AmPark fundraiser provides yearlong opportunities

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The AmPark Neighborhood School parent association annual fundraiser is serious fun.

Friends of the school gathered at Amalgamated Houses’ Vladeck Hall last month to mingle and bid on items donated by some 130 local businesses.

“The night’s a celebration of community, of our kids, and what we can do together because we really have had to come together to achieve this,” event organizer Alisha Speciale said.

Speciale worked tirelessly with members of the school staff and 25 parent volunteers for three months to make the evening perfect. Each classroom collaborated on art projects entered into the silent auction, many of which were the focus of intense parent bidding.

“I volunteered to help out because all the money raised here goes straight back to our students and helps our teachers,” parent Robyn Spiegel said.

Since the parent association fundraiser began some six years ago, it’s become vital to funding AmPark’s classroom enrichment programs.

“There are always issues of the school not getting money from certain sources that usually come through,” Speciale said. “As the PA, we try to pick up the slack where we can.”

AmPark doesn’t have the largest school budget, parents association president Odaliz Nieves said. But it does have a strong sense of community.

“We’re not a Title 1 school, so funding really comes from the grants the school is able to get for certain programs,” Nieves said. “The PA will fundraise if there’s something the school needs but doesn’t have money for in the school budget.”

This year, grants and parent association funding paid to provide each grade with an enrichment project. First grade classes partnered with the Salvadori Center, for example, to learn more about math and engineering by teaching them to build 3-D models of their neighborhoods. The New York Historical Society partnered with fourth graders to explore art and artifacts.

“The principal took a certain amount out of the school budget to pay for them, but couldn’t do the whole thing,” Nieves said. “That’s when she approached the PA and asked if there was any way we could help, rather than them charge the parents.”

These hands-on activities don’t take the place of classroom lessons, principal Kelly Lennon-Fitzpatrick said, but they provide the extras that really make the learning experience special for students.

“It helps teachers take students on field trips or just buy a software license to allow their class to use a certain math program,” Lennon said. “It gives us the flexibility and freedom to layer on some of the experiences we’d like for all the students to have.”

About 80 percent of the funds raised at the event goes to fund teacher grants, Nieves said. Schools typically lack the money to buy classroom supplies, necessary equipment and supplemental educational materials. Most of these needs are paid for directly out of the teacher’s pocket with no chance to be reimbursed. Class sizes are growing, and providing special items or experiences to each student can get pricey.

“As we all know, teachers don’t make a ton of money,” Nieves said. “The PA president before me began teacher grants as a thank you for putting in their personal money and effort to provide learning opportunities that students wouldn’t get anywhere else.”

In the past, the parent association reimbursed each teacher between $300 and $600 for anything they’ve bought for the class out of their own money.

Fundraising also helps AmPark afford the Wellness in the Schools program, which provides a healthy alternative menu for breakfast and lunch. The program’s chefs cook all meals on-site using fresh ingredients. Three times a year, chefs go into the classroom to teach students how to prepare a healthy recipe. They explain the health benefits of a nutritious diet with plenty of colorful fruits and vegetables.

Without the parent association’s help, teachers wouldn’t be able to provide the experiences that make learning exciting.

“Definitely not,” third-grade teacher Casey Burns said. “It helps so much.”

When funding shrinks or vanishes completely, most schools lose electives like art and music, along with other enrichment programs integral to a well-rounded education, Nieves said. AmPark parents and teachers have worked hard to keep these programs and expose students to as much culture as possible.

“The more money you take away from the schools, the less students learn and the less they look forward to being in school,” Nieves said. “If you show them you’re invested in what they’re learning and doing, students are excited to learn.”

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