Teachers look to donors for help with school supplies

Left to Right, Lori Zehnder, 3rd grade teacher at Linwood Elementary School, chats with Melissa O'Neil, Donors Choose program with Foundation for OKCPS, in background of classroom using some of the donated supplies, 8-27-15.  (Mark Hancock)

Lori Zehnder chats with Melissa O’Neil while classmates use donated school supplies. (Mark Hancock)

It isn’t enough for Lori Zehnder to just do lesson plans for her third grade class at Linwood Elementary in Oklahoma City.

These days, part of her job as a public school teacher in a high-needs institution is to apply for donations for what today’s suburban instructors expect parents to provide: crayons, spiral notebooks, paper, pencils and binders.

The purchase of supplies alone can be financially daunting for the poor and working poor. There are plenty of people who fall into that category in the neighborhoods that Zehnder’s students come from.

Even though uniforms are adopted partly to keep clothes affordable for low-income parents, the purchase of those can eat away the meager income of a family that has more than one child enrolled at a time.

Big purchase

Zehnder estimates supplies for one elementary student range from $50-$75. And two sets — one to wear, one to wash — of the simple set of clothes required in Oklahoma City Public Schools is around $60. Add in the cost of shoes and parents are looking at close to $100. Uniforms actually hold down the back-to-school costs for parents due to better pricing on the polo shirts and khaki pants that OKCPS requires.

A person working 40 hours a week full-time at minimum wage ($7.25 per hour) would make $290 before taxes were deducted.

Using these figures, the price of supplies and uniforms for just one child amounts to around $150, or 51 percent of one week’s gross pay. Multiply that times two children and the cost goes beyond the family’s financial capacity.

Anyone who has been in the workforce for long can see that those income estimates are not realistic. Minimum wage jobs are often held to lower work hours because many employers want to avoid reaching the 40-hour threshold, which triggers required benefits. And oftentimes, minimum wage work is temporary. Those additional factors make the school supply purchase out of reach for many.

That’s why each year, several churches, organizations and even an office in OKCPS work to procure donations for children starting back to school.

Family help

The community relations department of OKCPS works with local individuals and groups like churches to connect donors with those who need the help.

Ashleigh Arnall, Deisy Escalera and Amanda Laija are staff members in that office. They coordinate donors with people connected to the district who are in need.

“[We] help anyone who is involved with the district. We support district staff, and we also support the community,” Arnall said.

Staff members encourage parents to contact the office at 587-0234 to get assistance for supplies.

Teacher help

State budget cuts can often limit the ability of educators to develop an optimum classroom experience because of a lack of resources for supplies.

That’s where The Foundation for Oklahoma City Public Schools steps in. It is a local affiliate of the organization DonorsChoose, which works as a clearinghouse to connect donors with public institutions and teachers who need the donations.

The Foundation for OKCPS helps that district’s educators develop and write applications to submit to DonorsChoose.

Melissa O’Neil is the DonorsChoose.org liason and guides instructors through the process. She helps teachers think through and organize their needs and then coaches them on how to write a clear application that will best reveal needs to a potential donor.

Her help has made an impact on resources for the district’s employees and students.

O’Neil said the foundation has helped fund 354 projects for 276 teachers at 88 schools, impacting 37,864 students.

“Our total financial impact [including all donations from other people, organizations and The Foundation for OKCPS] is $218,625,” she said. “The foundation has spent $107,794, and we started our second … contract with DonorsChoose this month.”

Difference made

Zehnder has had recent success in gaining much-needed funds from DonorsChoose.

“I work in a pretty low socioeconomic area where most of the kids have a hard enough time getting food on the table, let alone buying the backpacks … the pencils, buying the crayons [and] the colored pencils,” she said.

Those basic items that parents and educators in surrounding districts can take for granted are prized acquisitions for this elementary instructor. Despite efforts in the community to supply individuals, Zehnder finds that those items need to be acquired for her classroom in order to be immediately available to students.

The affiliate connection that the foundation provides through DonorsChoose has been helpful for her in acquiring 25 headphones to use in the computer lab so students can adequately hear instructions in online games and activities.

Last summer, she was able to get copies of The Mouse and the Motorcycle, an award-winning book by Beverly Cleary, for her class.

“I had people all the way from New Jersey and Virginia and Boston and just all over the country willing to donate these supplies to the kids,” she said.

The ability to write a grant through the foundation has made a real difference in Zehnder’s classroom.


Print Headline: Needs supplied, Donors and the district step up to provide school supplies for those who cannot buy them.

Brett Dickerson

This article was written by an Oklahoma Gazette contributor. To reach an editor, please email jchancellor@okgazette.com with this story's headline in your subject line.

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