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Cesar Chavez and Buena Vista are a few blocks from each other, but on academic terms, they may as well be on different planets. At Cesar Chavez only 33 percent of its 461 students are proficient in math, compared to more than half of Buena Vista’s 372 students.

One of the differences, educators point to, is parent involvement.

Parent involvement makes a huge difference, said Karling Aguilera-Fort, assistant superintendent of the school district.

A look at the two schools and others in the Mission District demonstrates the importance of parent involvement, but it also underscores the advantage even a small core of active middle class parents can offer a school.  Inevitably, the latter means that the school can rely on parents for extra time – to help with academics or fundraising.

“I’m one of the fortunate parents to be able to spend the time here,” said Avis Casimir, president of the Buena Vista PTA.

Avis Casimir and her daughter at Buena Vista Elementary.

Casimir spends much of her time on campus and fundraising for programs and supplies for the dual immersion school.

As she watched her kids play ball in the sunny schoolyard, Casimir estimated that about 20 parents come to the monthly meetings. Jessica Lanning, treasurer, said about 35 to 40 parents are active in the parent group.

“We have a very dependable group that when you ask for something, it’s done,” Casimir said.

Nearby, at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, Alberto del Rio, the treasurer of the parent group there, tells a different story. At his kids’ school, parents are working two to three jobs to survive.  Life is stressful in other ways as well.  Many live in crowded apartments and some worry about their immigration status.

To get parents involved, he has to “literally go out and ask.” Even then, he said, some are reluctant because they lack legal papers.

It’s not that parents don’t care, educators and parents said.  They simply don’t have the time.  Yanira Cortes, a mother whose 2nd grader goes to Cesar Chavez, for example, said her work as a nanny prevents her from joining the parent teacher organization. Instead, she contributes what she can – Kleenex for classrooms and snacks on Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Even a small core of actively involved parents can make a huge difference. A case in point is Marshall Elementary, a language immersion school where nearly 84 percent of the 232 students are on the free and reduced lunch program – more than the 78 percent at Cesar Chavez.

From 2002 to 2005, the school’s scores dropped, with some 31 percent proficient in math in 2005.

Eos de Femenis, a member of the Marshall Elementary parent group, said parents started the PTA in 2006 when they felt that the school wasn’t meeting its goals as a science-focused institution.

Its PTA, though small, is dedicated and the same year it began in 2006, scores started to rise.

“At our school, the active people are the middle class Caucasian people – a corps group of five people,” said Ellen Opie, a parent and nurse practitioner.

Although its math scores fell in 2008, they’ve climbed overall and now 52.7 percent of the students are proficient in math. Marshall students won 1st place at the regional “Odyssey of the Mind” tournament this year in a competition against 140 East Bay schools. It was the only San Francisco school to compete. The PTA raises funds for the competition.

“That’s the kind of stuff that makes the PTA so critical,” said Opie.

De Femenis says even though the majority of the students who participated were from middle class families, the success story helps illustrate that students from a low-performing inner city school can perform better than kids from high-performing schools. But, she added that the real test of a school’s teaching ability would be if low-income students from a low-performing school excelled in school.

But here, too, Marshall is doing better than other schools. Forty-six percent of its Latino students were proficient in math compared to the only 35.4 for Latinos citywide.

“Those of us who have nine to five jobs and have time on the weekends and evenings, are the ones on the PTA board,” said de Femenis. “But rather than lamenting the fact that the Latino community is not involved on the board level, I see different time and availability and skill sets.”

But the difference between a parent who helps make snacks for the kids and a parent who writes grants – is money.

Marshall raised $70,000 last year – the largest sum in the group’s history – mostly in grants and a small number of parent contributions. That’s meant more funding for field trips, like one to the Marin headlands and to programs like Ocean’s Month, where students get hands-on science experience.

Buena Vista’s PTA raised about $30,000 — a third of its yearly budget — at its annual La Gran Pachanga, held at a south of Market gallery. With those funds, it will be able to pay for staff that’s being cut.

In contrast, Bryant parents have $2,000 in their organization’s annual budget. Cesar Chavez’s parent group has between $5,000 and $10,000.

Adelina Aramburo, the principal of Cesar Chavez, a school where test scores have inched up the last two years to nearly 33 percent of its students proficient in math, holds monthly principal chats to raise parent involvement, but still the participation in the parent group remains low.

However, when parents recently discovered that the school was on a list of 188 under-performing schools and had a state mandate that requires the principal and half of its faculty to be replaced, parents rallied to Aramburo’s defense and 70 attended a meeting. Del Rio hopes to see that level of parent involvement continue.