HANCOCK COUNTY — Dressed in old clothing they’d brought from home, Brandywine Elementary teachers Cindy Willyard and Michele Epple were hard at work after school scrubbing and power washing an old picnic table on the school’s playground.
They were creating a “Buddy Bench,” a spot for lonely youngsters to sit so other children can see they are in need of a friend.
“It’s all for the sake of the kids,” Epple said. “I grew up in a large family, and from the day I was born, you just figured out how to make things work.”
It’s a motto educators seem to live by day in and day out.
Not only were the two teachers using their own time after school to do the project; Epple supplied the tools, and Willyard bought the materials, including bleach and paint, to finish the work.
It was a scene that’s already been repeated many times since school started last week: teachers spending their own time and money to help students. Many of them prefer not to talk about it, but privately, many teachers and administrators say that the vast majority of teachers dig deep into their wallets to make sure students have the materials and tools they need to get a solid education.
“Teachers spend their own money for two different things,” Willyard said. “We buy things for our own use that we can keep to use year after year, and then we spend money on the children.”
According to a study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, 92 percent of teachers spend their own money on classroom supplies, while 85 percent buy instructional materials for their students.
The study estimates public school teachers will spend $3.2 billion on educational products during a school year, with $1.6 billion of that coming from their own pockets. From pencils and paper to even power washing supplies, teachers often fill gaps that families and assistance programs cannot.
“I know a staff member who bought back-to-school clothes for a family,” said Eastern Hancock Elementary School Principal Amanda Pyle, noting that every teacher in her building – more than two dozen of them – go out of their way to make sure students have what they need to make it through a school day.
“Money has been deposited into lunch accounts to help those who need it,” Pyle said. “Numerous teachers have bought backpacks and school supplies for former and current students.”
The supplies that educators and their co-workers – which often include bus drivers, secretaries, custodians and lunchroom staff – give to students vary. Many purchase regular supplies, such as paper and pens. But others contribute more personal items, such as shoes, hats, coats and even food on a regular basis at their own expense.
“We do it quite often,” said Kim McKee, a teacher at Harris Elementary School in Greenfield. “We’ll get things like snacks in the classroom, to other major things like supplies, just the normal materials to support our activities.”
While educators, many of whom have an innate nurturing instinct, can’t help but be moved to action when they see a student in need, some say the state does not supply districts with enough funding to buy all the necessary items it takes to get a good education.
“We would be thrilled if the DOE (Department of Education) would give more supply money to schools,” Harris Elementary Principal Jan Kehrt said. “I don’t foresee this happening, though.”
The state does give districts funding for supplies. For example, officials with Southern Hancock have earmarked an estimated $101,800 for teacher supplies for all five school buildings this year, but those supplies have to be ordered in advance.
Bruce Miller, principal at Brandywine Elementary, said that averages to about $200 to $300 per classroom.
“Each one of our teachers will probably go out and spend at least that much alone,” said Miller, who pointed out that state rules forbid schools to reimburse teachers who spend their own money on supplies.
According to the website AdoptAClassroom.org the average teacher spends up to $1,000 of his or her own money every year in a classroom.
The cost of supplies at the start of the school can run into the hundreds of dollars per child. And that doesn’t include registration and book fees. The total costs can stretch a family budget to the limit.
The third-grade supply list at McCordsville Elementary School is typical. Including supplies needed for art, more than 25 items are on it. They vary from hole-punched folders to loose-leaf, wide-ruled notebook paper.
And those supplies don’t last the entire year. Teachers say they frequently replenish students’ stock out of their own pockets when the supplies run low.
“It definitely is a detriment to the teachers as far as having to supply that out of our own income,” McKee said. “Usually it is the simple things that we run out of, like Kleenex and glue sticks.”
Fortunately, many schools are able to rely heavily on parent-teacher organizations and community programs along with services such as Backpack Attack to help them bridge the gap.
“In our budget, we factor in teacher budgets for spring and fall,” Brandywine Elementary PTO organizer Trisha Ennis said. “We try to give back to the teachers because we know that they do spend a lot of money out of pocket.”
She said the PTO is normally able to provide $100 or so to each of the school’s teachers to use for classroom supplies, but she knows that is not nearly enough.
“Teachers are expected to do more and more with fewer resources, less money, and this is one way that we can help them,” Ennis said.
While there is no doubt the decrease in school budgets has led to an increase in educators stepping up to help students with their supplies and more, the desire to see that students don’t go without has been going on for generations.
“Teachers have always shelled out a bunch of their own money,” Southern Hancock Superintendent Lisa Lantrip said. “Whether it is buying paper and folders so they will have them later in the year or going to the education store and buying stickers and reward things like that, teachers have always gone that extra mile.”