The New York City school system is taking a unique approach to fundraising this holiday season. The city is using a new web site to solicit a “wish list” of donations via the internet–and nearly 70 percent of the city’s schools are using the service to ask for computers, network devices, and technology assistance.

The Public Education Needs Civic Involvement in Learning (PENCIL) Resource Bank is a warehouse of donation needs for the city’s 1,136 public schools. The database was created a year ago when PENCIL discovered that many of the schools’ needs–supplies, equipment, and arts and crafts materials–were readily available in storage in businesses and homes throughout the city.

Through the web site’s search page, individuals and corporations can identify schools for their donations by selecting location, grade level, and/or the kind of item they’re looking to donate. Donors may also select specific schools by name.

According to Jennifer Eason, director of policy and development, the Resource Bank is intended to provide a “streamlined, interactive” way for corporations and individuals to make exactly the contributions the city’s schools need.

Looking for computers

“I’d say our top items are computers,” Eason said.

This Christmas, more than 700 of the registered 1,100 schools are asking for technology products, including Macs and PCs, keyboard, monitors, modems, laser printers, and internet access. Other oft-requested items include photocopiers, microscopes, and technical assistance.

Some schools are asking for more sophisticated equipment: wireless mikes and sound systems, scanners, and photo enlargers. One school even requested “support for TV media studio.” Schools are also looking for technical assistance to repair and update computers, wire schools, and install and set up networks.

Big-ticket technology items are popular requests, Eason said, because New York City teachers are eager for the relief from overcrowded classrooms that computers and telecommunication technologies can provide.

Since the organization began acting as a clearinghouse for donations on the internet, it has found homes in public schools for 331 computers, three laptops, two microscopes, and one copier. Recently, the organization received a generous contribution from comedian Jerry Seinfeld, who came to PENCIL with 25 iMac computers he wanted to contribute to the school system, said Eason.

‘Overwhelmed’ by need

Since its online launch in the fall of 1998, the Resource Bank has generated $500,000 worth of supplies and materials from private-sector individuals and corporations for the New York City schools. Donations have included such diverse items as paint brushes (73,344), crayons (10,672), jump ropes (15), desks (14), and butcher block paper (11 rolls).

The Resource Bank web site was created to help residents who are looking to make donations to schools but feel “overwhelmed” by the need, according to Eason.

Business and community members who were participating in the organization’s flagship “Principals for a Day” project would often ask PENCIL for help in locating schools for donations.

“They would come to us and say, ‘We have two thousand scissors we’ll never use,'” but had no way of identifying who needed the supplies, said Eason. “We thought, what a wonderful way to use the internet.”

Since the project was launched in 1994, more than 1,000 people each year have participated in Principals for a Day (PFAD), which places community members in schools. Guest “principals” have included business owners, executives, professionals, celebrities such as Tipper Gore, Jane Pauley, Bill Cosby, and Michael Douglas, and hundreds of others from the private and public sectors of each borough.

The non-profit PENCIL was created in 1995 to sustain PFAD after it was established by Ramon Cortines, then chancellor of the New York City schools. The mission of the organization is to provide real solutions to the many challenges facing New York City’s 1.1 million public school students. PENCIL and its programs have leveraged the involvement of thousands of individuals and generated millions of dollars in funds and resources to the city’s public schools.