A group of seven elementary school PTAs in South Seattle has secured $100,000 in funding to help families make it through the current financial crisis.

The gift marks one of the Seattle Foundation’s largest awards for coronavirus relief to date.

In addition to its size, this type of grant is relatively rare. The Seattle Foundation, one of the city’s major philanthropic nonprofits that awards about $125 million yearly, seldom receives or grants requests for funding from parent-teacher associations. PTAs traditionally fund school services and supplies, and the Foundation, which is focused on funding advocacy initiatives, doesn’t normally award money for education causes or direct services.

But as schools have seen soaring requests from families for rent assistance and help with other basic expenses due to the pandemic and economic downturn, some PTAs are playing a large role in helping quench immediate need, and the Foundation is taking a different approach to funding.

The PTAs — located at Beacon Hill, Maple, Dearborn Park, John Muir, Kimball, Rising Star and Wing Luke elementary schools — won the money from a $4.6 million pot the Foundation set up for emergency assistance to families.

Only about half the 252 applicants received funding from this grant, according to the Foundation. What made the PTA coalition stand out? The way it planned to distribute the money, with the most going to PTAs at schools with the highest percentages of students living in poverty. The school that led the charge, Beacon Hill International Elementary School, where about 50% of students are from low-income households, plans to take the least, about $1,000. Rising Star, which is 80% low-income, will get the most, about $28,000.

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“It really acknowledged the inequities of funding in schools,” said Aaron Robertson, managing director of policy and engagement for the Foundation.

Geography also played a part, with South Seattle being the city’s most racially diverse area and a hub for refugees.

PTAs have been criticized for giving already wealthy schools an extra boost. In some cases, parents have donated the equivalent of an entire teacher’s salary to protect a school from staffing cuts. But the Foundation’s grant comes at a time when some are rethinking their approach by sharing extra dollars with schools with more needs and less affluent parents. The Seattle Council PTSA, an umbrella organization that provides assistance and guidance to all of the PTAs within Seattle Public Schools, is researching some models that would make this possible.

The grant awarded to the PTAs is a small example of how such a system could work. Beacon Hill’s PTA board members realized their school, located in a gentrifying and mixed-income area, was relatively well-off compared to their neighbors, and decided to use their might to apply for the grant on behalf of other schools.

Callista Chen, a parent and incoming president for the Beacon Hill PTA, had experience with grant-writing, and helped spearhead the effort.

“Maybe it’s not the perfect solution,” said Chen. “But we saw there was a need. There is a school in our coalition that had a budget of about $8,000, and our budget next year is $50,000.” Some schools in Seattle don’t even have a PTA. Chen said they would be a good place for the PTA to focus its efforts in the future.

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During the pandemic, PTAs have helped provide immediate relief to families that need it, in ways that are sometimes faster or more far-reaching than government assistance. That’s especially true for undocumented families, many of whom who do not qualify for federal assistance and are afraid of attracting attention to their immigration status if they fill out forms for aid.

Without that assistance from PTAs, things would have been “disastrous,” said Hedwight Amoda, a parent and PTA member at Wing Luke Elementary. The PTA assistance has provided parents with financial breathing room, she said. As a single mom with two children, she’s been able use grocery store gift cards donated by her PTA.

“Obviously something is wrong with the system if your PTA is scrambling to get money to get kids basic needs,” said Beacon Hill’s Chen. “In an ideal world, there would be a social safety net, where even if it were a pandemic, there wouldn’t be a situation where families didn’t have enough to eat.”

Under the grant requirements, Beacon Hill, Maple, Dearborn Park, John Muir, Kimball, Rising Star and Wing Luke elementary schools will have to spend the money on immediate needs for families — anything from help with bills to internet.

Those PTAs are now figuring out the best way to spend the money they receive. At Wing Luke Elementary School, which will receive more than $18,000, all but about $2,000 of the funds will go toward helping families with rent and utility bills.