August 28, 2015

Students learn with a microscope. Credit: Brad Flickinger / Flickr Creative Commons

What do smoke detectors, quilt patches, art supplies, and cooking utensils all have in common?

They’re just a few of the thousands of educational materials provided to students through DonorsChoose.org, a donation platform that crowd-sources funds for school projects in low-income communities.

“You could think of it as Kickstarter for teachers,” says the site’s founder and CEO Charles Best, who was inspired by a decade of out-of-pocket expenditures on basics like pens, pencils, and paper as a high school history teacher in the Bronx.

“I figured there were people out there who would really want to help people like us, if they could only see where their money was going,” he said.

Best enlisted a dozen of his colleagues to use the site for their own school. But within a few years of launching DonorsChoose.org, he was helping tens of thousands of teachers across the countr: kids in traditionally underserved classrooms could suddenly have access to the tools required for a painting, a science experiment, even a field trip.

Now, the organization can boast over 600,000 fulfilled project requests helping 63,000 schools.

“We’ve seen over and over that teachers don’t feel like they have a seat at the budget-making table. They don’t feel like they have a voice, even though they know their students better than anyone else,” Best points out. “You can see teachers’ innovative potential, imagination, and passion manifest in these projects.”

DonorsChoose is nothing new – Best founded the website back in 2000, when people would refer to his idea as a “philanthropic eBay” years before “crowd-funding” entered the modern lexicon.

But the idea’s potential goes a bit deeper than simple cash donations and ‘thank you’s.’ The scope of the site is widening every day – and that’s where the cooking utensils and smoke detectors come in.

“We like to think of it as a way for anybody to put their finger on the pulse of classrooms in America,” says Best, whose site makes it apparent that teachers in 2015 are thinking beyond textbooks. To teach math, they’re letting their students whip up delicious recipes with tactile measuring tools. To teach creativity and teamwork, one teacher asked for donations of needles and thread for each student to sew one patch on a class quilt.

“There was a teacher in North Carolina whose student died in a fire because they couldn’t own a smoke detector,” Best recalls. “They created a project for 100 smoke detectors for every single second-grader to take home and teach their parents about fire safety.”

It might seem like an aggressively millennial approach to education – but for every post raising funds for therapeutic horseback riding, there are 10 for dictionaries and paper. Some U.S. principals and budget officers say this is an “embarrassment” to the school – and Best is inclined to respond, “exactly.”

“The projects make you say, ‘Man, I can’t believe public school teachers are having to ask the general public for resources that really ought to be provided by the system…Most of the folks giving money have never made a donation to public schools before, and they come out fired up to demand large scale reform.”

Those behind DonorsChoose.org say this is why these open, public projects aren’t Band-Aid solutions – they’re grassroots calls to action.

“It’s more politically energizing than reading statistics in a newspaper article about the inefficiency of school funding,” Best says. “It can help change the system.”   

Charles Best, Donors Choose, Kara Miller, Education

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