of the summer, and current PTA President Olga Shchuchinov.
Parents join the PTA for the reasons one might expect. They want to know more about the school they’re sending their child to, meet the other parents, and get involved in the school community, typically with a focus on their child.
Shchuchinov explains that it can be tricky. “The hardest goal is to serve the whole school, not just your child. You think, ‘my child is in Kindergarten, what does he need?’ But you have to focus on 5th grade and middle school. Sometimes you have to do something that benefits everybody but might actually be bad for your individual child. You have to focus and do it for community and not what benefits you.”
Erin Olavesen agrees, “You have to think about what benefits the community with the knowledge that eventually your child will benefit from that, but the focus has to be a bigger picture, not a narrow one.” Both Olavesen and Shchuchinov credit the administration, Principal Mandana Beckman and Assistant Principal Jennifer Allen, for help keeping their focus on the whole school.
Olavesen explains it gets even deeper than that, “It is the idea of resources and who makes up the student body, and always remembering that we want to be inclusive. We’re not just an art school, we’re not a science school, and we reach kids who might be underperforming. While your child might not need extra help reading, we do need to spend money on it. The overarching umbrella is that we work for the benefit of all students even if our child won’t benefit from it now, or will never benefit. Overall it will make for a stronger community serving everyone’s kids.”
Former 217 PTA President Dawn Price (2011-2013) said, “I saw how bad it could be in a public school without a PTA. We moved to Brooklyn [before moving to the Island] and I had to put my son in private school. Even private schools in Brooklyn were so mediocre compared to 217. I decided I would rather work in the school than find a cheaper place to live and have to put my son in private school.”
A Community Voice
“We have political power. We give a voice to the community. We have legitimacy. We have a defined structure. We have the structure in place to have elections that say we represent who we represent,” explains Shchuchinov about the microphone being the PTA President gives you.
She says, “When we petition politicians, our petitions are actually from parents who sign the petition. Individual parents are unable to do what we do and what we’ve done, like create a Gifted & Talented (G&T) program for their kids.”
“It’s the PTA President and the PTA board who liaises between parents and administration and talks to politicians on behalf of all of these people. The PTA gives parents a voice because the PTA has the right and the power to do that,” explains outgoing PTA President Olga Shchuchinov.
217 and Island Kids
The PTA is the first to acknowledge that one key to their longevity and success are their many long relationships and collaborations, starting with the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC)’s generosity in the form of Public Purpose Funds. Starting next school year, the school’s partnership with Island Kids will be expanded into a true after-school program housed at 217.
Shuchinov says, “Island Kids has already been our partner for Kindergarten after-school because the Beacon (school-based community centers offering after-school programs) only serve children who are age six and above. Now with Pre-K (Pre-Kindergarten), there will be over 100 kids not covered by Beacon. We are excited because we have an existing relationship with Island Kids.”
Olavesen adds that, “[Prinicpal] Mandana [Beckman] trusts Nikki [Leopold, Island Kids’ executive director], which is huge. We talked to other outside vendors. We talked to Wingspan. They’re very impressive and they’re all over the City, but Island Kids has been in our community for a long time and Island Kids understands the complexity of what our community needs. Roosevelt Island is not like PS 183 (which has a Wingspan after-school) on E. 66th street, and the community served there. A lot of trust has been built between the school and Island Kids which will make an easier transition for the whole school including the administration.”
Former PTA President Nikki Leopold (2008-2010) spoke to the partnership as well, “That’s another important piece about being in a small community. If you’re going to be a spokesperson for something, you have to be able to facilitate and just not from your child’s perspective. If you’re really involved, you’ll have those trust relationships already.”
There has always been a close relationship with the Beacon Program. As Price said of her term, “We worked closely with Beacon. They have a lot of space in the school so there always has to be a union of some kind. They have the space and extra funding. It’s helpful. They’re not afraid to get in with grants.” Of Beacon, Shchuchinov says, “We partner with them. We go to their events and they go to ours. Whenever we have events, we have tickets for Beacon kids and work with the Beacon.”
Shchuchinov is particularly fond of the school’s collaboration with the The Main Street Theatre & Dance Alliance which she says, “does after-school programs with us. We offer African dance for 3rd grade and ballroom dance for 5th grade and we are open to more. Again, their director is Kristi Towey. We know her: she was on the PTA board; she has run the 217 PTA auction. It helps to have these long relationships and experience working with people who you know. Its easier to build new partnerships that way.”
