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Mark Hayward's City Matters: City teachers become digital panhandlers

By MARK HAYWARD
September 07. 2018 11:30PM
Fifth-grade teacher Cathryn Vachon prepares her classroom ahead of the first day of school at Northwest Elementary School in Manchester on Tuesday. Vachon is among a group of teachers at the school who use a donation web site to help her with her teaching materials. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

You’re a teacher in the community that spends less on education than any other in the state, save one.

So what do you do if you need a different chair to keep a fidgety student engaged? Or a special handwriting workbook? Or an iPad to help students with independent study?

You beg.

No, Manchester teachers aren’t standing at highway exits with cardboard signs. But they’re doing the online equivalent, and with the quiet support of the school administration.

On the homepage of the Manchester school district, there’s a link to DonorsChoose.org, where teachers list the supplies and equipment they would like for their classrooms. Earlier this week, 109 Manchester school teachers had requests pending online.

Flexible seating — including yoga balls and Wobble Seats — is a big one at many schools. At Wilson School, a teacher wants children’s books with characters who reflect the diversity of her class. Requests can be as low-tech as white boards and as high-tech as iPads.

Earlier this week, The same website had four requests from our affluent neighbors to the west, Bedford.

“This is not news,” said Dr. Bolgen Vargas, the superintendent of Manchester schools. “Our teachers are incredible. They work hard. They have been doing fundraising and asking for help for a very long time.”

Vargas said Manchester teachers are asking for materials that teachers elsewhere in New Hampshire take for granted.

Vargas has been vocal in the shortcomings of school funding here in Manchester. According to data for the 2017 school year, Manchester spends $11,700 per student, less than every other district in the state except Landaff, which is some town I’ve never heard of that must be off in Middle Earth.

If Manchester wanted to just reach Nashua’s level of spending, it would have to add another $14 million, Vargas said.

So teachers fundraise.

The school with the most pages on DonorsChoose is Northwest, the largest elementary school in the city. Sixteen teachers were asking for material as of this week.

I spoke with several teachers the day before students returned. They said the school provides basic supplies — paper, pencils, notebooks, chalk, folders, staples etc.

But even colored pencils are too extravagant. Teacher Debbie Villiard points to the notebook-sized white boards she recently obtained through DonorsChoose. They’re magnetic, so students can put plastic letters on the board while they try to copy them.

Northwest Elementary first-grade teacher Beth Shea talks about the school supplies she bought in part with funds from a donation web site at Northwest Elementary School in Manchester on Tuesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

The students’ eyes light up when they’re working with the white boards, Villiard said.

Why should she have to do this, I ask?

“We do whatever we have to for our kids. We want them to be successful, whatever has to be done has to be done,” she said.

The Northwest teachers said they’ve become experienced at DonorsChoose, and it takes little effort to set up a page.

At Beech Street School, a teacher gives her colleagues workshops about DonorsChoose, said principal Chris Martin.

Richard Girard, a conservative-leaning school board member, said he wishes the school district could provide more supplies.

But he notes that Catholic schools traditionally rely on parents to donate supplies. He said fundraising teaches kids to go out and work for something they want. 

And he said it’s difficult to find money for supplies, equipment and additional staff when the teachers’ union wants to see $28 million devoted to raises over the next five years.

“We really have gone out of balance these last few years,” he said.

I spoke to a couple of Northwest parents. Most were unaware of the on-line fundraising. It hasn’t stopped the pizza fundraisers or the beginning-of-the-school-year lists for supplies such as Kleenex, glue and supplies for those who can’t afford it.

Some DonorsChoose donations do come from parents and relatives of students, teachers tell me. But other donors have nothing to do with the school. 

For example, in March B.J.’s Wholesale Club funded all 36 Manchester classroom projects on DonorsChoose. The $40,000 donation marked the grand opening of its Manchester store.

“Last year, it was unbelievable the money that came in,” said Martin. While only three teachers had projects up on DonorsChoose this week, she expects more in the future. And her inner-city school draws donors countrywide, she said.

Yet, her teachers have to find time to craft solicitations (a quandary, I imagine, for their union, which wants them to work to rule). 

And in the end, the teachers in the largest city of one of the most affluent states are being reduced to acting like panhandlers. Panhandlers that everyone grumbles about when they start taking over the downtown.

“I’ll keep my personal opinion to myself,” Martin said, “and say I’m grateful for what people provide to us.”

Mark Hayward’s City Matters appears Saturdays in the New Hampshire Union Leader and UnionLeader.com. He can be reached at mhayward@unionleader.com.


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