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Education

Hillsborough teachers find supplies via website

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Published:   |   Updated: August 20, 2013 at 05:32 AM

TAMPA — Students heading into Kaitlyn Van Natter’s second-grade class today at Foster Elementary School will see shelves lined with brand-new book sets — on animals and insects, natural disasters and the popular Junie B. Jones character.

They didn’t come from the school or even the district, but from Van Natter’s pitch on DonorsChoose.org, an online charity that allows anyone to donate to classrooms in need.

The public ponied up $463 for the books, one of more than 4,000 teachers’ wishes fulfilled in the Hillsborough district since DonorsChoose.org went nationwide in 2007.

When students arrive for the first day of school Tuesday, they’ll have at their disposal everything from a $273 guitar at Cannella Elementary School to more than 30 pieces of physical education equipment at Tinker Elementary School on MacDill Air Force Base, all from donors who have connected directly with classrooms to the tune of $6.5 million in Florida.

“It was so easy to do,” said Van Natter, who is working up another pitch for science materials for her classroom. “You tell your story, why your school needs what it needs. It was a real simple process. As soon as it went up, I had donations just pouring in.” And on Aug. 13, her goal was met.

Known as crowdfunding, it’s a relatively new fund-raising method of pooling smallish donations from a large number of people. It has become popular in disaster relief, among entrepreneurs and for those who support independent musicians or filmmakers.

The company Kickstarter legitimized the method through its popular web site.

In the case of DonorsChoose.org, it works like this: A teacher at a public school makes the pitch, it’s vetted by the website, and the request stays on the site for up to four months. Donations go to DonorsChoose.org.

If the pitch succeeds, the charity buys the materials and ships them to the classroom; if not, donors can choose a different project, have one chosen for them, or send the teacher they supported a DonorsChoose.org gift card.

Under the heading, “Help Us Get Over Our Hurdle,” gym teacher Mark Gelsomino talked about the teambuilding skills his students would develop with a new set of hurdles and how they would meet physical education benchmarks such as jumping, landing, changing pathways, directions and speeds.

“It’s a great thing,” Gelsomino said. So great, he’s had more than 30 projects granted, bringing tennis nets, yoga stations, hockey sticks, and other sporting goods to Tinker.

At Cannella, Juan Rios had trouble teaching guitar to students who have hands too small to form chords on a standard-sized instrument; he posted an solicitation for a smaller acoustic-electric model with amplifier.

“It’s amazing to see all the people that are out there,” he said. “You don’t know who they are. They came from all over the United States.”

DonorsChoose.org was launched in 2000 by a New York City teacher frustrated over spending his own money on school supplies. The company couldn’t be reached for an interview Monday, but it has been getting plenty of national attention.

Oprah Winfrey called it a “revolutionary charity” on her show, which prompted a demand crash to the website. Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report” not only supported it, but became a member of DonorsChoose.org’s board of directors. Fast Company has named it one of the 50 Most Innovative Companies in the World.

jstockfisch@tampatrib.com

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