According to Shchuchinov, “We partner with Gallery RIVAA for art workshops. We had our students and families go there. We had very positive feedback.”
Main Street Sweets is another one. Olavesen says, “Kindergarten has a community unit in Social Studies where they go on walking field trips. They go to the (RIVAA) gallery, they go to Main Street Sweets, among others.”
Shchuchinov says, “Coach Scot has been amazing to us. He donates a scoop of ice cream to kids who have collected over 100 box tops. We partner with him for our breakfasts when we cater something. He always gives us great rates.” “He always shows up in his 217 shirt to serve coffee,” adds Olavesen.
All 217 children have participated in one or another program with the Roosevelt Island Garden Club, including banding together to advocate for the Green Roof. Shchuchinov says, “We have a great partnership at the garden. The kids go for a walk-through and they garden there through iDig2learn. They also garden at the Youth Center garden.”
Price recalls the year the garden was dug behind the Beacon. She says, “The soil was donated from Southpoint where they were working. Christina [Delfico, iDig2Learn] was really great at reaching out to other organizations for help.”
Shchuchinov cites the Roosevelt Island Library as another great friend to 217, “We have a great partnership with Nicole and her new librarian, Jennifer. Our students have fine-free library cards. If you go to 217, you don’t get fined. She came to us and asked for our summer reading lists to make sure they had the books. She even volunteers for events at the school.”
“We also partner with politicians. We have an amazing relationship with Ben Kallos, and Rebecca Seawright. Gale Brewer comes to our events. She was at the International Dinner. And the Green Roof – when we won $1.5M it was amazing how much the community supported us. We have the voice. We meet with politicians and we have the voice,” says Shchuchinov about PTA’s alliances with our electeds.
It’s more than that, explains Olavasen, “Ben Kallos and the PTA are in regular communication in regards to the needs of our community. Kallos is very available to the PTA, meeting with us at school and in his Upper East Side office to discuss issues facing our school.”
RI Community Coalition
The PTA is a member organization of the Roosevelt Island Community Coalition (RICC), an advocacy group, and incoming PTA President Olavesen serves on its board. “Being on that board and also attending meetings with the 217-Cornell Tech Steering Committee allows me to keep the rest of RICC informed about how 217’s relationship with Cornell is developing,” Olavesen says.
“The other RICC board members expect updates from these meetings and they want to support what the school wants. If the school is happy, they’re happy. If the school is not happy, they want to know about it so they can carry that message to politicians as well. The RICC board is very invested in seeing Cornell keep its promise to adopt 217,” she affirms, explaining, “The PTA works very closely with RICC, and they advocate on behalf of our school when meeting with elected officials, Kallos, Brewer, getting results and making things happen because of our united efforts.”
This union started with Dawn Price. She says, “I worked with RICC and helped them set up their bylaws. We tried to lay the framework for what 217’s expectation for Cornell would be, as we lay the first drafts for the communication between the two schools. That started when I was still president but my term ended during that process.”
As to what the relationship looks like now, “It started kind of rocky but now we are getting stuff. It’s only getting better. Diane (Diane Levitt is Cornell Tech’s Director of K-12 Education) is on our side. She is happy, we’re happy. It’s going great,” says Shchuchinov.
As to what skills you need for the job, Leopold says, “You need to understand some concept of the way an organization runs. It’s not something you do in your spare time. It’s a 501c(3) and you’re there to serve it. Not all people understand an organization accountable to the federal government and everybody else, so that became a real problem for awhile.”
Olavesen seconds Leopold, “It’s an organization and you’re there to serve it. This is something that’s bigger than you and your specific needs. It’s for the community. It’s for the children of the Island.”
For Shchuchinov it’s a mental state, “You have to be a very calm person. Everybody comes to you. People don’t get that the school and the PTA are different. I have had a parent of a first grader yell at me for an hour about something that happened to their kid and that I should get involved. You have to deal with all kinds of different people. We, as parents, are all very protective of our kids sometimes it can come up in the wrong way. You have to build a thick skin. That’s the hard part.”
