The 1930s façade of Brooklyn Technical High School hides classrooms outfitted with the kind of technology that would be the envy of many colleges. Students can create short films on iMacs in a computer animation class, program robotic arms to learn about computer-assisted manufacturing and run experiments in a new genetics lab. Much of the funding for these high-tech facilities came from a source that is unusual in the world of public, secondary education: alumni.
Since 2008, the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation has raised $20 million in a five-year campaign to improve the school’s facilities and curriculum. This level of fundraising is common among the well-heeled alumni and parents of the city’s private schools. Now it seems that more public schools are catching on to the idea. Brooklyn Tech is one of the public schools whose alumni associations provide significant financial support to their alma maters. Bronx Science, Stuyvesant and Townsend Harris are all in the midst of their own funding campaigns. As education budgets shrink, the city’s top high schools are increasingly looking to alumni donors to help them keep their competitive edge.
All public schools have been impacted by cuts to city and state education funds, but the city’s specialized high schools face a daunting challenge. Students are accepted to these schools based on their performances on a standardized test. Admission is highly competitive. Some schools are regularly ranked among the top 100 in the nation by U.S. World and News Report and have a reputation for sending graduates onto Ivy League colleges. Students, parents and the education department expect the specialized schools to compete academically with elite private schools. However, they do not receive extra funding to do so.
“There will always be a funding gap between what the city can provide and what the kids need,” said Randy Asher, principal of Brooklyn Tech. “When the city is funding just the basics, the things that get cut are advanced courses and that’s what we offer.”
Indeed, Brooklyn Tech’s course offerings go far beyond those of the average neighborhood school. All freshmen take a foundation course in which they use 3D modeling techniques to solve engineering problems. Students later choose from majors such as aerospace and biomedical engineering. The costs of training staff to teach these specialty courses and providing students with the appropriate tools are not covered by the standard city budget.
Mathew Mandery, CEO of the Brooklyn Tech Alumni Foundation, said that is why he helped to form the non-profit organization when he was principal of the school in the early 1980s. Mandery and his assistant principal at the time were both Tech alumni. They realized that the school was missing out on a huge pool of resources, financial and otherwise, by not developing a relationship with its many successful graduates.
“There was this realization that Brooklyn Tech, with its very special mission to be a top school in math and science, needed more than it was being given,” he said.
Over the years the alumni have raised money to modernize the library, build new computer labs and start a permanent endowment for the school, but the “21/21 campaign” (to raise $21 million to equip the school for the 21st century) is by far their largest undertaking. The number of alumni contributing to the effort is 6,000, up to 9,000 when tickets for alumni events are taken into consideration.
Bronx Science, one of the city’s other top high schools, also receives support from its alumni association. In addition to the nearly $1 million raised each year in dues and small donations, the Bronx Science Alumni Association is in the midst of its largest campaign to date. So far they’ve raised $7 million towards a $20 million goal.
According to Christina Bater, chairperson of the Bronx Science Endowment Fund, the money is being used to update science labs and relocate the school’s unique collection of 80,000 Holocaust artifacts to a renovated space. Alumni donations also help to support many of the schools essential programs such as Advanced Placement classes and a new engineering program. Bater says that she thinks more schools will start to draw on their alumni base to fulfill their educational wish lists.
“Even where I live in New Jersey, we saw the need 10 years ago and started to raise money for all of the extras that will never be in the budget,” she says. “I think more schools – public and private—are going to start doing that.”
Alumni groups that raise funds for public schools are still relatively rare, but some people question whether this type of fundraising is the best solution to fix what ails an underfunded public school system. Zakiyah Amsari is from the advocacy group the Alliance for Quality Education, which advocates for funding for public education. She would rather see that effort put into restoring some of the public money for education that has been cut statewide.
“You have a school like Brooklyn Tech reaching out to alumni. I think every school would do that if they could,” Amsari said. “The point I’m trying to get across is that the things that schools like Brooklyn Tech are trying to fund –art, music, AP courses – these are things that all schools should have.”
These types of targeted donations, much like those from PTAs, can also raise questions about creating further inequalities in an already inequitable public school system. When some public schools struggle to provide textbooks for their students, is it ok for others to have Smart Boards in every classroom?
Bater points out that the specialized high schools like Bronx Science serve many students who live below the poverty level. Almost one-third of the student body qualified for free or reduced price lunch in 2009. Without the extra support from alumni, the specialized high schools would not be able to provide the quality experience for which they are known to any of their students.
“In order to make sure that the school is as a good as people think it is,” Bater said “we really have to be thinking and planning for the future.”