To secure writing materials for her classroom, Sandi Sidor is willing to jump through a lot of hoops these days. Make that throw: "I will toss beanbags through anything for a packet of pens," says the fifth-grade teacher in Redlands, Calif., who seeks out competitions and fairs at office-supply stores in order to win a few materials. Just this month, she won three free boxes of pencils: "I have a good arm."
Welcome back to school in budget-strapped California, where pencils, paper and textbooks are indeed prized goods and their availability in classrooms is increasingly dependent upon the resourcefulness of teachers. As a matter of financial survival, teachers share tips for donation websites, clip coupons together in staff rooms and learn how to spruce up garage-sale items (bought with their own pennies, of course). They buy cheap whiteboards and pull used worksheets out of the trash, because paper is a hot commodity. They bring in their own vacuums and have learned how to patch up frayed furniture. And every teacher has become a master solicitor of goods. "It's regrettable, but it's become a necessity," California state superintendent Jack O'Connell says of his educators' newfound need to scrounge for basic supplies. "These innovative teachers, they remain the unsung heroes."
It's a dire time for public education in California. Nearly $17 billion has been cut from schools over the past two years, and a possible $2.4 billion more in cuts are expected in the next year. Teachers have been forced to take pay cuts and endure furlough weeks. And thanks to the 18,000 education-department layoffs last year, classrooms have grown in size. To keep their classrooms afloat, and to avoid even further out-of-pocket expenses (which, since two years ago, have increased from approximately a few hundred dollars to about $1,500 annually), many California teachers are scrambling to find fresh ways to thriftily educate their students and maintain their physically crumbling classrooms.
"I've gotten really good at scrounging," says Vicki Nosanov Goldman, who struggles to teach an Introduction to Foods class with no budget. "For extra credit, I have kids bring in fruit from their trees and veggies from their families' gardens." Nosanov Goldman spends her Sundays combing sale ads, searching for grant money and excavating garage sales for anything from computer carts to pots and pans. And she has learned to ask for help. "I always ask business owners if they have pens with their logo on them so that I can distribute them to the students," says Nosanov Goldman, who has been teaching for 22 years. "I've never had to beg like this."
As parents have quickly learned from this year's long donation lists and the increased frequency of car washes and bake sales, it really may take a village to run the local school. In addition to approaching parents and local business leaders, teachers are flocking to donation websites like DonorsChoose.org. In Sacramento a few weeks ago, music teacher Donna Pool put out word that, owing to a larger class size, she had too few instruments for the children to play, so many kids were improvising with pencils. Within days, she was deluged with instruments. She admits, though, that her predicament made it easier for people to respond. "If you have a clarinet in your closet that's not being used, it's horrifying to think of a child fingering a pencil," she says. "People who understand the arts want to make a difference." More mundane needs, however, are harder to satisfy. "I haven't heard of anyone dropping off reams of paper."
Even the cleanliness of the classroom is often dependent on the teacher's pocketbook and labor, now that custodial services are being cut. Sidor, Nosanov Goldman and many other teachers across the state can be found late into the evening scrubbing and vacuuming their rooms with their own supplies. Elizabeth Fifer, an eighth-grade teacher in the Calexico Unified School District, has no one to call when her classroom literally falls apart. "Duct tape has been my friend for the past couple of years," she says, describing how she can use the sticky stuff to fix everything from broken chairs to carpet snags. It also may come in handy if she rips one of her curtains, which are made of paper. Her school, located near the border of Mexico, cannot provide window shades. "I hung maps of the world over the windows this year," she says. "It's an inexpensive way to put up blinds and give them some geographic education."
As cheerful as they sound describing the various ways they patch up their rooms and spin hay into gold, the teachers all say fear and anger about their current situation is catching up with them. "I'm frustrated and angry, because people don't understand how they're shortchanging us and the students," says Nosanov Goldman, who has just taken a schoolwide weeklong furlough and will thereby lose 3% of her pay. "I work very hard for the pittance I make."
"Everyone is on edge and very stressed out," says Maria Clark, president of the Redlands Teachers Association. "They are living in a world of fear because they are afraid they [are going to be cut] next." She adds that teachers are well aware that their students are starting to suffer emotionally from the severe financial drain. "As adults, we can rationalize this, but how do you tell a 6-year-old we can't do a beloved project because we don't have the supplies?"
Superintendent O'Connell agrees. He says he is deeply worried even when he hears inspirational stories about teachers going to extraordinary personal lengths to provide for their students. "It sends a mixed message to the students," says O'Connell, who doesn't see an end in sight until California's economy grows stronger. "It shows the resourcefulness of the teacher and the school, but students will question whether the state values public education."