Olavesen explain, “You have to be confident in what you’re doing. There are a lot of negative people who feel that you’re not serving them so there is a lot of criticism. I think you have to be confident that what you’re doing is for the greater good.”
Price says, “You cannot be afraid to put yourself in 110 percent. Everyone brings a different cache of skills to the job and any given year there are different challenges. For every skill you can think of, add ten more. As the PTA President you are representing an entire body. Your particular point of view is irrelevant and if you do speak your point of view, you risk the backlash of other parents who are against you and you risk the backlash of Mandana against the PTA.”
Leopold believes you need some vision, “When we were doing the G&T thing [trying to bring the G&T Program to the school] not everyone wanted it there, including the administration and teachers. My thought was the G&T, because the school was at a crossroads, would legitimize the general education (Gen Ed) program which I think it has. Now we have to turn kids away from it.”
To accomplish that vision, Leopold says, “In the beginning we had to stand as a group. The PTA had to stand firm. The G&T Program was a PTA-driven initiative. There was a petition we had signed by 300 parents. We really put pressure on the DOE [Department of Education]. It was one of the first times I had seen the school be so politically active. Prior to that, no one took us seriously. After that, the DOE backed down and they left the program in the school. We may not have been able to see it then, but we see it now; there was a much bigger picture.”
Distinctions aren’t made between the G&T and Gen Ed program where resources and priority is concerned. Olavesen speaks to this, “A perception in our school is that there are only G&T parents on the PTA and that the PTA only works for the benefit of the G&T program, but that’s absolutely not true. I feel the strength of our school is that it’s a neighborhood school. We are investing in our own kids and our own families that are right here in our community. Everyone’s needs are important. I want everyone to feel as though they are important in our school because they are. [Principal] Mandana [Beckman] definitely wants fairness and equity and we do too”
Olavesen says, “being part of a small community is both a blessing and a curse. The green roof is a great example. When everybody is on board, the PTA can do amazing things. When there’s something negative that happens at the school, that story will get retold and retold for years and years and years.”
Leopold says, “The PTA is a very important partner for the leadership in this community, because this is the place that everybody sends their kids until at least fifth grade.” According to Olavesen, recent data demonstrates that 80 percent of all Islanders who have a child in a DOE public school, send that child to 217 through the fifth grade.
Shchuchinov believes the PTA’s biggest impact on the community is the G&T program. She calls it “transformational,” saying, “It made families stay [on the Island]. It changed the entire community.”
According to Olavesen, after-school enrichment is a big issue for the school. She points to a student whose family was the first to move into 475 Main Street. Both parents worked. The child’s father’s job changed and the family lost their housing. They looked elsewhere on the Island but they moved to the City because there weren’t enough after-school opportunities for a child with two working parents. They moved into the PS 6 district instead.
Olavesen sees this as a challenge, “As a school, there is a lot of pressure to provide things. Families need more offerings beyond the hours of 8:25 a.m.–2:45 p.m. We see our families leaving because they want more after-school enrichment. They want their kids to go to soccer practice or take swim lessons. As a PTA we feel responsible to offer more options for families to stay here to improve their quality of life.”
Leopold says, “The (extended Island Kids) after-school is really for those parents. Parents want enrichment.”
An important role the PTA fills is, “we explain to families how school works, and what the limitations of a DOE school are. A lot of parents don’t understand teacher union contracts and what’s mandated, how many minutes have to be spent on reading, math, how many students are allowed in each class per grade.
Price shares, “You want to make a difference, you want to love these kids as your own. Its really hard when you don’t have all the answers. There are parents who definitely have problems in the school and you can’t solve everything for them. Not being able to help a child at the end of the day is one of the hardest things because you really know these kids, and know these parents. I was a learning leader and so I was in the classroom three times a week and I really got to know the kids.”
The presidents all feel that our diversity is one of the great strengths of 217, but it can sometimes lead to challenges for new parents and students. The PTA helps parents navigate these cultural differences. Olavesen explains, “We value diversity but it puts the school in a difficult spot at times. Take homework for example; we have students from cultures where kids don’t start school until age seven so they don’t have any homework, and others where kids go to school on Saturday, like our Indian families, so they have a higher expectation and want three hours of homework. The PTA tries to explain things to families, why the school works this way. It can be difficult with such a diverse community to get families to understand and buy in.”
