Teachers spend big for students in need

Some say buying food, toiletries, even instruments is part of their mission

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When Cedar Rapids kindergarten teacher Tiffany Orr goes to the grocery store each week, she buys a box of granola bars for her students.

A teacher at Arthur Elementary, Orr gives the bars to students whose families may not be able to afford breakfast. She said she does all she can to make sure her students’ basic needs are met — at least while they’re in her classroom.

“No kindergartner in my room will ever go hungry,” she said. “I treat them like I would treat my own child, so if they need something I want them to know they can come to me for it.”

As many teachers across the nation have done for years, some teachers in the Corridor say they spend hundreds of dollars of their own money each year to stock their classrooms with supplies ranging from crayons to deodorant.

With classes in the Corridor starting Wednesday, many teachers have begun preparing their classrooms and adding personal touches.

Although the issue of teachers taking on the financial burdens themselves is not new, the needs are growing, said Tammy Wawro, president of the Iowa State Education Association.

Educators have upped their own spending to fill in the gaps, Wawro said. Districts allocate teachers a certain amount for classroom spending each year; but Wawro said it’s usually not quite enough.

On average, teachers across the country spend nearly $600 of their own money annually for their classrooms, according to a survey of teachers during the 2015 academic year by AdoptAClassroom.org, a crowdfunding website for teachers.

The survey also found that over 60 percent of all classroom materials are purchased by teachers from their own funds.

Some teachers are turning to social media like AdoptAClassroom or GoFundMe to help raise money for their classes. In July, a third-grade teacher in Oklahoma drew worldwide attention when she panhandled for money to buy school supplies.

In Iowa, the issue impacts teachers across the state, Wawro said.

“I came out of (teaching) in Cedar Rapids, and I thought it was an urban issue, and it really is not,” she said. “It is spread across the state, as far as poverty and need and the lack of funding.”

In Cedar Rapids, McKinley Middle School special education teacher Kelly Franklin-Clark said she is used to buying her students things like socks, belts and deodorant. Reaching out can lead to deeper student-teacher relationships, she said.

“Showing that caring and human piece of yourself and saying, ‘I care about you, and I want you to be at your best, and I’m going to help provide that,’ it definitely helps to build that trust,” Franklin-Clark said.

Taking this extra step for her students means Franklin-Clark — like many of her colleagues — spends several hundred dollars each year.

The inaccessibility of supplies for many students isn’t surprising in a school where a large portion of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price lunch, said McKinley sixth-grade teacher Mary Reynolds.

Over half of McKinley students were eligible for the program during the 2016 academic year, according to the Iowa Department of Education.

In addition to providing students with food and toiletries, Reynolds also purchases many of her own classroom furnishings. The district provides major needs like tables and chairs, but Reynolds relies on thrift shopping to add comforting touches.

For example, many students dislike the fluorescent lights, she said. To put students at ease, she buys lamps and strings of lights at secondhand stores to use in place of the overhead lights in her room.

Seventh grade science teacher Rob Hruby’s dream is to replace the 30 desks in his room with flexible seating options. That would make the environment more conducive to learning and teamwork, he said.

“There’s not money in a school or district budget for that. It’s going to come out of your pocket,” he said. “But that’s not really attainable with a family at home. My wife is also a teacher, and if we both spent our income on our classrooms, I don’t know where we’d be living.”

As an elementary school music teacher, Darren Knipfer has some even bigger costs to worry about.

Knipfer’s students at Arthur and Garfield elementaries use instruments ranging from recorders to guitars, and instruments are expensive, he said.

For example, one bass xylophone costs $1,800, he said, and kids need music for their concerts, too, which costs between $125 to $200 per program.

Five years ago, Knipfer turned to AdoptAClassroom.org in hopes that crowdfunding would alleviate some financial strain. Donors can search the site, view specific teachers’ posts about their needs and give money online.

Each year, crowdfunding usually covers about $400 to $500 of Knipfer’s funding needs that aren’t met by the district’s allowance. He uses the money to repair and purchase instruments as well as buy curricula, music and other supplies for his students.

One year, Knipfer used AdoptAClassroom funds to buy an entire set of recorders so each student had his or her own. He then had enough instruments to start teaching younger students how to play and saved class time that otherwise would have been spent sanitizing shared instruments, he said.

However, it’s still not enough. Knipfer usually tries to keep his personal spending to about $200. Over the years, he has paid for equipment from secondhand guitars to glockenspiel racks.

AdoptAClassroom.org, a nonprofit organization, was launched in 1998 to connect teachers with businesses and individuals who could help provide school supplies, said program manager Melissa Hruza.

“Teachers are a really underserved community in their own right,” Hruza said. “They don’t make a lot of money, so we want to make sure they can get the resources they need.”

Teachers most frequently purchase art materials, organizational items, food and books with the money from the site, an AdoptAClassroom.org survey showed.

Alleviating teachers’ burdens will take widespread action from a number of stakeholders, Wawro said.

“This is something that takes a village. This isn’t just about not having pencils and paper. It’s a bigger conversation,” she said.

Community partnerships and parent involvement are key to spreading the word about the extra duties teachers take on to support their students, Wawro said.

But for now, Orr said the extra spending is just part of the job.

“I don’t think there would be anybody in this profession … who would complain about that,” Orr said. “That’s why we got into this. We want to help kids.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8542; rilyn.eischens@thegazette.com

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