Jordan Garland’s shopping list reads like an inventory sheet from Santa’s workshop. Gyroscopic toys, three-dimensional puzzle blocks, Jenga, a K’NEX set. They’re the sorts of items that don’t fall under the purview of a public school’s general fund, but for Garland, they could reinvent the morning ritual for her fifth-grade students at Missoula’s Lewis and Clark Elementary.

Garland spent much of the past summer researching a new-to-her approach to how elementary school classrooms start their days. Dubbed morning choice — or, alternatively, soft start — the idea is to dedicate the first 10 to 15 minutes of instruction to a creative, tactile task of the student’s choosing. After two years of pandemic tumult, Garland said, morning choice might be just the ticket to help her students adjust to a normal school schedule, and give her a chance to gauge their speaking and listening skills in the process.

Usually, collecting the Jenga blocks and gyroscopes on her list would require Garland to dig into her own pocket, or tap into the $250 a year she and her colleagues each receive from Lewis and Clark’s parent-teacher association for supplies. But in this case, Garland put the ask out through the online crowdfunding nonprofit DonorsChoose, creating a project with a fundraising goal of $600.

“I did what I could this summer to gather as much as I possibly could from garage sales and Facebook Marketplace and those outlets,” Garland said. “But it adds up really quickly. I just need a little help with those materials.”

Paying out-of-pocket for classroom essentials is a common experience for teachers in America’s public school system. There isn’t a wealth of national data on the subject, but according to the National Center for Education Statistics, a 2015-16 survey found that responding teachers spent an average of $478 on student supplies for the school year without reimbursement. And while educators can deduct such expenses from their taxes, the total amount of the deduction is limited. The IRS this fall announced the first increase to that cap since 2002: $300 per teacher, up from $250.

Since its inception roughly 20 years ago, DonorsChoose has become a popular relief valve for teachers struggling to balance often low wages with the needs of their students. The nonprofit says that in Montana alone, 1,888 teachers have succeeded in getting full funding for 5,862 projects to date, to the tune of $3.34 million. Some of those requests are relatively small. One recent campaign by a Stevensville elementary teacher is seeking $170 for erasers and plastic organizers. Other projects are on the larger end, such as a Billings middle school teacher’s request for computer tablets, water bottles and snacks for 120 students, with a total price tag of $1,500.

Teachers using DonorsChoose to cover classroom needs don’t get that cash directly. Instead, the nonprofit allows teachers to pick from items available through a list of partner vendors including Best Buy, Amazon Business and the publishing company Scholastic. Each selected item is listed on the teacher’s project page along with a description of the project’s goals, and if donations reach the requested total, the supplies are shipped directly to the teacher’s classroom. 

“I did what I could this summer to gather as much as I possibly could from garage sales and Facebook Marketplace and those outlets. But it adds up really quickly. I just need a little help with those materials.”

Jordan Garland, Lewis and Clark Elementary teacher

Books are among the items most sought after by Montana teachers utilizing DonorsChoose. The nonprofit has shipped 23,992 to classrooms in the state to date, and according to spokesperson Juan Brizuela, books played a central role in the birth of DonorsChoose in 2000. At the time, Brizuela said, founder Charles Best was struggling to secure enough copies of a novel for his history students in the Bronx. That need, and his conversations with colleagues about their own classroom wish-lists, inspired Best to turn to donors in the New York area.

“He thought of the idea that there must be folks out in the public who would want to empower public school teachers and help them get these needed supplies,” Brizuela said, adding that the nonprofit went national around 2007 after Best’s appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show caused a surge of traffic on its website.

Brizuela noted that as of Wednesday, there were 164 active DonorsChoose projects in Montana totaling roughly $100,000.

For Josh Preiss, DonorsChoose has become the primary avenue through which he’s kept his fourth-grade library at Columbia Falls’ Ruder Elementary School in good shape, replacing battered or missing books and securing new additions that will cater to a wide array of reading levels. In fact, he said, the process has become a “tradition” in his classroom. His students help him select titles to request, and when the boxes arrive, he gives the class a chance to look them over before he wraps them in protective covers.

“Then I just lay them out on the table and say ‘Go for it,’ and they disappear like hotcakes,” Preiss said. “The kids are so excited, especially if they’ve had input into what was coming in the first place … They grab one and then return it pretty fast, and other ones will grab it and then they’ll go from hand to hand to hand to hand. They never make it back to the shelf.”

As of Monday, Preiss has had 17 projects fully funded through DonorsChoose. His latest was a $362 request for art supplies to replace his classroom’s aging markers, colored pencils and watercolors, many of which he inherited from his predecessor seven years ago. Many of the donations he’s received come from Montana residents, but the one that pushed his latest project over the finish line was from a retired educator in Lincoln, Nebraska.

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Books also happen to be how Garland got her start with the site. In January 2021, as Missoula County public schools were preparing to welcome students back to in-person instruction after a fall of pandemic-induced remote learning, she looked over her classroom library and realized it needed “revamping.” She’d heard about DonorsChoose through the teacher grapevine, and built a project to obtain copies of popular titles like “The Giver,” along with several floor mats and pillows to give her students a more comfortable space.

The latter part of Garland’s request speaks to the types of trends DonorsChoose has noticed nationally. While books remain one of the top five project categories, Brizuela said demand for flexible seating has surged in recent years, alongside rising demand for instructional technology. He attributes both to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on public education. Technology served a pivotal role as instruction shifted to remote learning and students needed ready access to educational software and items like headphones. Now, with students back in classrooms, Brizuela said teachers are looking for ways to soften the transition and recapture student attention.

“Think wiggle stools, floor cushions, beanbags, alternative ways for students to either be still or move around in the classroom,” Brizuela said. “A lot of teachers have anecdotally told us that after being at home for so long, for many of these students coming back into the classroom and being told to sit still, I mean, to be realistic, we all know that as children, it was always hard for us to sit still. I’m sure most of us can understand.”

Last year, the Montana Professional Teaching Foundation awarded $20,000 in grants to teachers to help supplement or replace classroom supplies — 40 grants total at $500 apiece. The foundation’s chair and president of the Montana Federation of Public Employees, Amanda Curtis, said she “couldn’t believe” how many of the grant requests were focused on flexible seating.

In Garland’s case, the pillows and floor mats weren’t just a bid for flexible seating, but a tool to help reading feel less like a “chore.” That first project hit its $441 goal with a single anonymous donation.

“It was like Christmas last time,” Garland said, recalling the day the new seating and books arrived on her classroom’s doorstep. “I knew that it had been funded but I didn’t know when I was going to get the materials. So I showed up to work one day and it was just the best. And the kids were elated. They got to open everything up. It was one of the best days of my teaching career, honestly.”

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Alex Sakariassen is a 2008 graduate of the University of Montana's School of Journalism, where he worked for four years at the Montana Kaimin student newspaper and cut his journalistic teeth as a paid news intern for the Choteau Acantha for two summers. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in journalism and history, Sakariassen spent nearly 10 years covering environmental issues and state and federal politics for the alternative newsweekly Missoula Independent. He transitioned into freelance journalism following the Indy's abrupt shuttering in September 2018, writing in-depth features, breaking...