Steele and Asbury elementary schools are separated by a five-minute drive along South Downing Street, but in many ways they’re worlds apart. Steele has teaching assistants in every classroom. Asbury doesn’t. Steele offers classes in drama instruction. Asbury doesn’t. Steele has a garden in which students grow, harvest, and prepare produce. Asbury doesn’t. How can two public schools in such close proximity and with similarly stellar academic reputations feature such disparate offerings? The answer lies behind the scenes, with the PTA.

Once a feel-good organization dedicated to advocacy, community building, and the occasional bake sale, the PTA has become a crucial fund-raising tool for public schools. Each year Steele’s PTA raises between $100,000 and $150,000. “We have to fill in the gaps where funding is low,” says Liz Adams, Steele’s former PTA president. “Not enough of DPS funding trickles down to the classroom.”

Steele’s PTA boasts 133 members for a school of 435 students. Many of its expenditures are for academic extras; the group has occasionally paid for reading and math specialists. Then there’s what Adams calls the frosting: guest speakers, family-centric events, and field trips. Its two major annual fund-raisers netted more than $90,000 last year, and the group solicits tax-deductible donations to its Academic Development Fund and plans “Steele Eats Out” nights, in which Steele families eat at local restaurants, which return a percentage of sales to the school.

At Asbury, parents laud the school for its academic offerings, and they often step up for tasks like chaperoning field trips or leading art projects. “Our teachers are dedicated; the turnover rate is very low,” says Nancy Rice, the PTA co-president for the previous two years. Yet Asbury’s PTA fund-raising and membership efforts have paled next to Steele’s.

Asbury’s PTA focuses on “behind the scenes” fund-raising, a mission complicated by its low membership and the distraction of having to solicit money for items that DPS should theoretically be funding. One year the group had to pay to lease the copy machine in the main office, and for several years the PTA bought math workbooks. During the 2007-’08 school year, Asbury’s PTA raised almost $12,000 for after-school programs, community-building events, and books.

Though Steele and Asbury reside in adjacent middle- and upper-middle-class neighborhoods, the socioeconomic differences are still significant. Many Steele families have only one working parent or ones whose hours are flexible—such as small-business owners or dot-com employees who work from home. Also, Asbury’s enrollment spiked in recent years after a nearby elementary school closed and many of those students—primarily Hispanic—joined Asbury’s ranks. To help Spanish-speaking parents feel more comfortable at meetings, the PTA recently hired a translator, but the influx of new families hasn’t brought many new members to the PTA. “When I went to my first meeting [six years ago], I thought I was going to walk into this classroom overflowing with parents,” says Asbury PTA treasurer Kristi Burgert. “I was shocked. There were like six or seven people there—and there still are.”

There also are geographic challenges: Asbury has been a popular destination for Denver parents who “choice in”—send their children to the school from other neighborhoods—even more so than Steele, which has had less room to grow in recent years. “It’s harder to get parents [to be active in the PTA] who aren’t living down the street,” Burgert says. Combined with Steele’s well-established PTA culture, the economic differences are just distinct enough to keep Asbury’s PTA, and many like it, chugging along in Steele’s shadow.