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Alpaca in the News: Flatwater Free Press

Karen Borchert
August 24, 2023

Colored paper, coats and cookies: Teachers dip into own pockets to supply classrooms, aid students

Kylie Adolf knows what it takes to run a successful second grade classroom.

She needs jump ropes. Tissues. Colorful paper. Puzzles. A princess puzzle is always a good idea.

But the Omaha second-grade teacher can’t request those supplies from her school and expect to find them in her supply closet the next week. There are no funds in the budget for that.

Instead, she spends her own money out of her teacher’s paycheck. Instead, she posts to Facebook and asks friends and strangers for help.

“My dream is to create a safe, functional space that kids know they are loved and cared for,” Adolf wrote to potential online donors.

Adolf spent an estimated $3,000 between her own money and donated money equipping her classroom last school year, her first year as a full-time teacher.  

That’s not atypical. American teachers spent an average of $750 out of their own pockets – much of it on basic school supplies, according to a recent survey.

“It is a little bit frustrating when I actually added up and really thought about all the money that was poured into making everything happen the past school year,” Adolf said.

Nebraska teachers are increasingly turning to local donors and parents as they search for solutions.

Hundreds of teachers in at least 66 different Nebraska towns collectively requested more than $160,000 for classroom supplies for this school year as of August 10 on DonorsChoose, a crowdfunding platform for public school teachers.

Teresa Galligher, a first grade teacher at Omaha’s Western Hills Magnet Elementary, receives her back-to-school supply pack from a new Omaha company called Alpaca. Teachers in Nebraska often spend hundreds of dollars of their own money on school supplies. Alpaca and various nonprofits and donor networks are working to fill the gap between what classrooms and students need, and what school districts can afford.   Photo by Jazari Kual/Flatwater Free Press.

Alpaca, a for-profit company, is delivering back-to-school supplies to 700 Omaha teachers, and will continue to deliver supplies each month this school year. Parents and others interested pay a subscription that goes toward a monthly gift basket for teachers in participating schools.

“It makes me kind of crazy to think that a teacher who’s brand new out of college, has student loans to pay is paying $750 to $1,000 a year worth of supplies for their classroom,” said Alpaca founder Karen Borchert.

Nebraska has the fifth lowest starting salary in the country for teachers, according to the National Education Association – a salary over $5,000 less than the national average for new teachers in the 2019-2020 school year.

After facing a rash of teacher departures, Omaha Public Schools recently announced that all full-time staff will receive a stipend of $4,500 for the next two school years.

“Coming out of college most of my first paycheck was paying for stuff for the classroom,” said Sarah Anderson, one of the first teachers to receive supplies from Alpaca last year at Western Hills Magnet Elementary School.

Before teaching in Lincoln Public Schools, Kate Regler spent between $200 to $300 out-of-pocket to set up her classroom. Today, a $350 stipend and supplies provided by Lincoln Public Schools mostly covers her classroom needs, she said.

“It’s hard for the brand-new teachers because they don’t get that right away,” Regler said.

The earliest a new teacher could receive money from LPS is the first week of September, two weeks after the first day of school, said LPS associate superintendent Liz Standish.

Alpaca’s first delivery of the school year is arriving on teachers’ desks before students enter their classrooms.

Borchert says she started Alpaca for parents like herself who want to help teachers and schools on a more ongoing basis but might not have the time to figure out how to do so.

“I just wanted teachers to not be paying out of pocket for school supplies,” Borchert said.

Before starting deliveries at a school, Alpaca surveys its teachers and asks what they need and what they don’t want to see in their monthly gifts.

This month Borchert and the Alpaca team delivered boxes filled with prizes for students, disinfectant wipes, dry erase markers, organizational pouches, lotion, sharpie pens and colored card stock – all from name brands.

Anderson felt her school provided her with enough basic supplies, like crayons and pencils. But Alpaca provides something different.

“These guys bring giant sticky notes with cards and felt pens,” Anderson said. “That’s the stuff we crave.”

Alpaca employees prepare to distribute the “Alpaca packs” to teachers at Omaha’s Western Hills Magnet Elementary. Photo by Jazari Kual/Flatwater Free Press.

Although the Alpaca deliveries make teachers like Anderson, “do a little happy dance,” they aren’t enough to fully stock an elementary school classroom.

“I don’t think a pack of supplies solves the problem,” Borchert said. “I think parents who are supportive and connected to their schools can solve the problem.”

Teachers paying out-of-pocket is not a new issue.

Sheri Paden taught in Lincoln for 34 years. She’s now retired, but still remembers not being able to meet the financial needs of her students.

“Especially when I was in my early teaching days, I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t have the money,” Paden said.

The supply burden on teachers increases in Title 1 schools – schools with a higher percentage of students in poverty – Paden said.

School districts serving mostly students of color historically have received $2,266 less per student compared to school districts with mostly white students. And teacher out-of-pocket spending is 31% higher in schools serving mostly students of color, according to DonorsChoose.

Of the 246 DonorsChoose campaigns for classrooms in Nebraska, almost 40% are for classrooms in schools where more than half of students are Black, Latino, Native American or multi-racial. The majority of these students come from low-income households.

Alpaca offers a subscription matching program to provide supplies in schools where there might not be enough parents able to afford subscriptions. But their supply packs won’t eliminate the need teachers feel to buy some students food and clothing.

At Bancroft Elementary, where Adolf taught last year, nearly 90% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch.

Omaha Public Schools provided her Bancroft classroom with essential supplies, and Adolf spent her own money on things like cold weather gear for kids whose families couldn’t afford to replace lost hats and gloves.

“You definitely still find yourself supplementing with your own money,” Adolf said.

Like thousands of teachers, Anderson and Adolf now ask for supplies and donations through an Amazon wishlist every year.  

“Teachers are desperate and broke,” Anderson said. “It’s not a great feeling to have to do that.”

Adolf has already received 45 items on his back-to-school Amazon wish list, items paid for by her family members, friends and complete strangers.

“You’d be surprised at how many people do appreciate teachers and know that, because of their salary, they don’t have the means to supply, maybe not the needs, but your goals,” Adolf said.

Still, that wish list can’t help Adolf with surprise costs that will inevitably pop up in her 2nd grade classroom this year at her new school, Pine Elementary, located just south of downtown Omaha.

Last year Adolf realized many of her second graders couldn’t afford to bring birthday treats for the class. So, on each birthday, she bought frosted cookies for all her second graders so they could still celebrate.

The added out-out-pocket costs make the second grade teacher’s personal budget tight.

Adolf said for her and many teachers,students are more important than her savings account. The underlying problem is that she’s forced to choose between the two.

“I wanted them to know that they can come to school and an adult that sees them a lot and gets to know them really well over the course of the school year is going to make sure they’re taken care of,” she said.

The Flatwater Free Press is Nebraska’s first independent, nonprofit newsroom focused on investigations and feature stories that matter.

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