When the 2009-2010 school year was two weeks from its end, a group of Fremont parents and students set out to raise $2 million in a fervent effort to save teachers’ jobs and keep class sizes small. The idea was not theirs alone—the volunteers noted what so many communities have done throughout the nation and across the San Francisco Bay Area, in cities such as Walnut Creek, Danville, Cupertino, Campbell, Livermore, Castro Valley, and San Ramon.
“We started much later (in the school year) than the others,” says Subra Nathan, a father of twin 8-year-old boys who attend school in the Fremont Unified School District. “But we had an eager bunch—our volunteers worked around the clock.”
In late May, a dozen or so concerned parents publicly expressed concern over the $20-$30 million cuts to the Fremont Unified School District during a meeting on the issue. Virgina Hom, a parent in the district, formed the grassroots group SaveFremontStudents (SFS), and they began taking donations in early June and continued throughout the summer.
Nathan, a tech consultant, co-leads SFS with Hom. For Nathan, the desire to get involved was immediate. “I was hearing a lot about budget cuts and that specialty teachers were going to be cut,” he says. “I was boiling over the compromise to my children’s education and I knew that this anger wasn’t going to solve anything unless I took action.” For a fundraising model, SFS looked its neighbors. “We largely followed what had been done in Cupertino,” Nathan explains.
Parents in Cupertino, a city about 25 miles southwest of Fremont, ran an impressive campaign raising $2 million and saving over 100 teaching positions by May. Trying to play catch up, SFS began their efforts by holding nightly presentations in the last two weeks of the school year to inform parents and children about the cuts and SFS’s goals. Krishnan Iyer, an SFS lead volunteer, facilitated many of the presentations with a PowerPoint slideshow, which illustrated the devastating effects of the cuts with charts and graphs, and an impassioned speech. “California is the fifth largest economy in the world, yet we cannot fund our education,” he says, addressing a group of around 10 parents. “We have a problem.”
He asked for parents to get personally involved in the campaign, and for each household in the district to donate $475, “a sum of $7.60 per day,” says Iyer, a software developer who has a second-grader in the Fremont Unified School District.
In the upcoming weeks, SFS grew to accommodate nearly 300 volunteers, and organized shopping days, in which participating vendors donated a portion of their proceeds for a day to SFS, fairs, galas, and dozens of awareness-raising campaigns.
A State in Crisis
The California Teachers Association says that the $17 billion reduction in education statewide in the past two years is “the single largest cut since the Great Depression.” Schools are being shut down, classrooms are being consolidated, and teachers are out of work. According to the association, 26,000 teaching jobs have been cut in the state alone, and K-12 education has taken 60 percent of the cuts.
The cuts, which equal approximately $3,000 per student, have been visible. Increasing demands are being put upon parents of K-12 students who are asked to contribute more and more school supplies for the classroom. Some districts have eliminated courses marked as extracurricular such as physical education, music, and art, or charge students fees. On Sept. 10, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit against the state of California for permitting public schools to charge students for classes, books, P.E. uniforms, and other supplies. The suit was brought on behalf of two Orange County students, “Jane Doe” and “Jason Roe,” and names 35 districts that require the fees, violating California’s Constitution that entitles each public school student free and equal education. Among the schools named, the lawsuit alleges that art and photography classes at Arcadia High School cost $20-$35, the California Academy of Math and Science in Long Beach charges $30 for P.E. uniforms, Mountain View High charges up to $125 for art lab fees, cosmetology courses at Calaveras High run at $535, and Northwood High in Irvine charges $125-$150 for AP science courses.
College students have also been struggling to make their voices heard in retaining access to public education. In March, college students fought 32 percent tuition hikes with walkouts and rallies across the state, sometimes barricading exits and confronting riot police. Time magazine called it “a scene out of the angry 1960s,” and students hoped their efforts would lead to alternative solutions. Yet the tuition increases went into place as planned—along with a reduction in many courses, leading to overcrowded classrooms and delayed graduations. To impact the issue further, while college applications are at a high, some colleges and departments have suspended incoming enrollment indefinitely.SaveFremontStudents formed to mitigate the escalating reductions in education in their district, though not everyone is in support of their methods.
According to USA Today, various national education associations discourage parents from raising funds for schools and instead want communities to hold officials accountable for the deficits. Associations such as the national PTA call on communities and officials to find long-term resolutions, rather than reaching short-term fundraising goals. But for some Fremont parents and students, putting their faith in legislative solutions felt too risky. “Something had to be done before the cuts,” Nathan says.
According to the 2006-2008 American Community Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, 47 percent of Fremont’s population is Asian, with 16 percent identified as Asian Indian and 17 percent identified as Chinese.
“While many ethnicities were involved, it was these two groups that really drove the campaign,” Nathan says. “They urged their families to contribute, and the donor profile matches the groups most involved.” Noting the enthusiasm of SFS’s donors, Nathan says, “Our average donation was $1,000, though we only asked for $475.”
SFS student volunteer Rebecca Xing says, “There are cultural differences between East Asians and South Asians, but if you look at the organization and its leadership, Virginia Hom and Subra Nathan who are Chinese and Indian (respectively), it was a good representation of the community. And the community really came together to try to save education in Fremont.”
Though it may have been the parents who were most vocal in the group, Nathan says it was the students who showed up in big numbers—in total, there were 120 parents and 170 students—and, he says, it was the students who contributed the most successful ideas to the campaign. “The students really came with their ideas,” says Nathan. “For example, fifth-graders tutored other kids, charging $8 an hour, and raised $1,000. Others made and sold crafts and jewelry. A number of students went to the farmers market and sang and performed, raising $2,500 over four Sundays.
“They also conducted bake sales, cookie sales, talent shows, hot chocolate stands—they emptied their piggy banks. One child gave the $1,080 he earned through a sacred Indian celebration,” he says.
In addition, students manned tables at community centers, libraries, and shopping centers, and organized door-to-door campaigns and promotional events.
“These were all their ideas,” Nathan says.
Xing, who graduated from Fremont’s Mission San Jose High School in June, was largely involved in the SFS campaign, co-leading the student-run part of the group with fellow student David Cao. The committee raised $4,000 in a block sale, among their other efforts.
Xing’s motivation to get involved was sparked by the possible loss of a favorite teacher. “There were rumors that Mr. (Charlie) Brucker would be let go, and he had played such an instrumental role in my education that I attended the first meeting (where SFS was formed),” she says. “I wanted to see what could be done.”
The Fremont group reached only a quarter of their goal—$510,000 to date—though they view the campaign as a success.
“We saved four teaching jobs in the elementary schools,” Nathan says. In addition, the group will allocate 27 percent of the funds to the 11 secondary schools in the city.
Xing says she never doubted the effect of student involvement. “I didn’t see us as simple pawns without power. I knew if all of us got together, we were not powerless to save at least some teachers.”
Nadia Maiwandi is the Calendar Editor at India Currents.