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October 30, 2014

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Education heroes: Teachers make sure students have what they need, no matter the cost

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Steve Marcus

Kindergarten teacher Christine Cordova sits among school supplies stacked against a wall in the garage of her home in Henderson Sunday, July 27, 2014. Cordova rented a 19-foot U-Haul to pack up her classroom supplies from her old school as she prepares to move into a new school in the fall.

ANOTHER OPTION FOR TEACHERS

Inside a nondescript building on South Maryland Parkway, shelves brim with glue sticks, folders, reams of paper, canvas book bags and stacked plastic organizers.

Teachers browse the aisles, filling baskets with books, calculators and art supplies. They gather around a coffee bar to brainstorm and collaborate.

More than 3,000 educators will stream through the store this year.

The Teachers Exchange, run by the Public Education Foundation, a nonprofit education advocacy group, offers discount school supplies for teachers. It operates on donations from Caesars Entertainment and recycled leftovers from business conferences and conventions.

Resorts donate the typical supplies you’d imagine — pens, pencils, binders and cardboard stock — but also more unique items: casino dice for math exercises, convention lanyards to keep track of children on field trips and foam-core poster boards for shadow puppet backgrounds.

Every item receives a point value, from five to 80, and includes a list of suggested projects. New teachers receive 100 points to sign up, and all teachers receive 500 points for every $20 they donate to the exchange. People can earmark points to specific teachers by donating to the nonprofit.

Five hundred points can buy $450 worth of goods.

“Our goal is to try and touch every school, somehow, someway,” said Tim McCubbin, vice president of the exchange.

Christine Cordova With School Supplies

Kindergarten teacher Christine Cordova sits among school supplies stacked against a wall in the garage of her home in Henderson Sunday, July 27, 2014. Cordova rented a 19-foot U-Haul to pack up her classroom supplies from her old school as she prepares to move into a new school in the fall. Launch slideshow »

HOW TO HELP

• Support a school. The Clark County School District’s Support-a-School program lets people give with a simple click of a mouse. Visit ccsd.net/schools/support-a-school/ to see a list of schools and the items each needs. Or search by specific item if there’s something in particular you’d like to donate.

• Donate to the Teacher Exchange. The nonprofit discount school supplies store run by the Public Education Foundation accepts donations of both money and goods. Donate new or gently used school supplies or computer hardware. Give a cash donation of $20 and buy a teacher up to 500 points to buy supplies. Visit thepef.org/programs_exchange.html for more information.

• Shop big box. Buy Target-brand school supplies, and Target will donate the same item to a local school.

• Use your smartphone. Shoparoo, an app, translates grocery store receipts into funding for schools. Spend less than $10, and Shoparoo will donate a penny to the school of your choice. Spend more than $100, and the school gets 6 cents. The app is free and available at Google Play for Androids and the App Store for Apple devices.

• Go back to school. Call your local school to schedule a time to drop off supplies. Or write a check to the school to help fund programs and stock classrooms.

• Become a community partner. Adopt a school through the Clark County School District’s School-Community Partnership Program. People or businesses can donate supplies, voluteer in classrooms, mentor students or host field trips. Call 702-799-6560 for more information.

Christine Cordova didn’t realize how much money she spent on her job until she packed the contents of her classroom.

Cordova was moving from Whitney Elementary School to Goldberg Elementary School. For the first time in her 10-year career, the kindergarten teacher saw everything she had bought piled in one place.

There was an empty bookshelf with shelves low to the floor, which she bought because the metallic shelving that came with her classroom was too high for her children to reach. There was a rug rolled up next to an office chair. In all, there were 40 boxes and Rubbermaid bins full of supplies.

Three boxes were filled with costumes, including the Dr. Seuss outfit she wore to encourage reading. Other boxes contained Legos to build numbers, an ostrich egg and snakeskin to teach pupils about reptiles, magnet kits for science lessons and toy clocks to teach time. A dozen boxes held books and audiotapes.

Cordova bought the items to engage her pupils in ways that worksheets, pencils and even crayons couldn’t. But when Cordova saw the pile, one thought became overwhelming: She had spent thousands of dollars on the items, with almost all of the money coming from her own pocket.

Cordova’s experience is typical. Every year, teachers spend hundreds or thousands of dollars on supplies they consider necessary to do their jobs. They buy snacks for hungry students, buckets of crayons to replace used ones, decorations to liven up classrooms, even iPad apps to help their students learn. The Clark County School District, citing a budget crunch, provides only the most basic supplies.

The Internal Revenue Service offers teachers a $250 annual tax credit to offset their expenses. Nevada provides no such rebate. For many teachers — who in Clark County make an average of $53,000 a year — the credit isn’t enough.

“Supplemental materials are needed for student success,” said Ruben Murillo Jr., president of the Nevada State Educators Association. “$250 is just a drop in the bucket.”

• • •

Every school in Clark County receives money to provide basic supplies, such as paper, pencils, crayons, markers, highlighers, erasers and notebooks. Allocations are based on school population.

Elementary schools receive $13.88 per student, middle schools $15.53 per student, and high schools $17.27 per student. Schools have a separate budget for textbooks and technology.

Principals distribute the funds and supplies to teachers; each principal decides who gets what.

At Valley High School, new teachers receive a basket with staplers, three-hole punches, folders, pens and pencils. Principal Ramona Esparza asks returning teachers to make a list of the supplies they’d like, and she tries to fill the requests as thoroughly and fairly as possible, she said.

“We could always use more money for supplies,” Esparza said.

To that end, principals hit the pavement and canvass the community looking for sponsors and business partners. The Clark County School District runs the School-Community Partnership Program, which pairs schools with businesses, community groups and parents that want to donate or volunteer. The program started in 1983 with seven schools and now boasts hundreds of partnerships, mostly for schools with high populations of low-income families.

