Montana teachers are crowdfunding school supplies

Jordan Garland’s shopping list reads like an inventory sheet from Santa’s workshop. Gyroscopic toys, three-dimensional puzzle blocks, Jenga, a K’NEX set. These are the kinds of items that don’t fall under a public school’s general fund, but for Garland, they could reinvent the morning ritual for her fifth-graders at Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Missoula.

Garland spent much of last summer researching a fresh take on how elementary school classes begin their days. Dubbed morning picks — or, alternatively, soft start — the idea is to dedicate the first 10-15 minutes of instruction to a creative, tactile task of the student’s choice. After two years of pandemic tumult, Garland said, the morning pick could be just the ticket to help her students adjust to a normal school schedule and give her a chance to assess their speaking and listening skills. in the process.

Usually, to collect the Jenga blocks and gyroscopes on her list, Garland had to dip into her own pocket or dip into the $250 a year she and her colleagues each receive from the Lewis and Clark Parent-Teacher Association for stationery. But in this case, Garland initiated the request through the online nonprofit DonorsChoose, creating a project with a fundraising goal of $600.

“I did what I could this summer to pull together as many garage sales and Facebook Marketplace and those outlets as possible,” Garland said. “But it adds up very quickly. I just need a little help with these materials.

Paying out of pocket for classroom essentials is a common experience for teachers in America’s public school system. There isn’t a wealth of national data on the subject, but according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a 2015-2016 survey found that responding teachers spent an average of $478 on school supplies for the school year without repayment. And while educators can deduct these expenses from their taxes, the total amount of the deduction is limited. The IRS announced this fall the first increase in this ceiling since 2002: $300 per teacher, against $250 previously.

Since its inception around 20 years ago, DonorsChoose has become a popular relief valve for teachers struggling to balance often low salaries with the needs of their students. The nonprofit says that in Montana alone, 1,888 teachers have successfully secured full funding for 5,862 projects to date, totaling $3.34 million. Some of these requests are relatively small. A recent campaign led by a Stevensville elementary school teacher is asking $170 for plastic erasers and organizers. Other projects are bigger, like a Billings middle school teacher’s request for computer tablets, water bottles and snacks for 120 students, with a total price of $1,500.

Teachers who use DonorsChoose to cover classroom needs do not receive this money directly. Instead, the nonprofit lets teachers choose from items available through a list of partner vendors, including Best Buy, Amazon Business and publishing company Scholastic. Each selected item is listed on the teacher’s project page with a description of the project’s goals, and if donations reach the requested total, supplies are shipped directly to the teacher’s classroom.

“I did what I could this summer to gather as many garage sales and Facebook Marketplace and these outlets as I could. But it adds up very quickly. I just need a little help with these materials.

Jordan Garland, Lewis and Clark Elementary Teacher

The books are among the most sought-after items by Montana teachers using DonorsChoose. The nonprofit has shipped 23,992 to classrooms across the state to date, and according to spokesperson Juan Brizuela, the books played a central role in the birth of DonorsChoose in 2000. At the time, Brizuela said, founder Charles Best was struggling to get enough copies of a novel for his Bronx history students. This need and her conversations with co-workers about their own classroom wish lists inspired Best to reach out to New York-area donors.

“He thought of the idea that there must be people in the public who would want to empower public school teachers and help them get these needed supplies,” Brizuela said, adding that the nonprofit went national around 2007 after Best’s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey. Show caused a surge in traffic to its website.

Brizuela noted that as of Wednesday, there were 164 active DonorsChoose projects in Montana totaling about $100,000.

For Josh Preiss, DonorsChoose has become the primary means by which he has kept his fourth-grade library at Ruder Elementary School in Columbia Falls in good repair, replacing damaged or missing books and getting new additions that will meet a wide range of reading levels. In fact, he says, the process has become a “tradition” in his class. His students help him select which titles to request, and when the boxes arrive, he gives the class a chance to review them before wrapping them in protective covers.

“Then I just put them on the table and say, ‘Go ahead,’ and they disappear like hot cakes,” Preiss said. “Kids are so excited, especially if they’ve had a say in what’s coming in the first place… They grab one and give it back pretty quickly, and others grab it and then they go from hand in hand for hand in hand. They never come back to the shelf.

As of Monday, Preiss had 17 projects fully funded by DonorsChoose. His latest request was for $362 in art supplies to replace his class’s aging markers, colored pencils and watercolors, most of which he inherited from his predecessor seven years ago. Many of the donations he received came from Montana residents, but the one that pushed his latest project over the finish line came from a retired educator from Lincoln, Nebraska.

Books are also how Garland got started with the site. In January 2021, as Missoula County Public Schools prepared to welcome students back to in-person instruction after a pandemic-induced drop in remote learning, she reviewed her classroom library and realized that it needed a “reorganization”. She had heard about DonorsChoose through Teacher’s Vine and built a project to get copies of popular titles like “The Giver” along with several floor mats and pillows to give her students more space. comfortable.

The final part of Garland’s request focuses on the types of trends DonorsChoose has noticed nationally. While books remain one of the top five project categories, Brizuela said demand for flexible seating has grown in recent years, along with growing demand for instructional technology. He attributes both to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on public education. Technology played a central role as teaching shifted to remote learning and students needed immediate access to educational software and items such as headphones. Now that students are back in classrooms, Brizuela said teachers are looking for ways to smooth the transition and get students’ attention back.

“Think moving stools, floor cushions, beanbags, alternative ways for students to be still or move around the classroom,” Brizuela said. “Many teachers have told us anecdotally that after being home for so long, for a lot of these students who come back to class and are told to sit still, I mean, to be realistic, we all know that as children it was always hard for us to sit still. I’m sure most of us can relate.

Last year, the Montana Professional Teaching Foundation awarded $20,000 in grants to teachers to help supplement or replace classroom supplies — 40 grants total at $500 each. Foundation president and Montana Federation of Public Employees president Amanda Curtis said she “couldn’t believe” how many grant applications focused on flexible seating.

In Garland’s case, the pillows and floor mats weren’t just a bid for flexible seating, but a tool to help reading feel less like a “chore.” This first project reached its goal of $441 with just one anonymous donation.

“It was like Christmas last time,” Garland said, recalling the day the new seats and books arrived on her classroom doorstep. “I knew it had been funded, but I didn’t know when I was going to receive the material. So I showed up to work one day and it was just the best. And the children were delighted. They have to open everything. It was one of the best days of my teaching career, honestly.

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