Joyner PTA carving out entrepreneurial niche

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — It’s a sign of the season: As children prepare to return to classrooms after summer break, parents swarm big box stores with teachers’ lists in hand in a last-minute scramble to find the right pencils, paper and school supplies.

This year, the PTA at J.Y. Joyner Elementary School in Raleigh tried to make August’s return to school a little easier for its families with a new bulk pre-order plan, believed to be one of the first of its kind in the Wake County public schools.

The PTA project aims not only to save parents the hassle of last-minute shopping, but also to donate supplies to children whose parents otherwise might not be able to afford them.

Last spring, the PTA gave Joyner families the option of paying $37 to pre-order their children’s classroom supplies for the coming school year, based on lists of supplies that teachers at each grade level said children needed.

Forty percent of families participated, an unusually high percentage for schools first joining the pre-order program, says Amy Fullbright, president of the Joyner PTA and a government affairs counselor at K&L Gates.

So when students and parents arrived at Joyner on August 22 for “Meet Your Teacher” night, half of them found the supplies they needed waiting in their classrooms, including 70 kids whose supplies were donated through purchases by other parents.

The bulk purchase also benefits teachers because it gives them a better sense of which students have supplies and which still need them, Fullbright says.

Kathryn Hutchinson, Joyner’s principal, says the PTA supports “not only our teachers and our community, but they look for ways to support our families.”

And with roughly just over one in five of Joyner’s 708 students and 18 pre-kindergarten students qualifying for lunch that is free or at a reduced price, the PTA program fills an important gap.

“These are typically children who are not bringing any supplies at all,” Fullbright says. “They cannot afford it or they just don’t have the opportunity to get them.”

Because the PTAs at Hunter and Underwood elementary schools also are using the pre-order program, based on its referral, the Joyner PTA will receive 5 percent of revenue from purchases those PTAs make through their common supplier, Educational Products in Carrollton, Tex.

Fullbright estimates that total will be enough to buy supplies for another 25 children at Joyner who otherwise could not afford them.

Operating with an annual budget of roughly $50,000, the Joyner PTA has about 350 paying members and about 100 active volunteers.

The PTA uses its revenue from membership fees to support programs at Joyner that include science and arts activities, team problem-solving, recognition of students’ academic achievement, and small grants for teachers.

It also helps support a “Backpack Buddies” effort that provides food for nearly 100 children to take home for the weekend.

And in a time of shrinking public support for schools, PTAs like the one at Joyner are working to be more innovative.

Two years ago, Joyner PTA applied for a grant from the City of Raleigh to install three “bio-retention cells” to collect and filter rain from the flat roof of the school’s gym and divert it from eroding the school’s sloping campus. The PTA agreed to provide one-fourth of the cost of the roughly $28,000 project.

The rainwater from the roof now will percolate through the three bio-retention cells, which will function as “rain gardens” that students will use to cultivate native plants, says Meriwether Fentress, a landscape architect and member of Joyner’s PTA.

Fentress collaborated with engineers to design the project, wrote the grant application and developed a curriculum to guide students in helping to maintain the garden. Under the terms of the grant with the city, the PTA is responsible for maintaining the garden.

Fullbright says that, in a tough economy, the PTA “provides important programs and volunteers that are supporting children and families in ways that are not provided by the state and county budget.”

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