Northwest Philadelphia teachers turn to web donors to fill district-funding gaps

 The 'iPad Station' in Norma Bouknight-Dow is the only such one in Wister Elementary School. (Queen Muse/for NewsWorks)

The 'iPad Station' in Norma Bouknight-Dow is the only such one in Wister Elementary School. (Queen Muse/for NewsWorks)

Norma Bouknight-Dow has taught math to fifth graders at Germantown’s John Wister Elementary School for 12 years. The computers available to her students have been there even longer. And, she thinks that lack of updated technology stifles her students’ ability to learn.

“I need my classroom to come out of the dinosaur age,” she said. “It saddens me when my students say the computer is not working and they can’t get on First in Math. We need computers.”

This was part of Bouknight-Dow’s plea on the digital charity website DonorsChoose.org, where she and many other Philadelphia teachers have turned to raise money for classroom supplies.

How it works

The website allows public-school teachers to create fundraising campaigns for items ranging from crayons and books to computers and field trips.

Teachers write a story explaining their circumstance of need, provide photos, and send follow-up thank you letters to donors at the campaign’s end. This is all done in the teachers’ spare time and at their own volition.

An estimated 70 percent of all projects posted on the site get funded. When a project is not funded, the donated monies are returned to the donors. Companies and foundations sometimes double or match the amounts raised by the teacher.

To date, projects posted through the Donors Choose website have raised more than $235 million. According to Donors Choose, 94 percent of teachers said their funded projects increased their effectiveness in the classroom.

Northwest Philly examples

Wister Elementary teachers cite the site as an invaluable resource when they’ve had no other means of getting sorely needed classroom supplies.

Lindsay Brown taught fifth-grade classes at Wister Elementary. In 2009, she launched a fundraiser to get supplies for a school garden. It worked.

“The timing just worked out nicely because Disney was matching projects at the time,” she recounted. “The project ended up being $600 and if you raised half, they would match it. We were turning the front yard into an outdoor classroom.”

Fully funded within two weeks, the donations enabled Brown to purchase seeds, plants, books, posters and indoor-growing kits.

“I almost felt like I’d hit the jackpot,” she said. “My project was flawless.”

Last year, Wister physical-education teacher Robin Lowry sought funds for the purchase of exercise balls and stability pads, equipment that she says is constantly in need of replacement.

The $369 project was also matched by a partnering company — Acme — and was fully funded in only four days. She, too, was pleasantly surprised by the quick turnaround.

“With phys ed, there’s never a budget for equipment, and then there’s wear and tear,” Lowry said. “I had physio balls that I bought from my other school, but they don’t last forever and when one, or two, dies, there’s a replacement cost.

“So, I wanted to get physio balls and some stability pads — things that I liked using in my classroom — and I really needed more in order to make a good circuit. It was like record time. … It was really amazing.”

The current campaign

Today, Bouknight-Dow is seeking $886 for two new math-class laptops. As of Thursday, it’s garnered $453 from 15 different donors. What’s the potential impact for students?

“They’re more motivated to do certain activities,” she said. “They’re motivated to do more math and reading with the technology.”

With fewer than 30 days remaining, Bouknight-Dow plans to ramp up outreach efforts.

“I’m getting ready to have my daughter bake and sell cookies at the bowling alley to help with funding the rest of these laptops because I need it funded in less than 30 days,” said Bouknight-Dow whose last project — an iPad purchase — was funded within six weeks.

Her classroom’s iPad station is the only such station in the school.

Big-picture issues

Prior to fundraising efforts, Bouknight-Dow’s room had one working desktop computer for a class of 23 students. They recently received two new Apple desktops via School District of Philadelphia funding, which Wister Principal Donna Smith said has been stretched to its limit.

“Right now, we’re moving in a positive direction, but the funds are killing us,” she lamented of losing four teachers and 14 aides while the counselor is only available two days a week. “Every year, it’s something different.

“All of these websites do help to get attention, because I think it makes people that are surrounding you aware of how it’s really affecting the school.”

A total of 186 projects on the site were created by teachers from Philadelphia public schools, and spokesman Fernando Gallard said the district supports teachers using it. But, he regrets that they have to in the first place.

“It is unfortunate that we are in these circumstances where teachers have to look for basic resources through these types of efforts,” he said.

For her part, Bouknight-Dow said she’ll likely continue the often time-consuming fundraising process.

“I have to do something to make my job easier if I can,” she said. “If I can do groups … and rotate around with the laptops, I need for us to be able to do that. It makes it easier and I need my job to be easier because it’s hard.”

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