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Crowdfunding catching on in cash-strapped schools

Posted: January 19, 2014 - 3:59pm
Elementary school children from School at St. George Place dance following the Nintendo Wii Just Dance video game as part of their physical education class, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. The physical education teacher Brittany Stags made the request for the Nintendo Wii funds through DonorsChoose.org. (AP {Photo/ Houston Chronicle, Marie D. De Jesus)  AP
AP
Elementary school children from School at St. George Place dance following the Nintendo Wii Just Dance video game as part of their physical education class, Friday, Jan. 10, 2014. The physical education teacher Brittany Stags made the request for the Nintendo Wii funds through DonorsChoose.org. (AP {Photo/ Houston Chronicle, Marie D. De Jesus)

HOUSTON (AP) — Coach Brittany Staggs wanted her students to get a rigorous workout even on rainy days. The equipment she needed would cost $800.

With the click of a mouse, the School at St. George Place physical education teacher’s request for a Wii, dance video games and projection technology was sent to thousands of potential donors. Within a month, the students in the Houston Independent School District were sweating to popular Disney tunes in the cafeteria of the Galleria-area school.

“It was awesome,” a breathless 6-year-old Summer Fahoud told the Houston Chronicle after trying out the technology.

Crowdfunding — an increasingly popular way of using the Internet to raise money for everything from starting a company to adopting a baby — is slowly taking root in Houston-area schools. Painfully slowly, some would say.

While the largest of the education-centered crowdfunding sites, donorschoose.org, started in 2000, only early adopters have put crowdfunding to work in cash-strapped public schools. Overwhelmed teachers are reluctant to tackle yet another endeavor and often are uncomfortable with the platform, experts said.

Yet, while other campuses struggle to raise meager funds by holding labor-intensive car washes, hosting spaghetti dinners and clipping “box tops,” the School at St. George Place has banked $43,000 worth of supplies since August 2012 from donorschoose.org.

“It’s 2014. Technology is here,” said Adam Stephens, the 32-year-old principal of the School at St. George Place. “This is a great resource, and this is free, to get right down to the nitty-gritty.”

Teachers can create proposals in their pajamas with little risk, he said. Corporate giants like Chevron and Kia sometimes provide matching funds, he said.

The timing couldn’t be better for fundraising to evolve in public education, experts said.

U.S. Census Bureau data show that 2011 was the first time per-student spending declined nationally in public education at least since data collection began in 1977. In Texas, funding fell from $6,656 per student in 2001 to $6,559 in 2011, according to Texas Education Agency data.

The need is so great that startups, including a Houston company, are joining the ranks of education-focused crowdfunding giants like donorschoose.org and adoptaclassroom.org.

Andyshea Saberioon, co-founder and CEO of Houston-based PledgeCents, said his fledgling crowdfunding company started last spring because of the tremendous shortages in public schools. Teachers spend hundreds of dollars a years from their own pockets on books, supplies and innovative projects.

“I do think it’s completely wrong in a sense that teachers have to find outside sources for funding,” the 25-year-old Houston native said.

His company wants to make it as painless as possible for teachers, administrators and parent leaders to ask for help. PledgeCents, which recently won a city of Houston business plan competition grant, will build proposals for the school, even the crucial video appeals that increase the campaign’s chance to succeed, Saberioon said.

“It’s about making that emotional connection,” he said.

Teachers and schools can then circulate the proposal via email and social media, reaching family and friends they wouldn’t normally approach while broadening the fundraising potential exponentially.

When PledgeCents make its pitch to schools, Saberioon said, he and his partner intentionally avoid the terms crowdsourcing or crowdfunding, which tend to scare off teachers.

“They don’t know what that is,” he said. “A lot of teachers we speak with, some are not tech-savvy, the majority don’t have time.”

Ironically, teachers are among the founders of old-fashioned crowdsourcing — sending home letters every fall asking parents to donate the tissues, crayons and hand sanitizer needed for the classroom. Crowdfunding simply moves that effort online and broadens access to potential donors, said Melanie Duppins, senior director of policy and learning for donorchoose.org.

More than 1,100 teachers in Harris County have proposals on donorschoose, asking for pencils, books and advanced technology for small-group instruction. Nationally, about 75,000 public school teachers — or 2 percent to 3 percent of all teachers — are regulars on the site that hopes to pump $55 million in supplies into schools this fiscal year.

Unlike the scripted curriculum mandated by the state, crowdfunding can provide teachers some room to be innovative.

“Donorschoose.org is venture capital for teachers to be creative,” Duppins said.

Admittedly, crowdfunding has only been attempted by the top tier of tech-savvy teachers, said Sheri Alford, education technology director for the Spring Branch school district.

“It does seem like it’s slow-moving, but I guess it’s just a cycle we’re all working through,” she said.

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