By CYNTHIA McCLOUD
For The State Journal
West Virginia teachers are utilizing crowdfunding to get enrichment projects for their students and even basic supplies for their classrooms.
In addition to general crowdfunding platforms such as GoFundMe and Kickstarter or philanthropy sites such as Wish Upon a Hero, there are sites specifically aimed at educators, such as Adopt-A-Classroom. Teachers are having a lot of success posting their specific needs to DonorsChoose.org.
On its site, Donors Choose shows $589,784 has been raised to supply things to 334 schools in West Virginia. That adds up to 1,296 projects funded to help 37,267 students. The money was given by 2,052 supporters — some whose donations were matched by philanthropic organizations and corporations.
"It definitely has changed our classroom for the better," said Kelly Murray, who teaches chemistry to 11th- and 12th- grade students in Preston County, where voters repeatedly turn down excess levies that would help outfit classrooms. Murray said fundraisers are limited and teacher allowances don't go far enough.
"A lot of schools are in this situation and the money just simply is not there," she said.
Through Donors Choose, Murray has received more than $35,000 for 28 projects at Preston High School in Kingwood. She started using the site a couple of years ago to equip the school's new science complex.
Donors Choose founder and CEO Charles Best and his staff visited Murray's classroom last year when he was in Morgantown to speak at West Virginia University's Festival of Ideas.
The biggest project netted 64 new college-grade microscopes worth almost $11,000. After the lab's basic needs for Bunsen burners and beakers were met, Murray and fellow science teacher Tina Cool focused on enrichment, such as starting a hydroponics research program, buying plant growth cards, a water bath chamber and compost bins.
Right now she's seeking two LabQuest data systems to allow students to collect data, using probeware the school already owns instead of chemical test kits that must be replaced each year, and then share and analyze the data wirelessly with other groups via computer or smartphone.
"There is no separate funding for classrooms in the budget that some counties have," Murray said. "We do a fundraiser every year that covers the cost of gloves and consumables, but that's nowhere near what we need to start new labs and new programs. We were basically told ‘figure it out.'"
She said administrators have been enthusiastic. Short of spending their own money, teachers have few means to buy basic supplies and extras.
"I have tried writing a grant before and there are a lot of grants that don't include pre-K," said Jessica England, a special education pre-K teacher at Jefferson Elementary in Wood County.
Right now, Tiffany Forman, who teaches fifth graders at Terra Alta/East Preston School, is trying to get 15 triple beam balances, valued at $1,880, for the new science lab. Her students currently share one that her husband repaired.
"I used donorschoose.org because I wanted some of my family and friends to realize that I needed items," Forman said. "Plus, that way they knew that their money was going directly to something that I needed."
Full-time public school teachers list projects on Donors Choose by creating an account and explaining why the goods are needed and how they will be used, said Cassandra Sisler, a special education teacher at Kingwood Elementary, who has had six projects funded for $2,295 to get instructional supplies and educational games.
Murray said they can select supplies from vendors who partner with the site, sometimes at a lower rate than if they ordered from a catalog, and they can indicate if their school is located in an area of high poverty. Socioeconomics might matter to some benefactors, but many give because they know the teacher, graduated from the school or have an interest in the subject matter, all the teachers said. Then teachers get the word out.
"Social media plays a huge role in this," Sisler said. "I have had former high school classmates donate, cyber friends, parents of students, people from other countries and former students from the school I teach at."
When the project is funded and Donors Choose ships the supplies to the teacher, the class writes thank-you notes to anyone who donated $50 or more. The teacher must upload six pictures of students using the items and write how the project impacted the class.
Donors Choose makes money when a portion of a donor's gift goes to the company for operating costs. The default is 10 percent, Murray said, but donors can go in and change it to zero percent so all of their gift goes to the teacher.
"Three to 5 percent of everything that comes in is used to run the program, and everything else is rolled back in the classroom," Murray said.
The teachers urge colleagues to sign up and review and give to their peers' projects.
"I am not only a teacher on Donors Choose; I am also a donor," Sisler said. "I generally do a Google search for ‘match codes.' Sometimes you can find a code and a company will match your donation."
There are currently 145 projects by West Virginia teachers listed at DonorsChoose.org. They include requests for musical instruments for students with autism at Dunlow Elementary in Wayne County and shark dissection kits for Guyan Valley Middle School students who have never had a dissection lab.