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With Tight Budgets, Teachers Turn To Crowdfunding School Supplies

Sarah Schneider
90.5 WESA
Gina Murphy, an autistic support teacher at Brookline Elementary School, sits behind some of the materials that have been paid for through crowdfunding.

Gina Murphy pulls box after box from shelves in her Brookline Elementary School classroom. Each one is a hodgepodge of toys, fabrics and flashcards.

“Everything in this classroom involves getting them to communicate with one another with adults," Murphy said. "And so, having materials that are very much highly motivating and interesting is the key.”

She’s an autism support teacher for third, fourth and fifth grade students in the school. The materials she’s sorting through are sensory tools or are used for behavior reinforcement. They’re not typical school supplies and they weren’t paid for by the school district.

Murphy points to a horseshoe shaped table that allows her to sit closer to her students and a soft rug they can sit on instead of wiggling around in a rigid chair. All of which are what she refers to as enrichment materials that make her job easier and were paid for through online crowdfunding.

“If I want to do any of these other things, I put my own money out there to do it," she said. "And and I have and I do because it is so valuable for these kids because if you just if you don't have the materials that you need. You don't get as much of an effect.”

Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Holly Wetzel sorts through a box of school supplies she has purchased herself for her kindergarten classroom. Wetzel is a teacher at Brookline Elementary School and often uses crowdfunding to pay for supplies and projects.

A recent report from Scholastic, an education publishing company, found that teachers spend on average $500 a year of their own money on materials for their classroom. Donors Choose is a growing resource that’s attempting to make up for that.

It’s a crowdfunding website specifically for public schools that started in 2000. In 2007, it expanded and is now accessible to teachers across the country. The organization reports that 77 percent of American public schools have posted at least one project. Teachers post a project to the site ranging from a$100 to tens of thousands of dollars. Anyone can search and fund a project. Many donors are anonymous and sometimes live outside of the district they are funding.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools’ district budget is tight. Last year ended with a $15 million operating deficit that will be covered by tapping into a rainy day fund.

In Pittsburgh, most successful projects tend to benefit economically disadvantaged schools. And they’re not asking for a lot.

About 3,300 projects have been funded in the last 10 years in the Pittsburgh region, totaling nearly $800,000. Most are literacy projects. Chris Pearsall, vice president of branding and communication for Donors Choose, said those projects have overwhelmingly been for literacy and mathematics projects and are often less than $1,000.

“It’s those projects that that really keep the costs you know manageable so that they're funded really quickly is what really gets donors the most excited and the ones that get foot in the most quickly,” he said.

He said there’s also an assumption among donors that schools in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are in more need.

Brookline Elementary School, with only 500 students, has the most listed projects for one school within the district. About half of its students are economically disadvantaged.

Holly Wetzel is a Kindergarten teacher there. She has three projects listed for the start of the school year. She said her school tends to spend excess money on bigger projects like buying a mobile unit of iPads that teachers share. One of her projects is to buy headphones for those iPads. She’s also raising money to buy a weather vane for her science unit on wind patterns.

I feel like things are being purchased but it's just we can't do it all. The school can't do it all the parents the teachers just can't do it all,” she said.

Wetzel said she can do her job with what she’s given from the district. But it’s easy to be tempted to spend her own money for enrichment activities. It’s no secret that teachers don’t have a lot of disposable income.

Instead of spending her own money, she says she’s relying on strangers now.

Sarah Schneider is WESA's education reporter. From early learning to higher education, Sarah is interested in students and educators working to create more equitable systems. Sarah previously worked with news outlets in Pennsylvania, Illinois and Idaho. She is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale where she worked for the school newspaper, the Daily Egyptian.