At P.S. 9, parents are rushing to fundraise for lost federal funds

The city’s annual calculation of schools’ enrollment of poor students has at least one Brooklyn elementary school on the wrong side of an unyielding line.

The city gives extra federal funds to schools where 60 percent of students are eligible for free lunch. P.S. 9, which hosts a gifted program in gentrifying Prospect Heights, has received the funds in the past, but now its enrollment of poor students has dropped — to 59.1 percent.

That means the school won’t get the Title I funds, even though it has virtually the same proportion of eligible students as many other schools that will receive them.

“It’s sounds great that we’re coming out of a Title I position but we still don’t have enough resources,” said Christine Scalon, secretary of the school’s parent-teacher organization.

Scanlon and other parents are leading a frantic push to raise $160,000 by the end of the school year, the amount they have calculated the school is losing.

Students whose families earn so little that they are eligible for free lunch always bring extra funds to their schools. But the entire school gets a funding boost if enough students fit that description. Since last year, the city has set the bar at 60 percent, so schools where more than six in 10 students come from poor families get a pot of extra funds.

Researchers have found that the impact of Title I funds on spending and achievement on city schools is minimal, especially in elementary and middle schools. But at P.S. 9, parents know exactly what’s at stake for the school.

They said Principal Sandra D’Avilar told them she has no choice but to cut four teachers, meaning that some classes are likely to get bigger this fall. D’Avilar declined to comment for this story.

“This will hurt us per class size,” said Matt Fleischer-Black, a PTO member. “The largest risk is that the low-income students, who still are the majority of the school, are not going to be able to get staff attention or the additional academic support many of them need.”

The parents say they were blindsided by the funding news last week and can’t easily make up the loss through fund-raising.

“It’s very unfair because the demographic switch is really made up of five families, so it’s not like there’s this tidal wave of change where you can fill in the missing money,” Scanlon said.

The PTO immediately distributed letters to parents and community members asking for donations. In the first week of the appeal last week, the group collected more than $15,000 — a hefty sum, but nowhere near the $160,000 the group calculated the school is losing.

The school’s slow but steady decline in the proportion of poor students reflects Prospect Heights’ shifting demographics in recent years, at least to some degree.

“In general, Prospect Heights has seen an influx of professionals and property values have risen,” said Fleischer-Black. “So things are changing around here, but in the city’s school system, things change more slowly.”

The Department of Education did warn the school that cuts could be coming. According to the department, the school’s enrollment of poor students fell below the 60 percent threshold two years ago.

But at the time, the city was receiving stimulus funds from the federal government and could apply more lenient eligibility requirements for school-wide Title I funding: Schools would get the funds if just 40 percent of students were poor. And the definition of poor was also broader: Students qualified for the funds if the were eligible for reduced-price lunch, not just free lunch.

P.S. 9 was one of a handful of schools that had only recently fallen below the 60 percent mark to be “grandfathered” into the tighter eligibility requirements and given an extra year of funding to cushion the impending loss. This year’s cutoff marks the end of the grandfathering period.

The school isn’t losing all of its Title I funding, according to its budget for next year posted on the Department of Education’s website. It is set to receive $30,204 in money allocated for homeless students, although that amount could change because the funding is tied to the student rather than to the school.

That’s not enough to ensure that the funding shortfall doesn’t erase the progress the school has made over the past several years, parents say.

“For those of us who cannot afford to send their children to private schools, public education is are only choice, but we want it to be a good choice,” said Candace Hurley, whose daughter is in the school’s gifted program.

“I intend to slip the letter under Hakeem Jeffries’ door because he’s my neighbor, and he’s running for Congress,” added Hurley. “With this kind of shortage, I don’t know what else to do. We’ve got to get those connected to help us out.”