Mountain View Voice

News - September 17, 2010

When 'Donors Choose,' students win

Castro teacher helped by website that helps anyone become a philanthropist

by Nick Veronin

When it comes to getting kids interested in school, nothing beats things that flash. At least that's what Elizabeth Gomez has observed in her third-grade students.

"They're really into video games and TV," Gomez says of her students. "If it's just a paper and sheet, I lose about half my class."

DVDs and other interactive, video-based instructional materials are luxury items at Castro School, where Gomez is beginning her fourth year. The Mountain View Whisman School District, like most California school districts, has been struggling of late. In the wake of the recession, and state budget impasse, the district has been forced to make difficult cuts to save money. Gomez says her classroom allowance goes fast and parents can only do so much to help with supplies.

But last year, at a conference held for bilingual teachers, Gomez heard about an organization that might be able to help. DonorsChoose.org is an online charity where teachers can post requests for items they need and prospective donors can browse by school, income level or type of materials requested, and make contributions to whichever teacher they choose.

Gomez decided to give it a try and has since received more than $2,000 worth of instructional materials, including math games, white boards and dry erase pens, flash cards, printer ink cartridges and a document camera — which functions like an overhead projector but does not require transparencies.

"It makes the classroom environment so much more engaging," Gomez says of the device. Her students enjoy using the document camera to demonstrate math problems or make presentations to the rest of the class. "By having things that resemble the things they like at home, it helps draw them into the lesson. Everyone wants to use it."

DonorsChoose.org was started 10 years ago by Charles Best, a New York City teacher. His idea, says Kari Hayden, director of business development for DonorsChoose, was to make it easier for teachers to write grant proposals while at the same time creating a more direct avenue for individuals to contribute to public school classrooms.

Using the DonorsChoose website, teachers can write and publish miniature grant proposals with a few keystrokes and the click of a mouse. Similarly, anyone with a credit card number can give to any school in any state in the country — as little as $1 or as much as the recent $1.3 million donation from the Claire Giannini Fund.

"We're allowing philanthropic opportunities to a new group of individuals who might not otherwise be able to give," Hayden says — and that is yielding results.

About 70 percent of those who give to the website report that it is the first time they have made a donation to a public school, she said. Since the organization was founded 10 years ago, it has helped generate $57.6 million and provided resources to 3.5 million students nationwide. In Northern California, $5.4 million in educational materials has gone to about 286,000 school children.

The site uses social media and the reciprocity it can engender to encourage giving. Without leaving the DonorsChoose page, users are able to share their charitable contribution with friends, either through Facebook or Twitter. Donors also receive thank-you notes from teachers and can log back in to view pictures of students using the materials they helped the teachers buy. Gomez says she has her students upload their classroom journals to the site for the donors to see.

While more than half of the money that has come through DonorsChoose comes from philanthropic trusts, corporations and institutions, plenty comes from individual donors, Hayden says, and every little bit helps.

"The DonorsChoose model is really about small sums of money adding up to a larger impact," she says. For Gomez, the impact has been quite apparent.

"I think it's amazing," Gomez says of DonorsChoose. She has recommended the site to her fellow teachers at Castro and knows that several of her colleagues have received materials through the organization.

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