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Needing pencils, iPads or piccolos, teachers turn to crowdsourcing

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When Patty Lee asked her kindergarten students in early October what letter had a “ba” sound, 23 little hands pressed colorful markers hard against the small dry eraser boards on their laps, connecting lines to semicircles. Lee, who teaches at Public School 251 in Brooklyn, N.Y., complimented students who showed her the letter “b” while telling others who had written a “d” to try again.

Kindergarten teacher Patty Lee helps a student with a math game on an iPad she got through DonorsChoose.org (Photo: Aisha Asif)

Kindergarten teacher Patty Lee helps a student with a math game on an iPad she got through DonorsChoose.org (Photo: Aisha Asif)

Just a few weeks earlier, this simple exercise would have been very different because Lee, like many teachers across the country, was scrambling to provide the most basic supplies, like markers, for her students. Then she turned to DonorsChoose.org, a crowdsourcing site that allows teachers to request donations for big expenses like field trips and smaller ones like paper. Lee’s colorful markers were among $400 worth of school supplies Lee bought this year—part of a remarkable $105,000 she has received through the site since 2006.

“I’ve gotten really lucky with how much they’ve helped my classroom that I never really thought price-wise how much it was,” she said after a reporter, using information from DonorsChoose.org, provided her with the tally.

According to the DonorsChoose site, Lee has been able to purchase basics like paper and markers ($5,612) as well as books that the city doesn’t provide ($14, 931). The iPads, LeapFrog Leap-Pads and laptops her students use also came through donations from the website ($10,034). More expensive purchases have included a reading loft where the kids go to cozy up with their books ($10,093). Lee also has used DonorsChoose.org funds to put on student productions of “The Wizard of Oz” ($5,488) and taken her students on trips to Build-A-Bear and pottery workshops ($3,764), among other spending.

According to a 2013 study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, teachers spent $1.6 billion of their own money on school and instructional supplies in the 2012-2013 school year. Some districts offer teachers limited reimbursements but even those have been shrinking under budget pressures. That money crunch has led more and more teachers to turn to crowdsourcing websites like DonorsChoose.org, AdoptAClassroom.org and ClassWish.org.

Teachers need money for books, musical instruments, art supplies and just about everything else in the classroom, says ClassWish.org co-founder Robert Tolmach. “It’s been this way for a while and the budget cuts made it worse,” he said.

The sites use different models but their goal is essentially the same: to help provide teachers with the tools their students need to learn. DonorsChoose.org, started in 2000 by a Bronx teacher, accepts donations and solicits a 15 percent fee to sustain the site. Foundations and businesses make up 60 percent of donors to AdoptAClassroom.org. That site was started in 1998 when founder James Rosenberg, a mergers and acquisitions lawyer, mentored at a preschool and was dismayed at the lack of resources teachers there faced. Fully 100 percent of donations go to the teachers, said executive director Bob Thacker. Educators seeking funds through both of these sites write proposals that are posted on their teacher profiles on the sites.

“Crowdsourcing sites, most of which have been started in the last decade, are becoming an increasingly important resource, especially for schools in low-income communities.”

Tolmach, of ClassWish.org, comes from a background in nonprofits and started his site after reading countless news articles about dire needs teachers faced in class. He thought there should be a more efficient way to donate to schools than through typical bake sale fundraisers.  ClassWish.org was designed to act as a go-between for donors looking to fund specific schools—even if the teachers at that school haven’t asked for supplies. If, for example, someone in Texas wants to help his former elementary school in Miami, the site will reach out to the school on his behalf and the school can then make purchases through the site’s affiliated vendors. Schools can also post their own wish lists or anyone can identify any school not listed on the site and ClassWish acts as the middleman to forward funds. This differs from the other two sites in that teachers do not have to write a formal proposal. If something on their wish list is funded, teachers can use the donations to purchase materials from an affiliated vendor.

Recently ClassWish.org launched a charity mall (click here for example) that allows visitors to the site to shop on the site for their favorite brands; when they click on a brand’s ad banner accompanying each school or teacher page listed, a percentage of money spent is donated to a teacher’s wish list account, at no cost to the consumer. That donation is funded by an affiliate fee the merchant pays ClassWish.org, Tolmach said.

All three sites do not give cash donations to teachers, but direct them to a network of affiliated vendors from which to purchase the needed materials.

A generation ago, parents’ associations were pretty much the only outside source of funding for teachers’ supplies.  But these crowdsourcing sites, most of which have been started in the last decade, are becoming an increasingly important resource, especially for schools in low-income communities.