Desert Pines High School, for instance, has 24 community partners, including Rack Room Shoes, Hazz Sports, Wells Fargo and Papa John’s Pizza. At that school, 70 percent of students pay a reduced price for lunch.

The district also runs a website that lists specific needs for specific schools. People can go online to see what items a particular campus needs.

For example, C.T. Sewell Elementary School: 20 reams of white copy paper and three copy machines. Dr. William H. Bailey Middle School: 25 reams of lined paper, 100 binders and 200 pencils. Cimarron-Memorial High School: 20 cases of paper, 25 ink toners, 1,000 No. 2 pencils, 30 backpacks and toiletries, along with 40 iPads, 40 MacBook Pros and 40 HP desktop computers for a cyber cafe in the library.

Principals hope community members pitch in. Otherwise, the burden falls on teachers and administrators, or the students go without.

• • •

C.P. Squires Elementary School kindergarten teacher Patti Katzman said she doesn’t know a single teacher who doesn’t spend money on their students.

“This is my 21st year in teaching, and I still buy stuff for my classroom,” she said.

Katzman said she doesn’t expect the school to reimburse her for every item she buys. She knows principals do their best to stock classrooms, and not all the items she buys are essential. But many are, she said.

Supplemental materials “are as important to my students as my core curriculum is,” Katzman said. “If I didn’t have those supplemental materials, they would not be reaching the standards that they do.”

Customizing classrooms and enhancing curricula are part of the culture of public education, teachers say. It’s about creating an environment that makes students want to learn. It’s the reason you might find an incubator in a classroom: because raising a chicken is far more memorable and engaging than reading about animals in a textbook.

Other times, the needs are more basic: replacing paper that has run out, crayons that have broken, pens with dry ink.

Murillo, head of the teachers union, has lobbied for more school funding to ease some of the financial burden on teachers.

“It’s a sad statement when we have to spend money that school districts should be providing for teachers to do their job,” Murillo said.

Jim McIntosh, chief financial officer for the Clark County School District, said reimbursing teachers has been a major challenge since the state Legislature sliced education funding in half during the recession. Before the recession, the state provided schools with twice as much funding: $28 per student for elementary schools, about $30 per student for middle schools and $35 per student for high schools, McIntosh said. Teachers received more classroom supplies, and the district gave each instructor a prepaid $200 credit card to supplement what was provided. That hasn’t happened in about five years.

“At this point, there’s not a whole lot the School District can do,” McIntosh said. “We’re not back to prerecession funding levels ... and there are a few other priorities the superintendent has before he can get to instructional supplies.”

Among the district’s priorities: building repairs and maintenance.

Nationally, Nevada ranks seventh-lowest for teacher reimbursement spending, according to a national study based on U.S. Census Bureau data.

• • •

Every summer, parents receive a list in the mail: the recommended stash of items their children need for school.

At Neil C. Twitchell Elementary School in Henderson, the list reads 15 items long — a standard-size backpack, a box of tissues, a 16-count box of crayons, 24 glue sticks (no colors, please!), eight dry erase markers (four thick, four thin), an 8-count set of washable markers, a set of headphones or ear buds, a bottle of hand sanitizer, a set of watercolors, a package of Play-Doh, two rolls of paper towels, one box of gallon-size plastic bags, one box of quart-size plastic bags, one two-pack of Mr. Clean Eraser and $5 (cash only) for school-related activities, supplies and projects.

Which raises the question: If the school district provides the basics and teachers spend hundreds of their own dollars to supplement the load, why are parents asked to pitch in, too?

In Clark County, the help is voluntary. Parents aren’t required to provide supplies. The lists are recommendations, not requirements.

Most of the items are collected by teachers at the beginning of the year and shared among students. Typically, about half a class brings in supplies, local teachers said.

But that number could be on the rise.

The Retail Association of Nevada found that spending by parents on school supplies has grown 12 percent from last year, with the average Nevada family spending $101.18 on notebooks, pencils, backpacks and other classroom items.

• • •

Perhaps no legislator understands the issue better than Assemblywoman Marilyn Dondero Loop, D-Las Vegas, who taught kindergarten locally for 30 years.

On average, she said she spent $750 a year buying flashcards, reams of paper, books and other supplies. She estimates Nevada teachers spend an average of $1,200 a year to provide basic supplies — more than many teachers can afford.

“To really teach at a higher level and have kids understand and provide them with more enrichment and a better experience, you always supplement the material,” she said. “I don’t know a teacher who doesn’t.”

Dondero Loop proposed a bill in 2013 that would have started a fund to reimburse teachers a minimum of $100 a year for supplies. The legislation would have set aside $3.5 million from the state Supplemental School Account, paid for by room tax and used to supplement teacher salaries and student enrichment, to reimburse teachers. But the bill died in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee because of a lack of funding.

Dondero Loop said she plans to reintroduce it next year but is unsure if it will pass.

“I would hope it’s 100 percent, but you never know until we get there and see what other funds we need,” she said.

Katzman typically spends between $1,500 and $2,000 a year on her students. She buys desk caddies and frames for the children’s class pictures. She stocks plastic tubs with Legos, Play-Doh and other items, so when a student struggles with reading or writing, she can give him or her one-on-one attention while the rest of the class builds block letters or clay shapes.

Cordova has spent much more. In fact, she said has spent more than $2,000 on books alone.

“You don’t have to do it,” she said. “It’s a choice.”

It’s a choice Cordova, and thousands of her colleagues, make every year.

“If the School District doesn’t provide it, I will provide it just so my students don’t have to do without,” Cordova said. “That’s why I needed a super U-Haul.”

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