Assumptions vs. reality: Classroom budgets leave teachers to cover deficits

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LANSING, Mich.— Instead of the harsh white light of the fluorescents, the light pouring from Alexa Weatherwax’s second grade classroom is the soft glow of old-fashioned incandescent string lights and paper lanterns she hung from the ceiling. She purchased the lights in part to ease her own headaches, but she also bought them to create a comfortable learning environment for her students with autism.

This is Weatherwax’s second year of teaching. In her first year of teaching, she purchased lights, books for her classroom library, secured a grant for bookshelves and brought in one of her own couches. The only money Weatherwax spent out of pocket this year was on a travel Q-tip container for her students’ vocabulary words. Her school, Eureka Elementary in St. Johns, located 34 miles north of Lansing and home to almost 8,000 residents, provides school supplies and gives teachers a $100 budget to purchase technology or learning software. The school’s Parent Teacher Organization also typically provides $200 yearly to each teacher.

“I think it just helps the kids stay organized having things like those folders and those notebooks,” Weatherwax said. “The fact that we didn’t even request students bring their own, they don’t have different kinds of folders, they’re all the same. There’s no ‘well, you have that and I don’t,’ and just having access to things like pencils and erasers is important too.

“Anything we need, we just have to ask. Our principal especially will try to figure out a way to get that for us. Parents are actually very supportive, too, here. If I need extra Kleenex, if we run out of Kleenex, I just send out an email and I have a ton of Kleenex or Clorox or things like that.”

Classroom supply gaps
Weatherwax’s experience, however, is atypical and illustrates the starkness in realities between suburban and urban public schools, mostly White versus mostly Black school districts. According to the non-profit’s national survey, 91 percent of teachers purchase school supplies for their students. The report goes on to say, on average, teachers in the United States spend $600 out of pocket each year on classroom supplies.

“We speak with many schools where they say 99 to 100 percent of their students are qualifying for free or reduced lunch,” said communications associate Devon Karbowski, “so the numbers can get pretty ridiculous when you have to consider that a lot of those students aren’t getting the supplies they need from the schools, because the teachers just can’t provide all of that.”

In Vicki Rigg’s first grade classroom at El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Academy in Lansing, the only thing hanging from the ceiling is a string of paper flags from countries around the world. Large windows let in natural light, highlighting the whitewashed walls hung with a few maps and educational posters.

This year, her school provided $150 toward supplies for her classroom, Rigg said. She uses those funds for larger items, like posters or hands-on learning tools. For essentials like crayons, pencils and notebooks, she sends home a supply list.

“We send home a list, and often they come in with nothing because they’re strapped, they just don’t have it,” Rigg said. “Some of them come in with everything on the list, some of them come in with a few of the things on the list.”

Out of 246 students at El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Academy last school year, 242 qualify for free or reduced lunches, while 227 out of 333 students at Weatherwax’s St. Johns’ Eureka Elementary do, according to MI School Data, the official State of Michigan online database.

While the school and several businesses provide some supplies, Rigg purchases the essentials for students whose families are unable to provide them. Rigg said she typically spends at least $250 per year, the maximum income tax deductible. After reaching $250, she stops keeping track.

“We go through paper, crayons, colored pencils, markers, scissors, glue sticks — that’s the main thing. We go through a ton of hand sanitizer, a ton of Kleenex,” Rigg said. “We get some of it from the school, but our kids usually use it faster than we get it.”

Administrative support
Rigg said she feels very supported by school administrator Angela Rodriguez in her endeavor to create a positive learning environment for her students. If teachers can show how a resource is educationally valuable, she said, Rodriguez finds a way to get it for them.

“At the beginning of the school year, I give the teachers $150 to start,” Rodriguez said, “but anything that they need that I feel is educationally wise and academically wise that they are going to use, I will purchase it.”

Rodriguez said each summer she sits down with her accountant and sets aside typically $70,000 to $80,000 as general funds. She said that allocation of funds allows her the flexibility to not only be able to provide textbooks and online subscriptions but to also be able to support her teachers with additional resources and tools they need to educate the kids.

