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Minimum isn't enough - Bremerton and CK teachers look for outside help to pay for classroom materials

Klahowya Secondary School teacher Danyell Laughlin teaches vocabulary lessons to a seventh grade reading class Wednesday. Laughlin used donorschoose.org to pay for new novels for her classroom. - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
Klahowya Secondary School teacher Danyell Laughlin teaches vocabulary lessons to a seventh grade reading class Wednesday. Laughlin used donorschoose.org to pay for new novels for her classroom.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

When Klahowya Secondary School teacher Danyell Laughlin announced to her seventh grade reading class Wednesday that they’d be getting a new set of novels paid for by private donors, the reaction was mixed. Some students cheered, while others groaned, “No.”

“You don’t like that?” Laughlin asked with faux incredulousness.

That lukewarm reaction is why Laughlin sought new books in the first place – to offer more exciting novels to her students. But because no extra money is available in the Central Kitsap School District to pay for them, she went to strangers on the internet to ask for money.

Laughlin is one of several teachers in the Bremerton and Central Kitsap school districts to use donorschoose.org, a site that collects public donations for classroom materials teachers request. And as district budgets tighten, teachers who seek supplemental materials to help students learn see it as the best, most direct way to obtain them.

Laughlin, whose request for new novels was her first foray into donorschoose.org, wrote her grant for about $550 a month-and-a-half ago and was notified Tuesday that her project was fully paid for.

“It went really fast,” she said. “I was very surprised.”

The books, which she will use to facilitate small group discussions among her students, will arrive in two to four weeks.

“New books are important to have,” said Skylar Stevens, a 12-year-old in Laughlin’s reading class.

Rebecca Flint, 13, said the classroom’s stock of books could use more variety, and books better suited for seventh grade reading levels.

“I’m excited for some new books,” Flint said. “A lot of those books are pretty old.”

Laughlin has looked to other sources before to help pay for classroom aids - she has applied for the school district’s annual Linder Grant and has gone to Klahowya’s English department and the district administration seeking help - but they were never enough.

“In many cases, the additional resources we want to use for our classrooms are very hard to come by,” she said. “We have a hard time even paying for the necessary.”

The Central Kitsap School District faces an estimated $2.2 million budget shortfall for the 2011-2012 school year, while the Bremerton Schools District’s predicted deficit is $1.1 million.

Sarah Stevens, a speech language pathologist for the Bremerton School District, said asking the school district for money isn’t even worth it.

“Right now we don’t even want to ask because funding is so tight,” Stevens said, adding that her caseload continues to grow, making new materials necessary. “There’s so little money and it’s looking almost desperate in the coming years. Our kids aren’t going away, but our money sure is.”

Stevens now has her second project posted on donorschoose.org. In the fall, she collected donations for two iPod Touch devices for her autistic students. Now, she is requesting other materials for her special needs students, such as a talking photo album and work books for those with attention deficit disorder and autism. So far, she has collected about $270 and has about $470 to go.

Donors aren’t all family and friends. Most are complete strangers, many anonymous. Teachers said several probably donate to receive tax write-offs. The iPod Touches that Stevens requested were mostly paid for by a View Ridge Elementary alumnus from Edmonds who donated the remainder needed for the project - $350 to $400 - all at once.

“It’s been really heartwarming to see how much people are willing to do for kids,” Stevens said.

Teachers say that the school districts pay for what they can and supply the minimum materials necessary. But to better engage the students and try new learning strategies, they dip into their own pockets, construct their own materials or look for outside grants.

“Certainly we do the best we can to support the materials that our teachers need,” Bremerton School District spokeswoman Patty Glaser said. “Any discretionary money we may have had has pretty much been cut a long time ago. Teachers have always been looking for ways to fill the void.”

Both districts have foundations that award limited grants to teachers who apply and PTA groups also give money. But teachers say donorschoose.org cuts through the red tape.

Sarah Cole, a kindergarten teacher at Silverdale Elementary, has had several projects paid for through donorschoose.org. Her first project, for science materials, was posted a year-and-a-half ago and did not collect enough money before the website’s six-month limit. It was later paid for by the school’s PTA. But since then, she has collected enough money for four projects and now seeks donations for backpacks filled with take-home reading activities.

They may not be what the district deems essential materials, but they enhance her lessons and make her job easier, she said.

“As I learn new strategies to help kids learn, often it comes with a price tag for more materials,” Cole said. “Any classroom is going to feel that way.”

One project Cole pushed through donorschoose.org was letter tiles her students could use to spell out words and play word games. Previously, Cole made the tiles from paper, which wore out quickly in five-year-old hands.

“When you have materials that are going to last for a long time, as a teacher that‚Äôs very important because I can spend my time, instead of making other things, doing something else,” she said.

Laughlin said finding the right books to engage her students allows her to spend less time coaxing them into reading and more time teaching.

“The less good materials I have, the more time I have to spend making the lesson work,” she said. “A really good book does the motivation job for me.”

If not for outlets such as donorschoose.org, teachers said they would go without the needed materials.

“I would still be teaching and I would still be serving my students well if I couldn’t put these books in their hands,” Laughlin said. “It would just be more difficult.”

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