Kindergarten teacher Carolyn Freeman gets $170 from her school for classroom supplies each year–a budget quickly drained by basic items like pencils and crayons for her students, more than 80 percent of whom come from low-income families. So when she wanted $300 for phonics materials, Freeman turned to the internet, where a philanthropic web site–DonorsChoose.org–is making teachers’ wish lists a reality.
The DonorsChoose program has raised more than $8.2 million for school projects since 2000, when it was pioneered by teachers at a public high school in the Bronx borough of New York City.
Since that time, the program has expanded to seven states (Alabama, Indiana, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Texas) and four major cities (Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and San Francisco). DonorsChoose officials hope eventually to offer the service to teachers in all states.
Linda Erlinger, executive director of DonorsChoose Chicago and Donors Choose Indiana, said the program provides a creative outlet for donors who support education causes.
“People want to help schools, but they don’t know how,” she said. “They’re not going to walk over to the neighborhood school and drop off a $100 check. DonorsChoose is a way they can do it at their desk at work or at home with their kids, picking out projects together.”
The wish list is long and varied: a karate program in North Carolina, an incubation kit so students can watch chickens hatch in Los Angeles, a classroom Jeopardy game for students in Mississippi, film-making equipment for a Texas school, and phonics materials in Indiana.
Supporters say the program is a boon to cash-strapped schools, especially those with high numbers of poor students.
The program also eases the burden on teachers, who often pay for classroom supplies themselves. A 2003 survey by the National Education Association found that teachers spent an average of $443 of their own money annually.
At Brookside Elementary School in Indianapolis, 95 percent of the students come from lower-income families. Fourth-grade teacher Lisa Wescott received balances and weights through DonorsChoose.
“I wouldn’t be doing this science project without it,” Wescott said. “The students get excited about the new stuff we get.”
Many donors search for projects based on their areas of interest. Sports fans might shell out money to start an after-school running club, while history buffs can support trips to a local museum. Others, like Joe Power, look for projects at their former schools.
Power, who teaches special-needs children in Crown Point, Indiana, donated money for a video camera at his former high school in a poor area of Alabama.
“It made me feel good to be able to give back and know that it went directly to the school,” said Power.
Even small donations can help, said Suellen Reed, Indiana’s superintendent for public instruction. “There are a lot of people who can’t give $500, but they might be able to give $25,” Reed said. “Those add up to getting projects done.” In Indiana, 36 projects have been funded so far, and a total of $44,000 has been donated.
“DonorsChoose doesn’t pretend to fix the challenges facing schools,” Erlinger said. “But I think it’s underestimated how powerful a new set of calculators or a field trip to the children’s museum is for children who haven’t had that.”