“It’s no different than a well-equipped home. You need to have the bathroom, you need to have the kitchen and food in the kitchen to be able to cook. You can have a kitchen but what’s the sense if you don’t have running water, if you don’t have food, if you don’t have the supplies you needed to take care of the household,” Rodriguez said.

“If I don’t provide my teachers with the resources needed, how can I expect them to academically teach my students, and how can I expose my students to things that they are going to need if I don’t provide them?”

School board budgeting
Rodriguez said one of her biggest challenges in providing resources for her teachers is working with her school board on budgeting.

“I have to sell myself to the board,” Rodriguez said. “They’re not here,” I understand that their intentions may be good, and they’re watching the budget, but at the end of the day, I know what is needed. Just to get them to understand that you hired me to do this job, now let me do it.”

El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz Academy School Board President Cordree McConnell said while they set the budget, their primary funding comes from the State of Michigan.

“We take that and try to, not try to, have to work with that funding source,” McConnell said.

While she acknowledged the importance of providing classroom resources, McConnell said that it is only one line item on their budget that includes building maintenance costs and staff salaries.

“We’re not unique in saying that we could use more,” McConnell said. “We make sure that, in designating all the breakouts in supplies, we make sure we adequately fund it. If we find out we did not, our administrator alerts the board and we make adjustments. If we find out we need to do things above and beyond we’re allowed to go back in and adjust.”

Technology in the classroom
The school board sets the budget for the entire building, so they are able to provide things like SMART Boards, McConnell said.

“Our children love the SMART Board,” McConnell said. “You can make something so much fun they don’t realize they’re learning, and they learn more.”

Rigg said resources like the SMART Board and access to Google Chromebooks encourage her students’ desire to learn.

“If they can get on the technology, they are so excited,” Rigg said. “Not all of them have it to use at home. I wish we could afford to do more things. I would love to see iPads in the classrooms, at least enough for a center. There’s so much technology available to us now, that if we had it, we could do a listening center. That’s something I can’t afford to just go out and get.”

Classroom resources’ impact on learning
Teachers purchase 60 percent of classroom supplies, reports the survey.

“We do events with our corporate sponsors in schools where we will surprise adopt all of the teachers at the school with some money on,” said program manager Melissa Hruza. “Usually when we do those events, the teachers are really moved, many to the point of tears. A lot of it is, they work really hard every day. They’re working weekends, they’re working evenings, they’re spending their own money on their students.

“We empower teachers to spend the money how they see fit. That’s something that teachers really don’t get a lot of recently. They aren’t respected sometimes to the level they should be in their profession, where they’re given a check for a couple hundred dollars and are told ‘you know where this is best spent, so go spend it.’”

Hruza said their donors support because they want to see their funds in the hands of teachers. Their donors, she said, trust those teachers to improve their students’ educational opportunities with those funds.

“I think something we see is when students have access, they can perform better, and when students are inspired by their education they learn more about what they’re passionate about,” Hruza said. “Education is all about finding out where you want to go and what strengths you have and where you can improve on those strengths. If you don’t have access to, for example, in a reading class, books that are inspirational to you as a young learner, you are really missing out on the idea of reading as something that you’re interested in, in general.”

Both Rigg and Weatherwax purchased their classrooms’ books with their personal funds.

“Having access to different types of tools really improves the education experience for students,” Hruza said, “and allows teachers to introduce them to concepts that are beyond their world and looking at the world as a larger place.”

Rigg said she would like people outside the education system to know how often classroom supplies need to be replaced.

“You think you’ve got all your stuff through the end of the school year. It doesn’t last,” Rigg said. “At Christmastime you really need to supply most everything again. You know, you’ve gone through most of the crayons. Their pencils are all broken up and the erasers are gone. There are just things that need to be replenished throughout the school year.”

She also said she wishes the public knew the toll not having the funds to improve their students’ education takes on teachers.

“You wish you could do more and you feel like you could be more successful if you did more, you could reach more of the kids,” Rigg said. “It’s frustrating because you feel like your hands are tied and you still need to do the same job.”

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