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Teachers in need meet donors online

Sunday, August 23, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 2:41 p.m. CDT, Sunday, August 23, 2009
Molly Lyman, 1st grade teacher at Fairview Elementary School, sets up her classroom before students arrive next week. Lyman hopes to use donorschoose.org to acquire supplies for the cheerleading squad she coaches at Hickman High School.

COLUMBIA — Molly Lyman's personal budget includes a provision for 23 first-graders at Fairview Elementary School.

It also supports her 1-year-old child, two high school cheerleading squads and a dance team.

To donate

To donate to Becky Ross's project, "Fabulous Fluent First Grade Readers," ($848 to go) click here.

To donate to Heather Lang's project, "We ALL Are Experts," ($176 to go) click here.



Lyman, a teacher at Fairview, said she might spend anywhere from $50 to $100 a month on books and other supplies for her class. Bulletin boards, construction paper, pencils, glue sticks, Clorox Wipes, plastic baggies and travel expenses to cheering competitions and away games — it adds up.

To the tune of about $800 a year.

Lyman doesn't flinch at dipping into her personal budget year after year to provide a better environment for her students.

"How can you not?" she said. "I get to play with 6- and 7-year-olds all day. I'm there for the kids, not for the money."

She's not alone. It's an unspoken rule among public school teachers that when a need arises in the classroom, the teacher will find a way to foot the bill.

Jack Jensen, assistant superintendent for elementary education at Columbia Public Schools, said the district provides curriculum basics — textbooks, workbooks and writing paper — and outfits the classroom with things like carpets and desks.

Financing anything beyond that falls to the teacher.

"There is no doubt that teachers spend their own money to equip their classrooms," Jensen said. "I wish there was enough funding that that was not necessary, but teachers are the way they are — always looking out for kids."

Students are asked to provide certain supplies from a list sent to their parents. If newly purchased, those supplies can add up to more than $150 per child.

Providing relief to teachers and their students is the mission of DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit Web site founded by a Bronx schoolteacher who encountered the same problem as Lyman.

DonorsChoose.org partners teachers in need with "citizen philanthropists," defined by Central and South Regions Director Kirk Smiley as people who are interested enough in a particular project or school to give as much as they can, from $1 on up.

"Every donor is treated to a level of accountability that was previously reserved for people who gave thousands of dollars," Smiley said.

Pledging $100 is rewarded with personal thank-you notes from students and access to digital photos of children enjoying donated materials — which is to say, anything their teacher can dream up. Books, scientific equipment, digital cameras or a museum field trip can all be purchased for needy students through the site.

Becky Ross, a first grade teacher at Mill Creek Elementary who had one project fulfilled by DonorsChoose.org and is accepting donations for a second, believes the personal aspect of the program makes each donor feel empowered.

"Any project on there is there because that teacher wants to help their kids learn, and what better reason to give?" Ross said.

More than 75 percent of donors to DonorsChoose.org are first-time givers to public schools, and the importance of that statistic isn't lost on Ross.

"There are some charities where you give and you don't know where your money goes, but this one, you know exactly where it goes," she said. "If someone picks my project, they'll know they're buying books on CD for kids so that they can be fluent readers."

The power of such specificity is one thing that led Ross to the site — and it keeps donors coming back. Last year saw a 61 percent increase in donations to DonorsChoose.org compared to the year before.

Ross couldn't provide a figure on how much of her own money she's spent on her classroom, but she said it is well above the $200 stipend provided to her by the PTA.

"I've stopped counting," she said.

According to a report by Quality Education Data, a market research company, teachers spend an average of $520 a year from their own pockets to outfit their classrooms. For first-year teachers, the number is higher — between $1,000 and $1,200, Smiley said.

"It doesn't surprise me," Ross said.

Sally Beth Lyon, chief academic officer of Columbia Public Schools, remains sensitive to the teachers' plights and the need to be resourceful in obtaining supplies by paying out-of-pocket.

"I know our teachers are doing it," Lyon said. "They care about kids and they care about the environment they create."

Lyon and Jensen both said they would like to make easing the burden on teachers a priority in the future. PTA gifts — which are usually reimbursements and are governed by individual organizations, not the Board of Education — can help offset costs for teachers, Lyon said. But these gifts can't cover everything.

Ethan and Andrew Ehrenberg, of New York, are here to help. The boys, 8 and 12 respectively, represent a new kind of donor to DonorsChoose.org — children helping children. Last year, the Ehrenbergs reserved $1 from their weekly allowances to be donated to DonorsChoose.org.

"At my school there's so many things I can have that other kids don't have. I wanted to help make them smarter," Ethan said.

Carin Ehrenberg said that her sons are more interested in donating to a project they can relate to, rather than picking something geographically close, a trend which is reflected by DonorsChoose.org statistics. Projects in Missouri have been funded by donors across 47 states.

Heather Lang, who teaches second grade at Benton Elementary, relies on area organizations and businesses to donate some supplies, but spends her own money on books, educational games and incentive prizes and celebrations for her classroom.

"Many of these items might not seem to be necessary to a child's education," Lang said. "However, they enhance and expand on the curriculum being taught."

Lang discovered DonorsChoose.org through a television commercial and immediately submitted a project.

"I would encourage everyone to visit this site and check out all the great projects that need funding," she said. "I would also encourage more teachers to add projects."

Lyman might be one of them. After expressing gratitude for all that the school district provided teachers, Lyman said she would look into supplementing her students' education with the resources on DonorsChoose.org.

"I'm just used to doing things on my own," she said. "Most everything that's in (my classroom), I bought myself."


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Comments

Allison Allen August 24, 2009 | 6:26 p.m.

Terrific article! Great insights from the writer. So glad you are giving due attention to this fantastic organization.

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