Hawaii Teachers Turn to Funding Website for School Supplies

Photo: Courtesy Nicole Testa

Kelli Taboada doesn’t have much of a budget to work with when it comes to buying school supplies for her students at Fern Elementary School in Kalihi.

“We’re in a bind,” says Taboada, who teaches second grade. “We use a lot of our own money. I do struggle, but I still purchase things for the class because my students deserve it, they need these things.”

It’s no secret that public school teachers spend a lot of their own money on projects and supplies for their students, especially given the state Department of Education’s ongoing budget cuts. Taboada says she spent around $300 before the current school year started this summer, and will continue to buy supplies throughout the year.

To alleviate the financial burden, she turned to the Donors Choose website for help. A social studies teacher in the Bronx started the website in 2000 to get funding for his classroom, and to allow other teachers to do the same. The formula is simple: Teachers and school counselors post their projects online, whether they’re for art, science, technology, math and basic supplies, and anyone can click on their project and donate. Teachers from every state are using the website; there are currently 43 Hawaii projects on all the major islands. Teachers have five months to get their projects funded.

Once a project has been fully paid for—most projects need $200 to $900—the Donors Choose staff work with a list of vendors to order the supplies and have them sent to the teacher. The teachers and students then send thank-you letters to the donors and post pictures with their new supplies online.

Taboada is asking for donors to help her buy books for her students to read in class and at home. “The majority of my students aren’t exposed to books—they don’t have them at home,” she says. Currently, Taboada provides books for her 20 students, some of whom are in special education and learning English as a second language, but says the reading levels of her students vary greatly. They’ve also all read the books she lent them. “We have no funding for a classroom library, so I went online.”

So far, two donors have given $30, to Taboada’s project, which was approved on Oct. 25. She still needs $394.86 before Donors Choose will purchase about 50 books and book bins for her students. Taboada has until March before her project listing expires, but she says she feels confident it will be fully funded.

The website has become widely used across the U.S. According to Donors Choose, one in three U.S. schools has at least one teacher that has used the website.

Hawaii’s projects, interestingly enough, are funded half by residents and half by the kindness of strangers on the Mainland, including donors from California, Arizona and Illinois.

“Most local donors are not parents [of the school project they donate to],” says Nicole Testa, a behavioral specialist at Dole Middle School. “We also get funding from people from out of state who just believe in the cause.”

Testa recently posted an art project request to Donors Choose. She’s asking for T-shirts, paint and other supplies for a silk-screening project for her students. “As an art therapist, I see students with behavioral and emotional issues,” she says. “The students love silk-screening. They’re very proud and work hard. It teaches them patience, too.”

Testa says the school’s administration believes in the value of the arts and has strived not to cut art programs completely. But she had to pay for the paint and T-shirts herself, so silk-screening at the school is on hiatus until her project gets fully funded. She posted it this July. So far, three donors have given $110, leaving $431.29 to go.

“The kids ask me about it every week,” she says with a laugh.

This is Testa’s second Donors Choose project. She posted her first project in July, asking for 54 backpacks and school supplies for low-income students whose parents couldn’t afford to buy them for their children. (Dole Middle is a Title I school, meaning many of the students are from needy families. Testa says there are even homeless students at the school.)

“That project really took off,” she says. “It was completed before school started.”

Both Taboado and Testa plan on using Donors Choose again, and have shared their experiences with their fellow teachers and counselors. The DOE, acknowledging its decrease in funding, also encourages teachers to use the website, says department spokesperson Sandy Goya.

“You have to look outside of the box and get creative to try to get funding for the classroom,” says Taboada.