By Alia Wong
Mrs. Romero really needs eight cushions so that her elementary school pupils don't have to sit on the cold, hard tile at her feet during reading time.
Rather than do it the old-fashioned way, by turning to her Parent Teacher Association in search of donations, she is reaching out directly to the public via a crowdfunding campaign.
On the Donors Choose website, she explains why anyone who wants to should help to satisfy her students' needs. "Upper elementary classes are not set up to have students seated on the floor," she wrote as part of her plea.
"We do not have carpets or area rugs, nor do we have the funding to purchase these items," she said, adding that easily distracted students focus better when they are close to her as she reads aloud. After all, she says, "Our floor time is probably the only time these kids ever get read to."
Romero's students will have somewhere to sit if she succeeds in raising $509 by January 5.
Think of DonorsChoose.org as a Kickstarter for public education. Much like the giant crowdfunding site that helps people raise money for creative endeavors, on DonorsChoose.org teachers across the country collect donations for classroom projects.
Popular crowdfunding campaigns on websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo raised a total $2.7 billion dollars from more than 1 million people around the world in 2012 to support an array of creative and business projects, according to the 2013 Crowdfunding Industry report. The crowdfunding industry is projected to grow to $5.1 billion this year.
The increasingly popular funding method, which initially was used to support fairly small artistic, creative and inventive projects, is now funding more ambitious ones, including an array of multimillion-dollar films.
On a smaller scale, thousands of teachers around the country have gotten in on the trend, and they are currently being joined by dozens in Hawaii.
Overall, public school teachers across the islands are seeking funding for 70 individual "projects" posted on Donors Choose, which describes itself as a charity website.
The innovative local funding efforts shed some light on the range of resources that are absent from classrooms on isles. That is because the Hawaii campaigns are trying to secure money for things that public schools in some parts of the country provide directly to teachers. One teacher wants colored pencils, glue sticks and other basic arts supplies for her middle school class.
Some of the teachers are seeking support for technology. Three teachers each want a pair of Google Chromebooks for their students. (That adds up to less than $750 per teacher.) Another wants iPads.
Many of the teachers promise to help students transition into Common Core — a new set of math and language arts education standards that have been adopted in nearly every state.
One study suggests that U.S. public school teachers spent on average about $485 of their own money last year on school supplies and other classroom materials, a tendency that local educators have highlighted in their rallies to secure higher wages and increased investment in the state’s public schools.
Hawaii Department of Education officials say alternative funding sources such as crowdfunding websites are critical to subsidize classroom basics that the state’s budget simply can’t afford. In this view, DonorsChoose.org is another outside funding tool, along with more traditional support from corporate foundations and community organizations.
The department, according to Spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz, encourages and supports teachers and staff “who continuously go the extra mile in looking for ways to fund programs that the department is unable to budget for.”
Another spokeswoman also pointed to big-ticket, school-specific donations from companies such as Atlas Insurance and the McInerny Foundation.
In this case, pledgers can give as much as they want to a project, and DonorsChoose.org provides the school supplies only after a project is fully funded. The site only ships or delivers the supplies once they’ve secured all of the funding, to ensure that donors’ money is spent as it was intended.
The site says that 70 percent of the projects posted on its site are successful.
The least-expensive Hawaii project listed on the website costs $223 and would buy a keyboard and stylus that students in Mrs. Indica’s Aiea High School class can connect to their iPads. The biggest campaign is for $15,900, money that would fund 30 iPad minis, along with some additional supplies, for students in Mrs. Gibson’s Kilauea Elementary School classroom. (The site only lists the last names of teachers who are seeking funding.)
But iPads, which along with laptops are already being gradually introduced into Hawaii classrooms to support the new Common Core standards, are just part of the picture.
One teacher is asking for 14 books about the human body ($176), while another is requesting a Yacker Tracker that helps middle-school students monitor their noise levels ($222).
Others are seeking tools to help boost literacy for all types of learners, such as a $349 project that’s asking for audio books for special-needs preschoolers.
Hawaii still has a small presence on the site — by contrast the state of New York has 1,285 projects — but efforts are underway to get more local teachers to use it.