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St. Paul school officials turn to online crowdfunding

Jenny Wamsely, a P.E. and health teacher at Central High in St. Paul, has turned to fundraising sites like Donors Choose.org for classroom supplies and has had 31 projects funded at over $14,000 in the last two years. Here she's seen during a P.E. class in Central's gymnasium on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017. Scott Takushi / Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL — For students in Jenny Wamsley's physical education and health classes at Central High School, Christmas comes about every two weeks.

Donors have paid for 33 projects worth more than $15,000 through the crowdfunding site DonorsChoose.org since Wamsley transferred to Central in fall 2016. By comparison, the P.E. and health department's tax-funded equipment budget is $900 this year.

"When I added it up, I just about died because that's a lot of money that's come through here," Wamsley said.

St. Paul teachers increasingly are going online to ask donors to improve the classroom experience for students.

As of Wednesday, Dec. 6, 245 St. Paul classrooms were taking donations on AdoptAClassroom.org, and teachers were actively raising money for 152 projects on DonorsChoose.org.

Lisa van der Steur, senior development specialist for St. Paul Public Schools, encourages teachers to crowdfund. Unlike asking students to go door-to-door selling dough and wrapping paper, DonorsChoose.org pages can generate a big return for a small investment of teacher time.

"People who don't even know you who are touched by your story can fund the whole thing, and they do sometimes," she said.

Amy McDonald, a first-grade teacher at Linwood-Monroe, kept her expectations low when she first tried DonorsChoose.org on a colleague's recommendation in September. She asked for $158 for subscriptions to Time Magazine's kids edition.

"It seemed like a too-good-to-be-true kind of thing," she said.

"My first project got funded in two days and then I got very, very excited. I've been kind of a DonorsChoose addict since then."

Linwood-Monroe Principal Bryan Bass said his teachers are always looking for new ideas for engaging students, and crowdfunding brings those ideas to life.

"It works beautifully for our teachers," he said.

Unlike grant requests, the St. Paul district does not require school board approval for classroom fundraisers. How principals handle the projects differs from school to school.

Carlondrea Hines, principal of Creative Arts Secondary, where DonorsChoose.org has delivered books and flexible seats, asks teachers to get her permission before soliciting money. She has turned down some projects that she said the school could cover from other sources, such as its federal School Improvement Grant.

"We want to make sure we aren't exploiting students," she said.

Bass doesn't require his teachers to ask his permission.

"Our staff are very discerning about what kinds of things are appropriate for putting on there," he said.

During a recent P.E. class at Central, a donated portable speaker ($203) played Lady Gaga's "Poker Face" while three groups of freshmen, some wearing FitBits ($1,893), took turns playing basketball, speedball and badminton ($739).

Wamsley used to teach at Creative Arts, which invested heavily in P.E. equipment when it was converted from a learning center to a high school. When she got to Central, she found the gym equipment lacking in quality and variety, so she began asking for help on DonorsChoose.org.

Family and friends mostly paid for her early projects, but now it's often strangers, even from other states, buying snacks, yoga mats and hockey sticks for St. Paul high schoolers.

Wamsley admits not everything she has asked for and received was well thought out.

Her first DonorsChoose.org project, a $284 Bose speaker that plugs into the wall, is now in storage, replaced by a donated cordless speaker she can take outside.

Donors paid $986 for five Chromebooks last year because the school-issued iPads aren't great for typing. This year, the district supplied keyboards for the iPads.

And then there were the three Spheros ($356), a robotic ball controlled by iPad.

"I think that was probably a want more than a need," Wamsley said.

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