Fifth-grader Monet Renfro and the rest of her still-amped classmates at Garfield Elementary School were back in their classroom Wednesday, trying to sort out how these things happen.
How does an online portal between teachers and the world connect their Kansas City classroom needs to so many generous strangers?
How do their mayor, their superintendent and their entourages end up in a crowd in their library to celebrate unexpected gifts?
Google had come, announcing that the Internet search giant is going to pay the entire $194,370 for school materials that 152 teachers across 16 Kansas City area counties had requested in advertisements on the national DonorsChoose.org website.
Monet’s teacher, Annette Rhinehart, found out she is getting the digital storytelling center with the microphones and iPads that will help a class of so many immigrant and refugee students record plays together to bridge the wide gaps in their English speaking abilities.
How is it that not just Google but all the other people unknown over the past few years have supported several requests by Rhinehart for schoolchildren they have never seen?
“They’re strangers,” Rhinehart told the children, “who want to help kids in Kansas City learn.”
Monet thought she understood why.
“It’s what the mayor said,” Monet said, thinking back to the talk in the library by Mayor Sly James and others about how teachers and their supporters are working so hard to make them the best students they can be.
“It’s so we can take over the city.”
Fourteen years ago, before the word “crowdfunding” had even been coined, teachers in the Bronx in New York City sensed the Web’s potential to help the longstanding problem of acquiring extra classroom materials.
Nationwide, teachers spend an average of $485 of their own money each year for instructional materials, according to a 2013 survey by the Education Market Association. That’s a total of roughly $1.6 billion.
Social studies teacher Charles Best spawned the idea for DonorsChoose.org with workmates at Wings Academy in the Bronx. He and his colleagues in the teachers lounge were tired of merely wishing for things.
He drew out his website idea with pencil on paper, DonorsChoose.org spokesman Chris Pearsall said. He got a techie from Poland to design it. He offered a dessert treat to fellow teachers to post requests and then, as the story goes, funded the first projects himself anonymously to gin up excitement.
The website essentially lets teachers advertise their project needs. People visiting the site can sort through requests by location, subject matter or other categories. They can pay for the supplies through the website, which delivers the materials. Students send thank you notes.
By 2007, DonorsChoose.org had gained enough of a foothold that the website opened up to teachers outside New York, and it kept growing.
To date, more than 1.4 million donors have contributed some $260 million to fund more than 400,000 teacher requests. Some 60 percent of the schools in the country now have had at least one teacher post a request, Pearsall said.
The website set its “big, hairy audacious goal” at raising $100 million a year to support all high-poverty schools in the nation, he said. It’s closing in, having raised $65 million in 2013.
Google began supporting the idea in a big way this fall. Kansas City has joined with the Washington, D.C.; Atlanta; San Francisco; and Austin, Texas, areas to get all of its current teacher requests filled.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation offered up to $1 million in matching funds over a weekend in August at the start of the school year to pick up half of the cost of any project where donors picked up the first half.
Teachers throughout the Kansas City area caught on and joined the trend.
At Garfield Elementary, 436 Prospect Ave., more than two-thirds of the students are English language learners, many of them new immigrants representing more than 20 nations, principal Doug White said.
Teachers are looking for innovative ways to engage students with a wide range of needs, he said.
“We cover the basic supplies, but there is a limit,” White said. “This really opens the door for teachers to go outside the regular budget. The assistance is phenomenal.”
Two Garfield teachers relatively new to DonorsChoose.org also got their requests met Wednesday.
Gina Boltz’s third-grade class is getting hands-on materials for reading, math and science. Fourth-grade teacher John McCarty is getting sets of graphic novels that he said are particularly effective in helping English language learners.
They were prodded into making their requests by Rhinehart, who has put 23 different requests on the website during her five years at Garfield.
Her class took it all in, surveying the other gifts they have already had placed in their hands.
The relaxing Hokki stools. Their weather tracker board. Story tiles. A worm farm.
“We need a snake farm,” Solomon Ochuthu hollered.
“Do you want me to put that on DonorsChoose?” Rhinehart asked the class.
Half shouted, “Yes!” and half countered with an alarmed “No!”
Outside her classroom, Rhinehart described the joy of people affirming what she wants to do in her classroom.
She said teachers, often wearied by dire criticisms of American public education, find out that “people believe we can do it (and) are willing to support us.”
But it may do even more for children like Monet, Solomon and the rest of her class who had set back to work at math, adding decimals.
“It shows the kids,” she said, “that people believe in them.”
©2014 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)