Education

When students need stuff, more teachers tapping Internet donors

Janelli Estopinan, 4, uses a toy stethoscope on classmate Sara Espinoza, 5, as Kennedi Spigner, 4, plays in the new kitchen in Leslie Walker's pre-K class at Santa Clara Elementary School. Walker used crowd-funding to help pay for the kitchen.
Janelli Estopinan, 4, uses a toy stethoscope on classmate Sara Espinoza, 5, as Kennedi Spigner, 4, plays in the new kitchen in Leslie Walker's pre-K class at Santa Clara Elementary School. Walker used crowd-funding to help pay for the kitchen. MIAMI HERALD STAFF

The junior ROTC at Miami Killian Senior High is the only presidential honor guard in Miami-Dade County, with 50 flags representing every state.

But it has been 20 years since the flags have been replaced. They are dirty, frayed and faded.

So retired Army Maj. James Brown, who leads the school’s program, has turned to the Internet to raise money for new ones. After posting a plea on GoFundMe.com, donors have given more than $600 toward his goal of $2,700.

“I was surprised people were that generous,” he said. “It’s a great alternative means to get funding.”

This holiday season, hundreds of Miami-Dade County teachers from public, private and charter schools are turning to crowd-funding websites. They’re hoping to buy everything from age-appropriate books and copying paper to a solar car kit or frogs to dissect in biology class.

Crowd-funding relies on many people making small donations toward a goal. There are dozens of websites where entrepreneurs post their big ideas and funding needs, and connect directly with donors. A handful of sites, like ClassWish.org, are just for teachers.

There’s AdoptAClassroom.org, launched in 1998 by a lawyer dismayed at the lack of resources teachers face. In Miami-Dade, 3,300 teachers on the site have raised more than $100,000 this year alone.

A former Bronx teacher started DonorsChoose.org in 2000 after spending his own money on classroom supplies. The site lists almost 800 current projects in Miami-Dade and 3,000 already funded.

“When teachers want to be innovators, there are all kinds of needs because what the state funding gives to teachers in terms of allocations for schools is very, very minimal,” said United Teachers of Dade union President Fedrick Ingram.

Jennifer Sene went to DonorsChoose.org when she decided her students with autism needed weighted vests. The vests help students “feel grounded” she said.

“They have sensory issues. They don’t feel the weight of their own body,” she said.

She became familiar with the site after her own daughter’s teacher posted a project there and got it funded. Rather than wait to go through a sometimes long, sometimes unsuccessful budget request process, Sene went online. Donors soon picked up the $173 tab for two vests. They should arrive in the mail shortly. It was her first time tapping crowd-funding for her classroom.

“It’s a great way to get all the extras,” she said. “You want everything” for your students.

If not for crowd-funding, many teachers would probably pay for these supplies out of their own pockets.

Teachers spend more than $500 of their own money every year on classroom supplies, according to a survey by the National School Supply and Equipment Association. That adds up to $1.6 billion across the country, according to the association.

Leslie Waker’s pre-kindergarten students at Santa Clara Elementary school have a new play kitchen and art supplies thanks to two separate, successful Donors Choose campaigns. Her success has encouraged her to go for her most expensive project yet: $1,500-worth of science supplies, a new rug and more.

“We’re getting by without it, but if we had our stuff there would just be so much more that we could do,” she said. “If we had the science stuff we could do experiments and they could explore.”

It turns out donors are very generous when it comes to education. According to Giving USA, which tracks charitable giving, donations to education are second only behind religion.

In 2013, philanthropists gave $52 billion to educational causes, up almost nine percent from the previous year, according to the organization.

But the trend can also take pressure off of local school districts to fully fund classrooms, said Ingram, the Dade teachers union president.

“What I don’t want to happen is that our legislature or our public policy makers think this can be used for a long-term strategy,” he said. “That’s very unfair to these teacher and to the students because these funds might not come.”

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