At the start of the school year special-education teacher Emma Patton was allotted $100 for classroom supplies by the principal at her school, Kenny Elementary in Dorchester. It didn’t go far. It covered pencils and some copy paper. For the other things her students have needed, like markers and a pencil sharpener, she’s reached into her own wallet or gone without.
Frustrated, in October she turned to the community for help and posted a request on education crowd-funding site DonorsChoose.
Her pitch: that for $284.18 she could buy binders to help her students learn to organize work, headphones to let them listen to the reading games they like, a stool to help fidgety students remain calm enough to learn, a pencil sharpener so they could complete assignments, and, the perennial favorite among elementary school students, markers.
Since January 2008, Boston Public Schools teachers have brought in just over one million dollars for classroom and learning supplies through DonorsChoose, funding items ranging from graphing calculators to light bulbs, geography games to highlighters. And most frequently, books.
Though the items are significant to the teachers and students, the donations are very small when compared to the BPS budget. About $238,000 was raised in all of 2013 on DonorsChoose, less than a hundredth of a percent of BPS’ $934 million annual budget.
Though individuals have long contributed privately to the operations of public schools– think bake sales and booster clubs– online crowdfunding platforms like DonorsChoose allow teachers to reach potential donors worldwide, and to turn them into repeat donors. For individual teachers who are crowdfunding savvy, such access could mean significant additional classroom resources.
Peter Sipe, a repeat DonorsChoose user who teaches reading at Boston Collegiate, has raised more than $7,000 for classroom books through online donations.
He has friends among the donors, but most of those who have purchased books for Sipe through DonorsChoose have been strangers. Some live near the school, but others are as far away as California and Colorado.
“This is one of those instances where technology measurably improves the process by which people who want to do something good for our school can and they see the results of their donation through the classroom photos and thank you notes,” he said.
While many projects– like Patton’s request for classroom supplies and Sipe’s requests for books– fall under the $300 mark, since 2008 the average successfully funded project in BPS has raised $539. The average donation size: $74.18.
DonorsChoose founder Charles Best says that about half of the projects funded on Donors Choose “go beyond” systemic funding and provide teachers with extra resources: special field trips, top-of-the-line technology, toys and games. But that means that the other half of projects are making up for basic classroom resources: overhead projector lightbulbs, maps and globes, pencil sharpeners.
“We see teachers going public with classroom needs,” Best said. “It’s a voice for classroom teachers.”
Best believes that in the long term, publicizing classroom needs benefits the entire system by helping policy makers, district office staff, school principals, and others removed from day-to-day classroom life to check the pulse of educational spending.
He says that when those carrying the purse strings are able to see and understand where basic resources are lacking, it can help districts spend money better.
“It’s politically energizing,” said Best, who also acknowledges that he is “no good at lobbying.”
“We want to allow municipalities and states to spend money in a more targeted, efficient and responsive way,” he said.
Throughout BPS right now teachers are seeking about $21,300 for classroom materials in 64 projects. Eleven of those projects are for schools in Dorchester, not surprising given that since 2008, 500 projects in that neighborhood have been funded for almost $240,000. That’s more than any other BPS neighborhood.
Throughout BPS, about a third of projects raise money for classroom supplies, but more money goes to technology projects, which typically carry a higher price tag.
At BPS, Klare Shaw, who advises the superintendent, said teachers’ first line of request for classroom supplies should be their principals.
“But sometimes the needs are so pressing [schoolwide] they don’t want to ask [for their classrooms],” she said.
School principals receive money each year for classroom supplies, but it’s “not inconceivable” that those funds could run out. Teachers who take initiative to solve those funding gaps on their own show what strong advocates teachers are for children, said Shaw.
“We are grateful we have teachers who care for their kids,” Shaw said.
Since 2008, 766 BPS teachers have successfully funded one or more projects on Donors Choose. But with more than 4,300 teachers in the district, DonorsChoose funding is far from reaching all classrooms.
At schools that means that these resources– whether they be “extras” or core– reach students based entirely on a teacher’s outreach to the community. That means that in a single school, one classroom with a teacher who is an energetic fundraiser could have more resources than any other classroom at the school.
Even for teachers whose pitches are funded, the gaps continue to grow. Patton reached her fundraising goal just before the holiday break and she’s expecting the requested materials– including a classroom pencil sharpener– to be delivered later this week.
Meeting the goal was cause for short celebration. This week she’s planning on putting another pitch up on DonorsChoose. There is still more that her students need, she says.