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The back-to-school gifts that L.A. teachers need

The back-to-school gifts that L.A. teachers need
Maris Vega smiles for her father, Chris, behind a picture frame made by her teacher on the first day of kindergarten at the Telesis Academy in West Covina. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

There's a school in Los Angeles where the computers are so decrepit that even the Salvation Army won’t accept them. 

At least that's how one teacher describes her dire straits at Crescent Hills Magnet School in mid-city on DonorsChoose, a website aimed to connect teachers with extra resources for their classrooms and professional development. 

"The computers in our classrooms are turn of the millennium relics," the teacher wrote on her project page. "They are so old that the district will not service them and the Salvation Army will not accept them as donations. As an educator, it is my responsibility to ensure that our students have true access to the Internet." 

DonorsChoose.org is a crowdfunding website for teachers. Educators can request items for the projects they are devising. Many of them tend to focus on longer-term efforts, such as obtaining laptops or science experiment kits.

These projects show what Los Angeles teachers believe is lacking in their classrooms. Instead of relying on a school board allocating funds, teachers are demanding their own funding.

Technology is a popular request from teachers, according to our analysis of 830 DonorsChoose.org requests that L.A. teachers posted over the last four months. In what the site calls "need statements," a sentence or two describing what the teacher is seeking, the most common classroom item was "books," followed by "iPad."

The chart isn't a precise representation of the projects: Sometimes more than one popular search word will appear in the same need statement — "laptop computers," for example. Our analysis may also be an underrepresentation of some requests, because some projects said "laptops" while others said "laptop," for example. Still, the terms offer a glimpse into what teachers need.

Ingrid Villeda, a teacher for 17 years who starts saving for back-to-school supplies in April, has turned to DonorsChoose before. But more often she relies on her own savings and texts from fellow teachers alerting her to the latest deals. 

She has her routine down. Each spring, she starts squirreling away extra dollars from her paycheck so that she has about $400 by August, when she hunts for back-to-school sales. 

Villeda, who teaches at 93rd Street Elementary School in South L.A., spends the money on notebooks for her 30-some students, the borders that wrap her classroom displays and pencil boxes. There are pencils wrapped in images of the U.S. Constitution, bought to inspire her students for that unit of the syllabus.

"When you’re buying for 35, even if you're buying something that’s for 50 cents or a dollar, it adds up,” said Villeda, who is south area chairwoman for her union, United Teachers Los Angeles. 

Schools do provide some of these materials; some schools provide more than others. At 93rd Street, Villeda said, she receives one composition book per student. But she requires her students to use three books — for daily language, science and writing — and they can't always afford them. So she buys extras.

Supt. Ramon Cortines of the L.A. Unified School District says this problem isn’t new. "Even when I started teaching 60 years ago, there was never enough money allocated to cover all the things we wanted for our classroom,” he said via email. “As we secure more funding, I believe we will be able to address the need for more resources in our classrooms."

After years of comparing promotions with fellow teachers, one teacher at Villeda's school taught a seminar on how to apply for DonorsChoose.org funding. 

The priciest projects that L.A. teachers have posted in the last four months seek money for laptops, iPads, instruments and cameras. One teacher asked for $9,313 for "a course in life coaching so that I can better help my students develop tools to navigate life" (it did not get funded), and another asked for a MacBook Pro and teacher development e-books. 

Listed prices include an optional 17.6% donation to DonorsChoose.org, which the website tacks on to requests.

The most expensive project by far — from the Crescent Hills teacher — asks for $66,760 for "a printer, ink cartridges for the printer, 24 laptops." (It’s  $56,746.42 without the optional donation.) As of Friday, the project hadn’t received a single donation.

The least expensive projects might be even more telling than the most costly, as they show how money pushes teachers beyond their own wallets and into public crowdfunding. The least expensive project from LAUSD teachers, as of mid-August, was a request for $149.93 (including that optional donation) for a subscription to Flocabulary.com, "a website with amazing academic raps."

Other teachers asked for basic supplies like desk trays, journals, "books about colors" and pencil boxes. 

Whether a project gets funded is up to chance, and many take a long time, Villeda said. She's used the website twice — once about seven years ago, when her request for cameras, two laptops and software for her yearbook class was funded.

But when she tried again that same year to get science kits for her fifth-grade class, it didn't happen and she didn't get the kits.

"If you're trying to do the best possible job for your students," Villeda said, "there are some personal sacrifices that you make."

Villeda starts saving again in the fall, so she can replenish her supplies in January. By the end of the school year, she’ll have spent more than $1,000.

Reach Sonali Kohli on Twitter @sonali_kohli or by email at sonali.kohli@latimes.com.

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