Lee’s school, identified as “high poverty” on DonorsChoose.org, is in the Flatlands section of Brooklyn. Seventy-nine percent of students get free or reduced price lunch. Even if parents wanted to help, they just don’t have the money.

Lee’s success is exceptional: DonorsChoose.org says she is one of the nation’s most successful teachers to tap the resources of its website. In her first two years as a teacher, before DonorsChoose.org, Lee estimates she spent more than $5,000 of her own money on supplies. Chris Pearsall, assistant to the company’s CEO, said Lee’s success could be attributed to her never missing an opportunity to propose “imaginative” projects, like the reading loft and production of “The Wizard of Oz.”

According to its website, DonorsChoose.org has helped teachers win more than $200,000,000 to fund over 400,000 projects since 2000. The site also claims 54 percent of all public schools have at least one teacher who has posted a project on its site. Contributions and grants doubled to over $52 million in 2012 from $24 million three years ago, according to its 990 filing to the I.R.S.

More than a third of funded projects are for classroom supplies, from paper and pencils to furniture, storage and recess equipment. Technology and books are the second and third most popular categories, said Pearsall. This year 13,000 projects have been posted on the site, a 33 percent increase from last year, he said, and he believes that is because the site has become easier to use and more teachers are aware of it.

Budget woes in cities like Chicago and Philadelphia have also pushed teachers to the sites.  Both the number of requests and the number of teachers accessing DonorsChoose.org from those two cities has grown by more than 30 percent in the last year, said Pearsall. Bob Thacker, of AdoptAClassroom.org, said requests to his site were up 20 percent nationally (contributions and grants to the site were at nearly $3 million in 2011, according to its 990 I.R.S. forms) but the number from Philadelphia increased fivefold in the last three years.

“The situation now in the Philadelphia school system is horrible,” said South Philadelphia music teacher Chrisostomos Argerakis. “It’s a joke; we don’t even get paper towels in our classroom.”

Argerakis said he spends around $500 of his own money every year to buy basic classroom supplies but the 43-year-old has had a lot of help in building his music program at the Andrew Jackson School in South Philadelphia, where none existed before he started there six years ago. He managed to get instruments for his students through donations from instrument manufacturing companies, music foundations and DonorsChoose.org. Argerakis estimates that he’s gotten $27,424 worth of supplies and equipment from the website.

Argerakis credits his success to what he called some good strategizing that tied ambition to possible funding sources. When he arrived, there was no music program. Now, the school is known for its rock band, which performs around the city. He makes sure to advertise his DonorsChoose.org profile on the flyers he distributes at every band performance and says that has allowed him to raise funds from audience members for projects like getting 18 keyboards for his classroom ($3,200).

Argerakis rarely goes a month without posting a project. To maximize funding, he also makes sure to coordinate bake sales and concerts with the site’s dollar-to-dollar program, which matches funding that teachers’ projects get through other donors.

Teachers can’t count on money from these sites and that can be a problem, said Chicago teacher Deena Heller. She used DonorsChoose.org at her previous school but said she had to wait so long for the responses that she ended up buying supplies herself. Pearsall said that the website has a 75 percent teacher success rate, meaning it is able to get the majority of projects funded on time, and it continues to strive to do so for every teacher. Heller, 27, now teaches third grade at a charter school that gives her $500 a year for supplies so she said she no longer has to rely on DonorsChoose.org.

New York City has a program called Teacher’s Choice that will reimburse teachers up to $57 this year for classroom supplies. However, Halli Moskowitz, an elementary grade teacher from I.S. 171 in Harlem who spent thousands of dollars on school supplies before she started using DonorsChoose.org 11 years ago, called that “a drop in the bucket.”

Moskowitz said she received donations worth $18,000 through the site and enjoys writing proposals, which she says only takes her 10 minutes to do. She finds engaging titles for her projects:  “Dice + 32 kids = Oy, the Noise!” raised funds to replace hard dice with foams to lower the noise for a project her fifth-grade math students were working on.

But other teachers say the writing process is cumbersome. That’s one reason why Janice Wagman, a biology teacher at Perkiomen Valley High School in Collegeville, Pa., uses ClassWish.org instead. She said she has received $1,000 funding for goggle sanitizers and lab kits through the site.

“I usually spend a lot of time—seriously hours—thinking how to best spend the money or what to spend the money on to make it go as far as possible,” she said.

For those teachers who get the money they need, it’s time well spent. Argerakis, the Philadelphia music teacher, sees about 1,000 students a week in nine grades and oversees two bands. Even with that schedule, he’s been able to write requests that brought in $28,000 over the last six years. “It can be busywork,” he said, “but it’s certainly worth it.”

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