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CPS teachers on their own for basic classroom supplies

First-grade teacher Randy Foust with her students at Washington Irving Elementary School. She's had to resort to spending her own money and asking others to help pay for school supplies. | Maria Cardona / Sun-Times

Learning in a classroom without paper, pencils, books and crayons is hard.

Randy Foust knows this all too well. She teaches first grade at Washington Irving Elementary School, a Chicago Public School where eight out of 10 students come from low-income families.

Foust’s classroom used to be equipped with these basic supplies, but a wave of budget cuts in the nation’s third-largest public school system has forced her and many other CPS teachers to buy these classroom essentials with their own money.

Foust spends about $100 of her own pocket every two weeks and prints worksheets on the back of used papers to keep her classroom going.

“Now, it’s just on you,” said Foust, who’s taught at Irving for three years. “We just lost so much money that we already didn’t have, that I can’t imagine any other cuts. I don’t know how we could lose more and still function.”

To help make ends meet, Foust, 31, also fundraises through DonorsChoose.org, a website where people can publicly or anonymously contribute to projects benefiting an estimated 22 million public school students in some of the country’s highest-poverty classrooms.

The nonprofit recently launched a “Student Life Essentials” program that allows teachers to request supplies, such as crayons, colored pencils, paper, printer ink, water, snacks, clothes and personal hygiene items.

Foust initially fundraised for more expensive items like cameras and reading tablets but switched to classroom essentials once she saw her students’ needs.

“First it was like, ‘Oh, it would be nice if I had better technology,’ but [now] most of my projects are things that you absolutely need to run a school,” Foust said. “I’ve been fundraising for pencils, crayons [and] paper because we don’t get any.”

In December, Foust’s fundraising project “Art Will Bring Our Stories to Life” reached its $457 goal to buy crayons, colored pencils, pencils and pencil sharpeners for her 26 students.

Because the project was funded under the “Student Life Essentials” program, a private company matched every donor’s contribution.

The organization has collected over $19 million for more than 500 Illinois public schools, reaching almost 3 million students, according to DonorsChoose.

Chicago Public Schools officials did not answer calls and emails seeking comment about teachers having to dig into their owns pockets or using fundraising websites to pay for classroom needs.

Anne Shippy, a middle school teacher at Dawes Elementary School, raises money for notebooks, pencils, pens, folders and books because half of her students come without those supplies. Nine out of 10 students at Dawes come from low-income households.

Shippy, who has funded about 60 projects, said CPS’ budget crisis has worsened, especially during the past two years. “I can’t even buy books,” she said.

Shippy worries about what her classroom could lack next. “Am I gonna have copy paper?” she said. “I don’t know what’s coming next year. I can’t rely on CPS.”

Shippy said it’s sad teachers have to pay for supplies themselves, she sees it as her responsibility.

“It’s a shame that teachers have to go to these ends, [but] I just feel like I have to,” said Shippy, who spends between $500 and $600 of her own money each year.

Catherine Chacon — a computer teacher at James Ward Elementary School, where eight out of 10 students live in low-income households — has received money through DonorsChoose for technology like headphones and cameras.

Now Chacon has moved to more basic supplies. One of her most recent fundraising project — “Traveling Books” — is requesting $1,183 for school bags.

Chacon, who teaches pre-K through eight grade and has collected about $2,000 in donations, said the backpacks would help some of her students who can’t afford them or are homeless.

She, too, has invested her own money in her classroom, spending about $1,200 on school supplies last year.

But she and Foust both say they have no choice.

“Every day [my students] do something that makes me think it’s worth it,” Foust said. “When they come back on Monday they write me letters saying, ‘Thank you. This weekend I used the crayons you let me borrow,’ [or] ‘I read a new book you gave me.’”

Foust knows in other school districts, teachers don’t have to resort to buying their own supplies or asking strangers for donations.

“It’s awful,” Foust said. “They [CPS] are giving us no choice but to dig into our own pockets [or] to beg others. The state should be able to fund all these schools equally and fairly, so that we have what we need.”