Charles Best knew when he took his first job teaching social studies to high school students in the Bronx that it was going to be a tough gig.
The school takes in some of the most economically depressed neighborhoods in New York City. Best knew resources would be limited. But the first-year teacher didn't fully appreciate how much help the school needed. On his first day he learned the school didn't even have textbooks. His students didn't have paper to write on, let alone the pencils to take notes.
Best wanted to help his students go to college, and the lack of resources wore on him. “My colleagues and I were always having the same conversation in the teachers lunchroom about books we wanted our students to read, a field trip we knew would really bring a subject matter to life. And most of us would go into our own pockets to buy just paper and pencils,” Best said.
Teachers in economically challenged neighborhoods like the Bronx aren't the only ones using their own money to pay for essential school supplies. In the 2012-13 school year, teachers spent a total of $1.6 billion of their own money on school supplies, according to a new report by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, a Maryland-based education trade group. Of the more than 4,000 teachers surveyed, 92 percent said they used their own money to pay for school supplies, with average yearly purchases totalling nearly $400.
For teachers on fixed salaries, the additional cost of school supplies can be a major financial burden. As Best thought about the money he and his colleagues were spending he came up with an idea.
People across the country want to improve public schools, he thought, but he knew it could be hard to write a check and never seeing where your money was going or how it was helping kids. What if he could find a way to connect people who wanted to help with people who need help? What if donors could see how their money impacted actual students?
Education funding experiences
To address this issue, Best created a website called DonorsChoose.org. The concept is straightforward. Teachers post requests for materials they would like their students to have and donors pick the projects they want to support. A filter for different project types and parts of the country makes it possible for donors to select projects that speak to them the most. Once a project is funded, and the classroom receives the materials, students write letters thanking the donors for their support. DonorsChoose.org has celebrity backers including Oprah Winfrey, Steven Colbert and Bill and Melinda Gates.
Jim Bentley, a fifth-grade teacher at Foulks Ranch Elementary School in Sacramento, heard about DonorsChoose.org through a colleague about four years ago. Teaching at a mid- to high-poverty school, Bentley had on many occasions dug into his own pocket to pay for things he wanted his students to have, such as computer equipment, special textbooks and audio-visual equipment. But his ability to bring new things into the classroom was always restricted by his budget.
The timing was lucky, since for some months he'd been thinking about buying a camcorder for the students to make historical documentaries. This kind of learning experience, he thought, would be accessible to his eclectic group of students, which included ESL students, students with physical and mental disabilities and gifted and talented students. But at $300, the camcorder he wanted was way out of his price range.
Bentley decided to check DonorsChoose.org out. Intrigued by the possibility, he submitted a funding request, not really expecting anything to happen. In several days his project had been completely funded by 14 people he'd never met.
Bentley wrote a thank-you note to the donors who paid for the video camera. “My students and I are leaning by doing,” he wrote. “And your help has made that possible. We have 10 mini-documentary films in pre-production. We have several more in production. There isn’t a day that goes by where a student remarks that whatever we’re doing ought to be turned into a film production.”
DonorsChoose.org uses three criteria to evaluate the proposals from teachers: the proposal can’t discriminate, can’t be to help a school proselytize, and must be for a student experience. The website has been used to fund requests from around the country; everything from special computer equiptment, to field trips, to new text books.
Additionally, the organization protects donors from fraud by screening and authenticating all requests before putting them on the Internet. Donations aren’t given to teachers as cash, either. Once a project is fully funded, the requested materials are purchased by DonorsChoose and shipped directly to the teacher’s classroom.
Increasing interest in education
Best is somewhat discouraged by the fact that teachers have to pay for paper and pencils with money from their own salaries — it is just further evidence that education doesn't get enough money, he says. But he believes DonorsChoose.org might open the way for more school funding, particularly in low-income areas. When people understand the great need in public schools, they may be more inclined to do something about it, Best said.
And this isn’t just wishful thinking. Best has actually seen it play out with donors across the country. For example, Jim Hunt, former governor of North Carolina, was perusing DonorsChoose.org several years ago looking for a project to contribute to when he came across a request for a set of dictionaries from a school in his home county. Hunt was livid that a school near him didn’t have, of all things, dictionaries. He called the local school to find out what was going on. His interest sparked discussion in the region about how education funding might be improved to more efficiently meet the needs of teachers .
Best says that Hunt’s experience is typical of the group's supporters. “Sixty percent of our donors said they were more interested in public education reform as a result of their website experience at DonorsChoose.org,” Best said in an interview with NPR. For many, “it was their first really vivid personal encounter with what is going on in public schools in low-income communities and with the unmet needs of students in our public schools.”
But according to Annemarie Wikstrom, a third-grade teacher at a high-poverty school in Lafayette, La., who uses DonorsChoose.org regularly, donors aren’t the only ones who experience a paradigm shift by participating. “I think that the goal of teaching is to change the perspective of the student,” Wilstrom said. “[The kids] are amazed to see that people they don’t even know are sending them such wonderful materials to use to learn. So not only is it great from an educational standpoint, but from character building. It is really teaching these kids what it means to care.”