University City

Teachers reach out online for supplies

This summer, when Nicole Nederlk, a teacher in University City's Nathaniel Alexander Elementary School, put the word out she would like new crayons for the upcoming school year, a person in New York answered her request by delivering thousands of the waxy sticks in every hue available.

Nederlk was pleased, and not entirely surprised.

"People really want to help," said the first-grade teacher, who begins her fourth year at Nathaniel Alexander Elementary this month. "I'm a huge advocate of reaching out into the community."

These days, the community where help can be found may not always be the one where you live. Nederlk, like many other teachers grappling with school budget cuts, frozen teacher salaries and an overall lagging economy, has turned to the Internet for help gathering many of the school-supply donations she needs for the fast-approaching school year.

"I think the role of the teacher is to take that effort, to reach out and see what other people want to give and help out with," said Nederlk. "If you don't have a certain thing, go to an organization and see if they would like to donate."

Like Nederlk, Lara Bennett, a fifth-grade teacher at Newell Elementary School in University City, sees the usefulness of the online community as well.

"It's kind of, how many people can you make aware of your need," she said, "and a lot of people ask their family, or put it on Facebook."

While state government has continued to clip away at school budgets, many teachers say they are struggling to make sure they have enough of the basics like scissors, pencils and crayons.

"The schools don't have the supply they used to," said Bennett. "Paper is something we all wish we had more of."

The economy's toll on families has become more evident, too, in the number of students showing up without all of the basics on the school year supply list.

"It has hit a lot of our families who may not have jobs," said Bennett. "We try to minimize, and not assign things that we can't provide supplies for."

Charities like Communities in Schools and The Prodigal Son Foundation help tremendously, teachers say, but can't take care of every need.

Both Newell Elementary and Nathaniel Alexander Elementary are Title 1 schools, where at least 40 percent of students receive free or reduced lunches.

"Having the expectation of these kids bringing in school supplies throughout the year, it's kind of a lot to ask people," said Nederlk.

To make up for the deficit, many teachers have turned to online charitable organizations like donorschoose.org, which allows them to provide an itemized wish list for their classroom.

Since its launch in 2000, donorschoose.org has helped successfully match the donors needed to fund more than 205,000 teacher requests.

A search on the website for schools in University City show teacher requests ranging from 45 squids needed for dissection in a high school to a middle school teacher's wish for plants to create an environmental garden.

Bennett is using the site to ask for 30 subscriptions to Time For Kids.

Nederlk has requested paperback books and two red beanbag chairs.

"It's motivation for these kids to read. If there's some new thing and it's comfortable, they all want it," she said. "If I can get you comfortable reading, I'm going to ask for that."

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