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Education

How Alaska teachers are turning to crowdfunding to get classroom gear

  • Author: Tegan Hanlon
  • Updated: January 16
  • Published January 15

College Gate Elementary School sixth-grade teacher Gerald Tennyson has used the DonorsChoose.org website to crowdfund items for his class, including notebook computers, books and clothing. (Marc Lester / ADN)

At Nome Elementary School in Western Alaska, Emily Stotts' students go outside for recess until the temperature drops below negative-20 degrees.

Her students have to wear winter gear, and Stotts noticed in fall of 2016 that most often they didn't have gloves.

So she logged on to DonorsChoose.org, a nationwide crowdfunding network for public school teachers.

Within just three days, two people from Alaska and one from North Carolina donated $193 through the website, sending 13 new pairs of waterproof gloves to Stotts' classroom.

"It's a dream," she said of the crowdfunding website.

Over the past decade, the amount of money Alaska teachers have raised for classroom supplies through DonorsChoose rose from $3,300 in 2007 to $437,100 last year. For some teachers, it's increasingly becoming their go-to way to fill funding gaps in the state's cash-strapped school districts.

Students Vamura Olanna, Lallaurauq Ahvakana, Macy Hukill, Gabe Tran, Tessa Sinnok, Kail Lyon, and Joey Jones at Nome Elementary School with their favorite items received through DonorsChoose.org: their fluency timers and a reading couch with built-in storage. (Emily Stotts photo)

"When the economy fell, we certainly felt that in the classroom," said Gerald Tennyson, a teacher at College Gate Elementary School in Anchorage. "There's no outlet available to get some of the stuff we need without either buying it ourselves or finding an outside source, so thank goodness DonorsChoose came through."

In total, 1,172 teachers in Alaska have received about $2.1 million in classroom supplies through DonorsChoose over the past 10 years, according to the crowdfunding website.

As of last week, Alaska teachers had 106 active projects posted on the website. The requests ranged from construction paper to laptops to sewing kits to books to slow cookers.

Stotts is currently asking for colored tables and organizational bins.

Since she started using the website in 2015, she estimated that donors — many of whom she doesn't know — have contributed at least $3,000 in supplies to her classroom, including an iPad app that helps with handwriting; magnifying glasses; and bean bag chairs.

Stotts said while the school district provides most of the basics, such as textbooks, there's not much money leftover for extras.

She said that, like many teachers, she invests hundreds of dollars into her classroom each year, but she can't afford all that she needs. She doesn't want to ask her students' families for donations and likes that DonorsChoose allows her to pitch a project to the country and see who can chip in.

"I would say 80 percent of my class is living at poverty level and I don't want my students to go home and ask, 'Can we give my class money?'" Stotts said.

College Gate Elementary School sixth-grade teacher Gerald Tennyson has used the DonorsChoose.org website to crowdfund items for his class, including these dictionaries. (Marc Lester / ADN)

At College Gate, Tennyson has had about than 60 projects funded through DonorsChoose. College Gate is one of 37 Anchorage schools where every child eats free as part of a federal program for schools with low-income students.

Tennyson said he started using the website about four years ago. His classroom needed dictionaries, he said. "There was no way I could get them through the district and I couldn't afford to buy them myself."

Within two weeks, a collection of individuals and businesses had funded his project.

Since then, Tennyson has raised money for an array of classroom items, including laptops, books, DVDs and magazine subscriptions. He has also raised money for sweatshirts, jackets, hats and gloves for his sixth-grade students, as well as more than $500 in deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, washcloths, combs and soap that they can take home.

To start a fundraising campaign on DonorsChoose, Tennyson said, teachers must submit information about their project and why it's needed. The projects are vetted by website staff and if approved, posted online, said Chris Pearsall, the vice president of brand and communications for DonorsChoose.

Anyone can go to the website, browse the projects and donate. Each donation automatically includes a 15 percent cut for DonorsChoose. Pearsall said that contribution to the nonprofit is optional and donors can shrink or eliminate it at the online checkout.

Catherine Captain, an eighth-grader at Tetlin School in Interior Alaska, uses a molecule kit her teacher, Robert Litwack, raised money for on DonorsChoose.org. (Robert Litwack photo)

Once a project is funded, the website sends the items directly to the teacher's classroom.

College Gate Principal Darrell Berntsen said he wishes more teachers used the crowdfunding website. Only a few teachers do, he said, and they seem to have gotten a lot of new items for their classrooms, sometimes creating a case of the "haves and the have nots" in the school.

"I wish more people would know that this is a great opportunity for them," he said. "People need to understand that it's not a tedious process."

Across Alaska, 341 classroom teachers — or about 4 percent — had at least one project funded through DonorsChoose last school year, up from 41 teachers in 2010-11.

Tim Parker, president of Alaska's National Education Association teachers union, said he has noticed more teachers using crowdfunding platforms like DonorsChoose, especially in lower-income areas that don't have strong parent-teacher associations or other fundraising groups.

But he said he didn't think teachers should have to become "part-time fundraisers" so they can have what they need in their classrooms.

"The lack of resources is a problem that we're all facing as educators. And I think it's kind of sad that teachers are in a position where there's not enough funding and instead of planning a really good lesson at 8 o'clock at night they're going on DonorsChoose and spending time going out and trying to raise money," he said. "I think the better way to do it would be to adequately fund education."

Teachers across Alaska are using crowdfunding for anything from glue sticks to laptops to gardening kits.

At Tetlin School in Interior Alaska, principal and teacher Robert Litwak said he mostly uses DonorsChoose to augment his science program, fundraising for beakers, scales, molecule kits and robotics kits. They're supplies that people might see when they walk into classrooms at larger schools, but that are less affordable at a small schools, like his, with 26 students.

In the tiny and remote community of Atka, in the Aleutians, principal and teacher Shilo McManus is fundraising for four tablets. There are just 10 students at Yakov E. Netsvetov School, she said, and she wanted something that they could all use to play educational games.

Up north, at Ipalook Elementary School in Utqiagvik, first-grade teacher Megan Donnelly just had her most recent $399 project funded for flameless candles, board games, cookie baking packets and a child-safe oven.

She wrote on her project's page that she wanted "to bring the Danish concept of Hygge to our classroom." (Hygge is the Danish word for cozy.) In Utqiagvik, the sun sets in mid-November and does not rise again until about two months later.

Donnelly said she is trying to build a sense of community and warmth in her classroom during the dark winter days. She has also raised money on DonorsChoose for a sewing project, a candle making kit, an indoor garden and moor.

With money tight in Alaska, she said, she is grateful she can look nationwide for additional help to fund student projects.

"It's really exciting to be supported in this way as a teacher," she said.

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