Philly teachers scramble for supplies

By Kristen Graham I Posted FRIDAY, MARCH 2, 2012 on Philly School Files

It’s been a good week for Aileene Halligan. The social studies teacher at Kensington Urban Education Academy just got funding for five cases of paper, enough to last her school through the end of the school year.

Sounds like no big deal, right?

It’s actually a major deal.

Ask any teacher, especially any Philadelphia School District teacher, how much money they have to spend out of their own pocket to keep their kids in paper and notebooks and other supplies, and the answer is usually in the hundreds. Or thousands.

Halligan, a second-year teacher, has spent at least $1,000 so far this year. The $100 annual reimbursement the district offers teachers for supplies is a fraction of what teachers actually spend.

And with the district’s enormous money problems — $38.8 million left to cut this school year, plus a budget gap of more than $269 million right out of the gate for 2012-13 — it’s only gotten worse.

Halligan bubbles over with enthusiasm about her small school, which opened in 2010 with just a ninth grade class and now has freshmen and sophomores. Michelle Burns, Halligan’s principal, “is really great. She makes things work. But we try not to bother her with everything.”

And the kids?

“They’re amazing,” she said.  They come from tough backgrounds, and care about school, she said — they see it as a way to a better future.  She recently took a group of freshmen to the University of Pennsylvania, where they won a contest for proposing an innovative fundraising project.

Despite their own challenges, Halligan explained, the students cooked up an idea for a dress-down day at school.  For $1.00, students can wear street clothes, rather than school uniforms, to school for one day.  The money will go to children in Tanzania, who can’t attend school unless they have the funds to pay for it.

“These are children who barely have anything themselves,” Halligan said.

So yes.  Having adequate supplies for these kids matters.

Every teacher at Kensington Urban Education, one of the four small high schools spun off from the large, old Kensington High, gets one ream of paper per month.  And that’s not nearly enough.

The kids, Halligan explains, are bright, interested, interesting, but most come to the school with low reading and writing levels.

“Asking them to take a blank piece of lined paper to start an assignment is often overwhelming for them,” Halligan wrote.  “It’s been extremely helpful when teachers create graphic organizers, guided notes and step-by-step outlines to help guide them through their assignments.”

But that means more paper.  Halligan and her colleagues are mindful of the need to be careful with their supplies.  They use colored paper or scrap paper they’ve scrounged up and print half sheets when it’s appropriate.

Halligan used, an online site that allows anyone to make donations to teachers for specific projects, to raise the $400.  Multiple donors chipped in to fund the project. Another Kensington Urban Education teacher conducted a similar fundraising campaign in the fall, too, but that paper is gone.

Halligan’s is hardly the only scrambling-for-supplies story I’ve heard; there are hundreds across the city.

These are the stories that get lost in the big headlines of budget cuts.  This is what kids, teachers and principals are dealing with every day – trying to figure out how to get the basics, things a lot of us take for granted.

It feels important to remember that.

Philly teachers, parents, students, staff – I’d love to hear your story of how the budget cuts are affecting your school on a day-to-day basis.  Share stories in the comments, but also send them to me directly – I’ll be blogging more about this issue.


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