The Big Ask
One of a PTA’s main functions is to fundraise, and one way they do that is by asking families to donate a specific amount of money. This can get tricky.
“Many families are turned off by the big ask in the beginning of the year because they feel that it’s exclusive. A parent approached me because the PTA asked for $600. A lot of the other schools in our district ask for $1200. From a fundraising perspective we can ask for $50 and a lot of people will give that, but if you ask for more, they’ll give more, and we need the money, so we ask for more, but we do understand that not everyone can give the amount we ask.”
Not only that, but according to Shchuchinov, “It’s hard to explain to parents how the $85 you donated will benefit your child. It’s for the school as a whole. It’s for spirit-building, programming. A donation is hard to value. This year, your child is not getting ballroom dancing, he is getting yoga. Ballroom dancing is more expensive. But when he gets to middle school, he’ll get it too.”
They all agree that money is not the only way, or even the most valuable way to contribute. “Come to our events, come and volunteer on a field trip. Join the PTA. There are other ways besides contributing financially,” advises Shchuchinov. The school asks for $600 per family to meet its fundraising goals.
Power of the PTA
According to Leopold, the power of the PTA is “Its impact on the community overall. Yes, we impact the students, but a great community school raises the experience for everyone raising kids here. When we did the international dinner the first year, we had a lot of folks come who didn’t even have kids.”
Olavesen believes their power lies in “improving quality of life for everyone. We want this to be a place where people stay on the Island and build up the school as something to be proud of. It’s in the center of the community. I think my quality of life is vastly greater staying on the Island with my kids than if I were commuting every day.”
Price believes that “The PTA can shed a light on many of the positive things that are going on by being a bridge. We make communications happen. The PTA bridges the gap between different organizations and different buildings.” Price believes that, “The PTA helps to minimize the pressures the principal and teachers feel for not having the budget they need.”
Shchuchinov thinks it’s their reach, “We are the biggest organization on the Island.”
How Does the PTA Work?
To those of you who can’t wait to join, if your child goes to the school, you are already a member and you have the right to a vote. The PTA votes in a new President every year, and Presidents cannot serve more than two consecutive terms. Their bylaws conform to the Chancellor’s regulations.
Shchuchinov classifies it as “a very bureaucratic, mechanical procedure . We just had elections, we had to certify the results and send them to the DOE. Now we are going to have a meeting with Mandana on next year’s budget; it has to be voted, approved, and filed.”
As to where they are in the process, she says “We have a transition in July. This board is leaving; the next board is coming in. We have to give them their budget and calendar. It’s very formal. Everything is voted on and filed. We don’t spend a dollar without voting at a PTA meeting for it. It’s all in the minutes, and the minutes are all online. It’s a very transparent organization.”
And they keep their records, as Price recalls. “Before I took office, I didn’t have a position on the executive board because I didn’t know enough about the PTA. Prior to that, I was determined to figure out what was going on in the PTA. I spent hours. I would come in over the summer and sit in the PTA office and read all of the old minutes trying to figure out what the PTA did and what it was about. I had no framework. But I knew I could go and could sit in there and try and figure out what was going on.”
How Many Hours?
Leopold says she worked 30-35 hours per week. Price says, “I feel like I was there 60 hours a week. It was a transitional period. When I was there I was the face of the PTA. I was there at 7:00 a.m. before breakfast. We set up a table in the rain outside the building to raise funds.”
Currently Shchuchinov says, “We are at school during school hours. We have an office. We are very fortunate. It’s fabulous. It’s great. To know what’s going on in the school, you have to be there. It’s the little things. The groundwork. You run into Mandana in the hallway and she tells you something and something great happens.”
Olavesen adds, “There is a lot of emailing too. We took over tours and orientation. That’s been valuable.” “The communication piece is a lot of work. You do it from home, you do it over the weekend. It’s Memorial Day weekend and I am home writing an email blast,” says Shchuchinov.
Olavesen explains, “I would like us to find new ways for new people to be involved and broaden our reach even further.” In terms of new friendships, she says, “I just met with Emily Pinkowitz, the new Director of Education & Public Engagement at Four Freedoms Park. She reached out to the PTA to get to know our community and the interests of kids of all ages on the Island. We’re looking forward to developing a partnership with Four Freedoms Park. She’s fabulous and she’s very excited to do more with the school.”