From St. Augustine.com
By Teresa Stepzinski
Shea Grammer wants her kindergarten students at John A. Crookshank Elementary School in St. Augustine to love learning as much as she does.
To ensure her students have the tools they need to explore science, reading and writing, Grammer spent about $500 of her own money buying books and classroom materials. Among the items: art supplies, pencils, paper and educational trinkets to help inspire her students.
In her second year of teaching, Grammer is not alone in digging into her own pocket for her students. Teachers throughout Northeast Florida routinely spend their own money on classroom supplies. The sluggish economy and state budget cuts are making it harder, educators say, to keep their students from being short-changed.
Grammer, however, got some help recently through the kindness of strangers.
She was among 54 Jacksonville-area teachers who received donations totalling $30,381 to fund 68 classroom projects through DonorsChoose.org, a nationwide nonprofit website that links donors with public school teachers who need classroom materials.
Grammer received about $360 for her “Exploring Science” classroom project. The money paid for hands-on learning science kits, including magnifying glasses, bucket balances and other supplies, so her 18 students can explore the weather, magnets, the life of plants and other science topics.
“It was a huge blessing. We didn’t have the hands-on materials for science that I wanted the students to have until now,” Grammer said. “I love learning and I get excited about learning, and I wanted my students to be excited about learning, too.”
Outside help welcome
Shannon Millican, a local agent for Horace Mann, a nationwide insurance company “founded by educators for educators” alerted Grammer and the other teachers to the DonorsChoose.org program. So far this year, Horace Mann has contributed about $600,000 to school projects across the U.S. via the program.
Such outside help, Northeast Florida educators say, is needed now more than ever.
“Less supplies are available for teachers, and this is an unfortunate result in the reduction of school budgets,” St. Johns County Superintendent Joseph Joyner said. “Because of the decline in these budgets, teachers and staff are left with finding creative ways to fill the gaps without hindering instruction in the classroom.”
Northeast Florida’s teachers routinely buy school supplies to ensure students, especially those whose families are struggling, have the educational materials they need. The need has grown with the economy’s malaise. At the same time, teachers also are struggling financially, said Terrie Brady, president of Duval Teachers United.
On average, Duval’s elementary school teachers typically have shelled out $1,200 to $1,500 annually for classroom supplies, Brady said. Middle and high school teachers have averaged about $400 to $500 a year, she said.
Nationwide, pre-kindergarten through 12th grade teachers previously have spent about $350 to $500 of their own money annually for the supplies, said George Jackson, spokesman for the American Federation of Teachers.
Neither Brady, Jackson nor National Education Association officials, however, could say about how much teachers are spending this year.
“Teachers always spend money out of their own pockets to help their kids. … If there is a need, teachers will find a way to fill it,” Brady said.
They’re having to look harder, however, to find those ways.
Florida’s teachers and other state employees got a 3 percent pay cut when the Legislature overhauled the state’s pension program to require that the employees contribute to their retirement accounts.
Groups offer aid
Nonprofits, parents, community groups and businesses have stepped up to help supply classrooms.
Founded 11 years ago, DonorsChoose.org allows teachers to describe specific projects for their students and donors can choose the projects they want to support. Since then, about 160,000 public and charter school teachers have received $71 million in books, art supplies and other education materials benefitting about 3.9 million students.
Grammer was among nine St. Johns County teachers who shared a total of $4,369 in donations for 13 classroom projects through DonorsChose. In Duval County, 44 teachers shared in $24,740 in funding for 50 classroom projects. Meanwhile, two Clay County teachers shared $619 for two projects. In addition, two Putnam County teachers shared $653, also for two projects.
Grammer and her St. Johns counterparts have another ally in the St. Johns Education Foundation, which relies on donations from individuals, businesses and community and church groups.
“Our sole existence is to support teachers and students in St. Johns County,” said Donna Lueders, executive director of the foundation established four years ago. “We give away free school supplies to teachers in St. Johns County. … We’ve been able to provide them with about $10,000 a year in school supplies.”
St. Johns teachers typically spend about $700 of their own money each year for classroom supplies. The foundation helps by donating supplies ranging from pencils, pens and paper to notebooks and basic first aid supplies such as Band-Aids.
The foundation is setting up a supply depot for district teachers at the Evelyn B. Hamblen Center in St. Augustine. As part of a life-skills course, middle and high school students will work part-time at the depot, which is scheduled to open in January, Lueders said.
In addition, the foundation provides mini-grants to teachers for student enrichment projects. Although they had 102 applicants, the foundation was only able to provide 24 grants, which ranged from $100 to $2,500, this year, she said.
“It’s disappointing,” Lueders said, “to know we can’t do more.”
How to Help
n To donate or for more information about the St. Johns Education Foundation, 40 Orange St., St. Augustine, contact Donna Lueders, executive director, at 547-7120 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
n To donate or for more information about DonorsChoose.org, go online to www.donorschoose.org.
n For more information about the Horace Mann Classroom Project go online to www.horacemann.com.