Schools panhandle for goods city won’t supply

Teachers Michelle DeFranco (left) and Theresa Stillwell browsing Donors Choose projects in the cramped office they share at Hostos-Lincoln Academy.

More teachers turn to public to ask for donations

When Michelle DeFranco, a teacher at Hostos-Lincoln Academy in Melrose, needs something for her classroom, she takes matters into her own hands.

“This is our supply room,” DeFranco said, gesturing at her cramped office, packed with school supplies and equipment. They didn’t come from the city Department of Education, they came from an on-line appeal for help.

“This is our printer; that’s from Donors Choose,” said DeFranco, pointing at an item in the small office she shares with her colleague Theresa Stillwell.  “She has a copy machine from Donors Choose, and I have a copy machine in my classroom from Donors Choose.  That’s her laptop—Donors Choose.  All these print cartridges are from Donors Choose, all this paper here.”

The city has cut the money it provides to teachers for classroom necessities in half, and is likely to tighten its belt further, now that the state’s elected officials have agreed to a new budget that shaves more than a billion dollars from school aid.

More and more, teachers like DeFranco, especially those who serve children in low-income communities, are turning to the public to ask for cash.

Since its founding in 2000, Donors Choose has given teachers in the Bronx—and across the country—a way to go outside the school system to get crucial tools and supplies.  Teachers post “projects” on, seeking funding for a wide range of items ranging from the expensive—like new computers—to the exceedingly modest.  The headline of one South Bronx request reads: “OOP – Out of Paper.”

Once a request is posted, individuals and organizations can view the projects and choose to contribute to those they find important.

Increasingly New York teachers are taking notice.  According to the Donors Choose, requests from the Bronx have shot up from around 1,400 in 2007, to about 2,400 in 2010.  If the rate of requests keeps its current pace, the number of projects seeking funding in the Bronx this year will easily break 3,000.

In the last decade, more than 25,000 Donors Choose projects in New York City have been completed, with almost 3,000 coming from the South Bronx.

Teachers like DeFranco say that Donors Choose helps them keep their classrooms stocked while shielding their students from the squeeze of budgetary constraints.

“We don’t wait to feel any budget cuts,” said DeFranco.  “We just do what need to do for our kids and our classroom.”

DeFranco credits her office-mate with inspiring her to use Donors Choose.  An English teacher, Stillwell began to ask for donations in an effort to interest her students in reading.

“I started getting tons of books, and other teachers would see all these piles of boxes from Barnes & Noble and they would be like, ‘Oh, where’d you get all these books?’” Stillwell recalled.  “And I said, ‘Donors Choose!’”

Stillwell says she started buying her students books because nobody else would.

“There’s only one Barnes & Noble in the Bronx, in Co-Op City,” said Stillwell.  “It’s nowhere near here.  So the kids have to go all the way to Manhattan.  There’s nobody that’s going to take them.  They’re very reluctant to go to the library, whether because it’s unsafe or they go home right after school.  A lot of kids have to stay home.  I’m their only source of books, so I try to get as many as possible, all the time.”

Donations have also allowed Stillwell to do more creative projects with her classes.

“We do this project every year where they make their own poetry books,” she said.  “I got them these really nice books, and I got them this really nice paper to decorate it, and that gets them really involved in the project, and they’re more invested.”

The poetry books have become a favorite of her students.

“Every year some of my seniors still have the books, and they talk about it, and they peek their heads in when the kids are doing it,” said Stillwell.  “But I would never be able to buy all that stuff myself.  Never.”

According to Dr. Nicholas Michelli, an expert in educational policy who teaches post-graduate classes on education at the CUNY Graduate Center, the stakes of underfunding schools go beyond cuts to gym and art class.

“One of the consequences of not funding schools adequately is what we commonly call the drop-out problem, but I’m not sure that’s the right word, because kids are pushed out sometimes,” said Michelli.  “If a student leaves schools, they are four times more likely to be incarcerated; their income will be lower; they’re more likely to go on welfare.”

Starving school budgets is also “unconscionable,” Michelli says, “because of the high stakes that are involved with our teachers today, because the standards they’re held to are among the highest they’ve ever been.”

Putting teachers “under that kind of pressure without providing the right kind of resources,” he continued—“I don’t know if I could stay in teaching if I were in that kind of position.”

The Department of Education lists Donors Choose on its website, and Barbara Morgan, a department spokeswoman called it “a great resource for our teachers and our schools.”

According to Morgan, the department does not factor the existence of Donors Choose into its budgetary discussions, but the department didn’t comment on what the site’s popularity with teachers says about the city’s policies and priorities.

Jeffrey Beer, a colleague of Michele DeFranco, uses Donors Choose because, he says, official channels are just too convoluted.

Does Beer think the popularity of Donors Choose represents a failure on the part of the Department of Education?

“Absolutely,” he said.

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