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Generous strangers fill education funding gaps

| Friday, Dec. 26, 2008, 12:00 p.m.

Teachers in Pittsburgh area school districts are appealing to the generosity of strangers in an effort to buy everything from easels and projectors to tables, chairs and carpeting.

Teachers in the Sto-Rox, Shaler, Bethel Park, Cornell and Brentwood school districts are among the more than 1,576 teachers in the state who are seeking donations on the Web.

Christina Kalvi, a second-grade teacher at Abraham Lincoln Elementary School in Bethel Park, needs $1,417 for tables and chairs to better suit the type of small group instruction she prefers.

The donors she hopes to reach remain anonymous, Kalvi said.

"You don't know who they are. The kids write a thank-you letter," she said.

Should the furniture request be funded, it would be the third in a series of projects submitted by Kalvi that have been funded by contributors to DonorsChoose.org, a not-for-profit Web site where teachers submit project proposals. She received carpeting and the components for a listening center last year through the Web site.

Jocelyn VanStory, who teaches first grade at Sto-Rox Elementary School, received $599 to buy "a place for everyone carpet" through DonorsChoose.org. The cost of the carpet was more than her classroom budget for the year.

"We don't have the money for that. I really think it's an awesome program," she said.

DonorsChoose.org has been a big benefit to the district, school officials said.

"For our district, it's a great opportunity," said Maurice Wigley, assistant principal at Sto-Rox Elementary who learned about the Web site and encouraged teachers to apply.

More than $523,000 in donations from 49 states are paying for 1,347 projects in Pennsylvania, according to Kate Hays, deputy director of DonorsChoose.org.

Nationwide, more than 101,000 donors have contributed more than $27 million to fund 68,000 projects, the Web site said.

DonorsChoose.org is filling a gap in funding, said Dorothy Stark, principal of Abraham Lincoln Elementary School where Kalvi teaches.

"There's always a limit to what school districts can do. ... This is really wonderful," Stark said. Several teachers at the school have had projects funded through DonorsChoose.org.

Advocates of education funding reform in Pennsylvania caution that such supplemental funding can't replace state funding.

"There are many helpful efforts to supplement school funding, including the PTA, foundations and maybe this Web site, but they should never be a substitute for state funding," said Ron Cowell, president of the Harrisburg-based Education Policy Leadership Center.

DonorsChoose.org was begun by Bronx public high school teacher Charles Best in 2000. Best was looking for a way "to connect people who aren't billionaires but could spare $20," Hays said.

Not all of the project proposals posted on the Web site seek traditional school supplies. One teacher sought to buy smoke detectors for first-graders after a student died in a fire.

"He was a student of mine and the loss has been overwhelming. In my student's memory, I would like to implement a strong fire prevention course throughout the first grade," she wrote.

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