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Parent volunteers build a new playground at Dr. R.E. McKechnie Elementary school in Vancouver on Sunday.

Jimmy Jeong

As the classic rock blares and the coffee flows, parent volunteers are raising the monkey bars, screwing in the slides and pouring the concrete for a new playground during an unseasonably warm and dry February Sunday in Vancouver's wealthy Kerrisdale neighbourhood.

Moms and dads of the roughly 260 students at Dr. R.E. McKechnie Elementary school raised more than $60,000 over the past three years, and about a dozen donated their labour to complete the project.

Dale Raskob, an engineer and lead volunteer, said he and other parents were more than happy to give money to their Parent Advisory Council (PAC) to build the facility at McKechnie, which ranked 11th among all Vancouver public schools in private funding per student, according to new data detailing tax-receipted contributions.

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"Funding is not where it was, so you do what you need to do," he said Sunday morning as he hammered in anchors to support a swinging bridge. "It's in the best interest of our kids and it's just what's required of the times."

To fund McKechnie's new playground, Mr. Raskob said parents were asked for a cash donation in each of the past several years "instead of selling almonds and poinsettias and stuff."

Those fundraising initiatives once exacerbated the gap between the have and have-not students, but new data show that schools in Vancouver's poorest postal codes are drawing even more private money than their wealthy counterparts such as McKechnie. They have done so by leveraging traditional and social media to shine a light on the inequities faced by their students.

The Downtown Eastside's Admiral Seymour Elementary school brought in the fourth-largest amount of private donations in the city last school year, despite having a small PAC with very limited resources that only ever asks its parents to pay as much as they are able.

Such cash drives would be impossible at Seymour, and inner-city teacher Carrie Gelson says she was "pushed over the edge" four years ago when a friend told her about the way parents at rich schools made scheduled donations in lieu of fundraising throughout the year. That led her to pen an open letter "to the people of Vancouver" describing how she and other teachers at Seymour had been struggling to feed and clothe their students.

Her letter went viral and jump-started the Vancouver Sun's Adopt-A-School campaign, which has since raised more than $1.4-million in cash and hundreds of thousands of dollars in materials and services for schools grappling with the effects of child poverty.

"I'm happy there's awareness, I'm happy that people are talking about it, but I don't want it to be the model of 'Oh, the response to that is donations and then everything's solved,'" Ms. Gelson said.

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Seymour principal Bruce Murton said the art therapist, hot-lunch programs, clothing drives, field trips to places such as Stanley Park and better classroom technology have all helped students improve their lives and academic performance, but that help can only go so far when children return from school each day to difficult conditions.

"What we do here is wondrous and how we support and work and teach kids has been greatly enhanced by the support we've got," Mr. Murton said. "But the underlying piece: they still go home to the same thing they did before.

"Our core purpose is teaching learning, our core purpose is not social services, but it would be disingenuous to think that we ought not to take care of some of these basic needs before we sit down and try to teach them math, reading or anything else," Mr. Murton said.

Increasingly, Mr. Murton said his time is being spent asking local businesses to support his students with in-kind donations. He said he is always trying to combat "learned helplessness and a sense of entitlement" among the kids and fatigue among the donors by building reciprocal relationships that involve volunteering at school.

"The people who receive: if they don't have a chance to give, they learn only half the equation," Mr. Murton said. "And if you're always giving, you get burned out after a while."

Nicole Makohoniuk, president of the B.C. Confederation of Parent Advisory Councils, said PACs in school districts across the province vary in what they decide to fund, but, for those that are able, smaller capital projects such as playgrounds are a top priority.

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She added that in addition to poorer schools seeking funding from businesses and the community, she would like to see wealthier PACs step up to divert funds raised to their less-fortunate counterparts, something that she said hasn't happened yet in British Columbia but is a growing movement in Toronto.

"I would love to see a have-school mentor sponsor a have-not school – that would be a very cool thing," Ms. Makohoniuk said.

Christopher Richardson, chairman of the Vancouver School Board, said that by necessity his district will have to look at alternative sources to fill in the funding gaps, while adhering to its strict policy of avoiding strings-attached corporate donations and keeping advertising out of the classroom.

"But the other side is we have to make it very clear that we are not letting our primary funder off the hook," Mr. Richardson said. "This is not a exercise in zero-sum gain, where you raise money and the provincial government uses that as justification to cut budgets."

Fellow VSB trustee Patti Bacchus said for decades parents have been fundraising to purchase "extras like a kiln for the art room or basketball uniforms" in the absence of consistent provincial funding, but she worries that it is already contributing to the underfunding of the public system.

"What we're seeing is it become more and more a part of what I call 'the shadow budget' that is keeping the school system running," Ms. Bacchus said. "Not just in terms of education, but in that we're feeding kids, we're doing all kinds of things that we may not have had as great a need to do in the past."

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Ms. Gelson said that she is incredibly grateful for the public's response to her letter, but wishes people would become more politically aware and demand the provincial government take more concrete steps to tackle a child-poverty rate that has been the highest in the country for a decade.

"In schools like mine where there is concentrated poverty, 50 to 70 per cent of your [kindergarten] kids are already vulnerable, already behind.

"And all of that is not the school system – they haven't even hit school yet."

For a sortable list of fundraising totals at Vancouver public schools, go to http://tgam.ca/EINQ.

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