Web Site Helps Teachers Boost Classroom Resources

In the program's spotlight of Ordinary Oprahs, New York City schoolteacher Charles Best and Annemarie Wikstrom, a teacher in Lafayette, La., talk about the need to provide basic classroom learning tools for children and teachers. Best created a Web site that allows teachers to post requests and receive funding from donors.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

This week, as we gear up for the holidays, we want to talk about ways to do something good for your fellow humans. We're especially interested in folks without a lot of money or clout who figure out how to do something great. We've call them Ordinary Oprahs in the past, and we have one for you. His name is Charles Best. He's a former New York City school teacher who took a common problem and solved it in an uncommon way.

While teaching high school in the Bronx a few years back, Charles noticed that many of his colleagues lack some basic supplies - books for kids to take home, paper, so on. Charles came up with a solution. He created a Web site in which teachers could go to post requests and receive funding from donors interested in contributing. The program now operates all over the country. Charles joins us from New York. Welcome.

Mr. CHARLES BEST (Founder, DonorsChoose.org): Hi, Michel. How are you?

MARTIN: I'm great. And we're also joined by Annemarie Wikstrom. She's a third-grade teacher at the Alice Boucher Elementary School in Lafayette, Louisiana. She's just in her second year of teaching. She's submitted 10 applications for programs through DonorsChoose.org.

Welcome to you, also.

Mr. ANNEMARIE WIKSTROM (Teacher, Alice N. Boucher Elementary School, Lafayette, Louisiana): Oh, thank you.

MARTIN: So Charles, I know a lot of people know the story, but tell us how you got started.

Mr. BEST: Sure thing. Well, as you mentioned, I was a social studies teacher in the Bronx for five years. And during my first year of teaching, I found my colleagues and I always having the same conversation in the teacher's lunchroom about books that we wanted our students to read, a field trip that we knew would really bring a subject matter to life, art supplies we needed for an art project. And most of us would go into our own pockets to buy just paper and pencils. But for the most part, we saw our students going without the materials and experiences that they needed for a great education.

And at the same time, I figured there were all these people out there who wanted to help improve our public schools, but they were just getting skeptical about writing $100 check and not really seeing where their money was going. And I figured if there was a way for people to choose a classroom project that spoke to them personally and really see where their money was going and hear back from the classroom they chose to help, then my colleagues would be able to give our students those books and go on that field trip.

MARTIN: So how - what was the model for this? I mean, it's kind of like eBay, in a way. You're matching up people who want something with people who want to do something.

Mr. BEST: It's exactly like a philanthropic eBay, where teachers are the sellers and donors - or what we call citizen philanthropists - are the buyers. But, really, it just kind of seemed like a common sense solution. I felt that we, classroom teachers, knew our students' needs better than anybody else in the system. And then there were all these people out there who wanted to participate a little bit more in their giving and really be philanthropists, even if they only had $10 to give.

MARTIN: So this used to just be for New York City teachers at first, but clearly, it's gone nationwide because Annemarie got involved. How'd you hear about it, Annemarie?

Ms. WIKSTROM: Well, I got, you know, really lucky because I was in my first year of teaching doing an internship in a very low-income school in Opelousas, Louisiana. And we're in Cajun country, so we had a lot of the New Orleans folks, and they came here, you know, with nothing. So my first year - it was December, I'd already spent $2,000 buying shoes and uniforms and eyeglasses.

MARTIN: You mean $2,000 of your own money?

Ms. WIKSTROM: Yes.

MARTIN: Well, what have been some of the things that you've been able to do with grants from DonorsChoose.org?

Ms. WIKSTROM: What's been great with DonorsChoose.org is that I needed pencils and I told another teacher, Kelly Thompkins(ph), who was with Teach for America, and Kelly gave me a box of pencils that she had gotten through the Web site. Well, I went on that day. And it's very, very user-friendly. It guides you through the process. You just, you know, kind of a many class profile and I gave a little brief philosophy of my teachings, and what items I need and why. And then donors can choose what they want to fund. You know, I've had people who's funded, you know, all $300 of my proposal. I've had people who's funded $10 or $20 at a time. And it just changes these students' lives.

MARTIN: Well, give me an example of one of the proposals that you thought was just great, that you felt really excited about.

Ms. WIKSTROM: Okay. Sure. My favorite is the Weekly Readers. I wrote my proposals for 25 Weekly Readers. I used them on Monday, my teacher next door to me uses them on Tuesday, and we just passed them along. So even though I wrote the proposal for 25 students, they're going to over a hundred students every week.

MARTIN: So, Charles, that must make you feel good to hear a story like that?

Mr. BEST: It really does. But the kick that my colleagues and I get out of working at DonorsChoose.org is just seeing the ideas that teachers come up with at our site. They're usually way more innovative and imaginative than anything I would come up with or my colleagues would come up with. It goes beyond pencils and even beyond Weekly Readers.

