Deva Watson was ecstatic when she landed her dream job at Southwest Leadership Academy this year, as the charter school’s first and only art teacher. Then she saw her classroom.
Her heart sank at the sight of the basement storage-closet-turned-art-room where she’d be teaching 350 kids a week, and then plummeted when she learned that state funding that was supposed to go toward a classroom renovation had evaporated. But she was determined to make improvements.
“I wanted to give my students something beautiful to work in,” she says, “so I decided I would independently raise the money” for a $6,000-plus rehab.
Watson is, perhaps, on the extreme end, but she’s not alone.
As we head into what is, the marketers tell us, the back-to-school shopping season, public- and charter-school teachers across Philadelphia are scrambling — if they haven’t already done so — to stock their classrooms with basic supplies and a few extras (if books and markers can be considered “extras”). Now, in addition to putting down their own cash, a growing number of teachers are getting creative, with ad hoc fundraising efforts for projects large and small.
Donorschoose.org, which dozens of Philly teachers use to solicit funds for specific educational supplies or projects, offers a snapshot of teacher wish lists. Some requests are for projects that illustrate the commitment to education innovation that still exists in Philly schools. Others are for basics that reveal bare need: a pencil sharpener for the classroom; a rug for storytime so kids don’t have to sit on the floor; books to replace copies that are mismatched, out of date or falling apart.
“It’s a huge step forward even hiring an art teacher in this climate,” Watson says. So she’s willing to accept that being a great teacher may also require being an outstanding grant writer.
The crowd-funding of Philly public education has also gone social, most prominently with PhilaSoup, a grassroots organization that brings together teachers from schools throughout the city to meet for casual dinners where they can audition their proposed educational projects to compete for grants of about $350.
“In an under-resourced school, you’re really dependent on your own ways of funding and innovating, without any real help from the outside,” says Elaine Leigh, a former Philly teacher and current board member of PhilaSoup, which held its first event last fall and kicks off its new season on Monday. Inspired by the micro-granting group Sunday Soup Chicago (and its imitators around the word), PhilaSoup looks beyond the basic needs of paper and pencils, though, for presenters who want to inspire.
Jason Bui, a third-grade teacher at Mitchell Elementary at 55th Street and Kingsessing Avenue, uses Donors Choose to raise funds for books and equipment for an after-school guitar club he runs. Through PhilaSoup, he won a grant enabling his school’s chess team to travel to tournaments. Bui says he’s never gotten so much as a chess board from the school district. From his fellow teachers, though, he got not just money, but encouragement: “It was a lot of really motivated teachers from all different levels of teaching. ... To be able to get together and talk about the successes and hear other people’s ideas” provides a level of positive re-enforcement.
As for Watson, she’s been rallying friends, community members and total strangers. She’s raised more than $4,000 via the crowd-funding website indiegogo.com and a fundraiser at a local restaurant. Now, Elixr Coffee is selling coffee cards and will hold a silent auction on Wednesday to support the effort. Watson also recruited the Northern Liberties design-build company Greensaw to devise a plan for the room: take up the peeling linoleum and polish the concrete floors, and build new work tables and storage units. Greensaw agreed to do the work pro bono, but Watson still has to pull together at least $6,000 for shop time. She’s planning the project in stages in case the money runs out — but she’s hoping it won’t.
“I know [the school] really cares about the arts,” she says. “It’s just, like, we’re going to have to think about ways to pay for it.”
PhilaSoup Start of the School Year Celebration, Mon., Aug. 27, 6-8 p.m., $10-$25, Pennsylvania Horticultural Society Pop-Up Garden, 1905 Walnut St., philasoup.com. Back to School Brews, Wed., Aug. 29, 7 p.m., at Elixr Coffee, 1512 Walnut St.