The parents (and teachers and friends and neighbors) at Parent Prom are reliving their prom night, complete with a band, a DJ, an event space transformed by decorations, a photo booth and food and drink. Of course, at this prom earlier this month, the drinks contain alcohol, and it's OK if they go home with their dates.
To honor another time in their lives, pictures of attendees during their awkward years are projected onto the wall of the Getaway Motor Club. There are a lot of senior prom and senior pictures in the loop.
"Parent Prom is 100 percent more fun than my actual high school prom experience," says organizer Elizabeth McQueen.
In high school, she says, she was worried about what people thought of her. At Parent Prom, "What we really want to be able to do is let go and dance all this stuff out."
Parent Prom began four years ago when McQueen, who hosts a Saturday afternoon radio show on KUTX, joined the Maplewood Elementary School PTA. "Knowing nothing about PTA, I spoke up during a meeting that Lee Elementary has an adults-only fundraiser." The response she got was, "Great! You're in charge," she says.
She came up with Parent Prom because, she says, even though she is an adult with 10-year-old and 7-year-old daughters, "I personally don't feel like a grown-up a large part of the time even though I have to act like one." Parent Prom allows parents to "lean into this feeling of 'I'm still a kid.'"
"It gives us a chance to relive our youth, but with Uber," said Sarah Gaventa, who has a second-grader at the school.
Parent Prom raises about $11,000 each year through sponsorships and silent auction items. It's free to attend to allow everyone in this economically diverse school community to come.
It's all money that goes back into supporting the school for literacy programs, supplies for teachers, a new maker space and more. It's one of several fundraisers the school's parents and teachers do to augment a shrinking discretionary budget provided by the school district through the property taxes it collects.
School funding has come to the forefront nationwide as teachers have gone on strike in the last year over their pay, classroom sizes and the funds they receive to run their classroom.
The Texas Commission on Public School Finance recommended increasing funding as well as updates to the way school funds are allocated. It also advocated for an incentive program for teachers based on student performance. During this year's legislative session, lawmakers have also introduced bills in the House and the Senate that would require a comprehensive review of public school finance.
On Monday, Texas PTA is holding a rally day to encourage members to talk about school finance and improving education.
The Texas PTA doesn't keep statistics on how much funding parent-teacher groups are contributing to schools annually, but each year, parents through their PTAs have had to get more creative about how to fund programs and supplies that their kids wouldn't have without the PTA.
They sell everything from mattresses to chocolates and gift wrap. They host spirit nights at local restaurants, during which a percentage of the bill goes to that school's PTA. They host carnivals and fun runs, movie nights and coffee houses. And they ask parents for donations of items and money.
While many schools and student organizations end up selling items (think Girl Scout cookies and wrapping paper), Maplewood has not used that model. "Any fundraiser with a cash bar is preferable to going door to door," said parent Jeff Luci.
"It's a nice bonding moment to enjoy the parents without having the children there," said his wife, Kim Luci.
The need for funds feels larger each year. Maplewood Principal Vickie Jacobson says she doesn't know what they will do next year, when she's anticipating a drop in her district-provided discretionary fund from $43,000 to $35,000 a year. She uses that fund to pay for things like notebooks for kids who can't afford school supplies.
Maplewood, which is in East Austin north of 35 ½ Street and between Interstate 35 and Airport Boulevard, is economically diverse. It's not poor enough to be considered a Title I school, which has to have 40 percent of students in lower-income families, but many of the families qualify for the free lunch program. The school has a food pantry and a clothing closet because of the number of students who need them.
This year, the PTA focused its funds on increasing literacy at the school by hiring a part-time reading specialist and paying for programs like the Paramount Theatre's Story Wranglers, which helped third-graders work on story creation. It also focused on teacher support in the classroom. It gives each grade level a $1,000 grant that it can use on programming like field trips or supplies that grade needs. It provides support staff such as the custodians and the cafeteria workers gifts at the holidays.
The PTA has leaned on the skills of its parents. It has used connections to get sponsorships, to get items donated and to apply for grants. "This school is very much a grassroots organization," says parent Alison Thompson, who has a third-grader there.
"Each school community has to find something that works for them," said Amber Welsh, PTA co-president, who has a third-grader, a first-grader and one in preschool. Before kids, she was a teacher at schools that qualified for Title I funding, where parents did a lot of selling small items like popcorn at events. You have to leverage what your parents' strengths are, she says.
For Maplewood, that has meant parent Jennifer Potter-Miller, who is good at writing grants and has a passion for landscaping, applied for an urban forestry grant and got $27,000 to plant trees and create an outdoor classroom.
Librarian Amanda Braziel has augmented what the school and PTA can give her for funding with a grant for $10,000 to create a maker space in the school in addition to the book sale that funds the library. "I'm always on the lookout" for funding and opportunities to bring to the school, she says. And she makes things last by taping together books and buying hardcover books instead of paperbacks because she knows they will last longer. "I use all my skills," she says.
The PTA is helping her by funding support staff in the library while she is running the maker space.
PTA also has been helping the school counselor do more with social emotional learning at the school. PTA Co-President Stephanie Perrone sees that as important dollars spent. "We're trying to bring about change," she says. "They are learning to be kind at our school."
While Parent Prom served its purpose of bringing about 175 people under one roof to dance and have fun, to connect with the school community, it also provided some of the lifeblood of this school.
"We wouldn't be able to do a whole lot of things without them," says Jacobson of the PTA. "The more we get in the budget crisis we are in, the more important their help is."