We've seen public schoolteachers post projects for smoke detectors so that students can teach their families about fire safety. I was just reading a proposal from a teacher in a small island village in Alaska who wanted to print his students' books about salmon and blueberry recipes. They really range far and wide.

MARTIN: Now, you've said colleagues. It's my understanding that this organization started out of your parents' apartment. And now I understand that you have what? Some 60 staffers?

Mr. BEST: That's right. At first, my colleagues were my students. When I started DonorsChoose.org my students volunteered every day after school and they handwrote letters to people all across the country telling them about this Web site where anyone can be philanthropist.

MARTIN: How do you determine - and forgive me, Annemarie, this is not aimed at you - but how do you determine if the requests are legitimate?

Mr. BEST: Well, there are three criteria for a DonorsChoose proposal. It can't discriminate, it can't proselytize a particular religious denomination, and it needs to be for a student experience. But after that we're pretty apolitical. We've seen a proposal for a class set of Bibles and we did confirm that that was to be taught as literature. You can see that on our Web site. You can see a watercolor painting project, a fieldtrip to Washington, D.C. It's just incredible that the range of ideas that teachers come up with.

MARTIN: And forgive me, I don't want to be a Grinch, but have you ever been burned?

Mr. BEST: We have not yet been burned, although, we've seen some pretty crazy proposals submitted that never saw the light of day. We do three things to ensure the integrity of this philanthropic marketplace. The first is that we screen and authenticate each teacher request before posting it on the Web site. And if you chose a project to fund, we don't give your donation as cash to the teacher. We purchase the resources for the teacher and have them shipped to his or her classroom.

And finally, we give the teacher a disposable camera so that they can take photographs of the project taking place. And each student writes their donor a thank-you letter. The teacher writes an impact letter. And that goes through our office where we make sure that every donor, not only gets to choose the project they want to support, but then gets thank-you letters and photographs showing them the impact that they had.

MARTIN: Annemarie, how do you feel about those requirements?

Ms. WIKSTROM: I think they're legitimate, definitely. And I think that, you know, the goal of teaching is to change your perspective of the student. It's very important that the kids understand that. You know, they are amazed that people they don't even know are sending them such wonderful materials to use to learn. So not only is it great from an educational standpoint but from a character-building and, you know, humanitarian aspect. It's really teaching these kids what it means to care.

MARTIN: Charles, did you ever imagine when you were setting this up in your parents' house - I don't know, at the dining room table - that it would come to this?

Mr. BEST: No. We had no idea. I did hope that one day public schoolteachers in New York City would be able to bring their best ideas to life and get their students the resources they needed. We didn't even dream of national extension at that time.

MARTIN: Does it ever, though, bum you out to think that you're having to buy pencils for kids?

Mr. BEST: It does. And people are right to ask whether the government ought to be providing most of the requests posted on DonorsChoose.org. And what I would point to is what happened in North Carolina when former Governor Jim Hunt came across a proposal on DonorsChoose.org for a class set of dictionaries in his home county. He got really angry to think that there was a classroom near to him that didn't have dictionaries. And he called up local school officials to find out what was going on.

And when we surveyed our donors, we found out that Governor Hunt's experience was actually characteristic of our whole donor-base. Sixty percent of our donors said that they were now more interested in public education reform as a result of their Web site experience at DonorsChoose.org because it was their first really vivid personal encounter with what's going on in public schools in low-income communities and with the unmet needs of students in our public schools.

Ms. WIKSTROM: Charles, I think that, you know, something that needs to be said is that there's a huge, little secret in education, and that is that teachers in low-income school districts buy their own supplies. You come into a classroom and if you're lucky all you have are your textbooks. You know, in the middle-class and upper-class schools you have parental involvement, you have fundraising. And that's the money that pays for the supplies.

But when you have a low-income area - my school is - you know, 98 percent are on the free-lunch program, which is an indication of the poverty level - the teachers are funding their own classroom. So the point is that it redefines learning. You know, after we meet those basic needs then we're really able to make teaching exciting.

MARTIN: Well, Annemarie, is there anything on your wish list - is there anything you want Santa to bring you this year from DonorsChoose.org?

Ms. WIKSTROM: Oh, gosh. What I would love more than anything - and this is not on yet - but there is a classroom amplification system that you wear a small microphone and there's an amplifier in the classroom and every student hears you as if you're standing right next to them. And it makes it so personal. And, you know, I love my students so much. And we - I have a rapport with them. They like the attention. And that is my dream.

MARTIN: Well, hopefully Santa is listening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. WIKSTROM: I've been a really good girl.

MARTIN: Annemarie Wikstrom is a third grade teacher at Alice Boucher Elementary School in Lafayette, Louisiana. She's been a recipient of a number of grants from DonorsChoose.org. And Charles Best is the founder of DonorsChoose.org. He joined us from New York.

Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. BEST: Thank you, Michel.

Ms. WIKSTROM: Thank you.

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