Tapping the Internet for school dollars

For years, Chris and Jennifer Davis have given their students the task of interviewing senior family members as part of an oral history project for the couple’s humanities class at Clark Magnet High School.

But the cheap recorders used to collect the audio data were increasingly insufficient. So earlier this month, Chris Davis turned to the nonprofit website donorschoose.org, where he posted a request for eight, high-quality digital recorders and a description of how they would be used.

By Friday, eight people had logged on and donated the $800 needed to buy the recorders.

“We buy basic supplies for our classroom all the time, but this is something that is pretty costly and I am not going to go out and spend $800 on something,” Chris Davis said. “If many people can contribute, that just makes my job a lot easier.”

Increasing numbers of public school teachers are turning to the website to finance classroom supplies and special projects, said Cesar Bocanegra, chief operating officer for DonorsChoose. Since it was founded in 2000 by a New York high school teacher in the Bronx, the organization has facilitated $108 million in funding for public education, and is expected to do another $40 million in business this year alone, he said.

There are other organizations with similar missions, but none operate on the scale of DonorsChoose, which went national in 2007 and is accessible to every public school in the United States, Bocanegra said.

The organization has a series of safeguards in place to ensure donations are used for their stated purpose. Every one of the 10,000 monthly submissions are carefully vetted, and principals are contacted to substantiate the need. Participating teachers never actually see the money — instead, the requested items are purchased by DonorsChoose and mailed directly to the school address.

Teachers are required to follow up by posting photos of the donated item in use on the website, and by sending thank-you notes to everyone who contributed at least $50, Bocanegra said.

A $35 fee is attached to each project listing, and donors can also choose to contribute to the nonprofit beyond their specified donation, money needed to cover operating expenses, Bocanegra said.

There are currently 24,000 projects on the website awaiting funding, including dozens from local teachers. At Palm Crest Elementary School in La Cañada Flintridge, third-grade teacher Emily Blaney is seeking 15 dictionaries and 15 thesauruses — for a total cost of $630 — to be used in an upcoming reader’s and writer’s workshop.

“We are all in short supply of these reference materials,” Blaney wrote in her description to potential donors. “And having high-quality, hard-backed copies will allow future students to benefit from this resource as well.”

In Burbank, teachers are soliciting donations for microscopes, microphones and a camcorder. There are currently 10 pending requests from Glendale teachers, including from Clark Magnet teacher David Black for a programming computer — total cost, $911 — that would be used by students in an upcoming robotics competition.

English teacher Conrad Pruitt introduced his Clark Magnet colleagues to the website, which he says creates a channel by which former students, community members and complete strangers can directly contribute to public education via a project that is of interest to them.

It also allows teachers to pick up where funding from districts, PTAs and foundations drop off, he said.

“As far as I have been teaching this has been the reality of it,” Pruitt said.

Chris Davis, who expects to distribute his new digital recorders within weeks, said that donation requests based on specific projects allows contributors a sense of ownership. It also fosters communication and collaboration among colleagues, he said.

“I know David Black worked so hard on that robotics program that if 10 more dollars can help him get closer to getting that computer so that their robot can be more competitive, and the kids can have a great experience, I am happy to help him out too,” he said.

Twitter: @megankoneil

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