Gift cards to help Camden classrooms

Nazir Hall (right) and other members of the robotics club at Hatch Middle School in Camden work with a robot during the after-school program. Science teacher David Parsons hopes to expand the program with new funding a donation of gift cards to parents.
Nazir Hall (right) and other members of the robotics club at Hatch Middle School in Camden work with a robot during the after-school program. Science teacher David Parsons hopes to expand the program with new funding a donation of gift cards to parents.
Posted: February 07, 2014

Mr. Parsons' robotics club needs an updated Lego Mindstorm bot if the members want a chance of placing in future competitions.

Mrs. Rodriguez's fourth and fifth graders would love a carpet in their book corner, so they don't have to sit on cold linoleum while reading.

And Ms. Gail, the art teacher at Henry L. Bonsall Elementary, has an idea for a stepping-stone garden that would line Mount Ephraim Avenue - if she could just get the funding for 20 mosaics.

The projects, all listed on the teacher fundraising website DonorsChoose, aren't the traditional requests for notebooks and protractors, but Camden teachers say they're exactly what their students need.

Now, thanks to a donation from Judith Nadell and John Langan of Voorhees, all parents in the district of 15,000 students will get a $100 gift card to spend on a project of their choosing on the website.

"We hope this project encourages thousands of Camden citizens to be of help to the schools," Langan said in a news release. "Parents can use the gift cards to help fund classroom projects and promote more learning," added Nadell.

The couple, who declined to be interviewed, have long supported urban education nationwide, including a $1 million donation toward the Catholic Partnership Schools in Camden in 2011.

Both former educators, they founded Townsend Press, an independent publisher of educational materials and textbooks.

Dan Blum, a spokesman for DonorsChoose, which has been in operation for 14 years, said Nadell and Langan's gift is one of the largest the site has received.

If every $100 gift card sent home were used, that would raise about $1.5 million for teachers' needs. However, Blum said, typically only 10 percent of gift-card recipients use the cards.

The site ( www.donorschoose.org) was launched in New York City by a social studies teacher. It has served 178,000 teachers and helped fund $226 million worth of materials.

District computer labs will open for parents to make their donations, and teachers in many schools will get training on how to put projects on the site.

So far, 14 Camden projects have been posted to DonorsChoose, ranging from three cameras to teach basic photography at East Camden Middle School to 20 copies of The Montgomery Bus Boycott and the Women Who Started It: The Memoir of Jo Ann Gibson Robinson for a lesson on women and the civil rights movement at Camden High School.

All proposals come with an itemized list of supplies by cost.

"This lets us know there are people out there who care about students and are willing to give them the resources to learn," said Elizabeth Rodriguez, bilingual teacher at Octavius V. Catto Community School. "It's the little things we can't get through the budget and also some more interesting things that might not get approved."

Rodriguez, who wants the reading corner carpet as well as a heavy-duty electric pencil sharpener (the cheaper ones keep breaking), said that each school year, the district allots about $500 per teacher for supplies. But because budgets are set at the beginning of the year, it's tough to get things replaced or added.

District-approved vendors also are sometimes limited, especially when it comes to the bilingual materials Rodriguez needs. She estimates that she spends about $500 a year out-of-pocket on materials.

Superintendent Paymon Rouhanifard said the district, which has a budget of nearly $24,000 per student, doesn't suffer from a lack of funding but has a problem of allocating resources appropriately.

"As part of our strategic plan, we are taking a hard look at the district's past practices and are committed to prioritizing that our resources go where they're needed most: our classrooms. This generous contribution will help us get there even faster, giving our teachers immediate resources they need to help their students excel," he said.

At Hatch Middle School on Wednesday, the robotics team gathered around an outdated robot and programmed it to navigate around Lego-made obstacles. At a tournament last month, team members met their personal goal but finished in the bottom third percentile. It was hard to ignore the handicap in their equipment.

"All the other teams had the updated robot," said 12-year-old Joy Caulk. "If we had more time and the better one, and if we programmed it right, we could have done a lot better."

David Parsons, the lone science teacher at Hatch, who teaches 85 students in five classes, put the request for a $400 updated robot on the website. He also wants to bring an aquarium of GloFish into the classroom to teach about genetically modified organisms, water quality, and water organisms.

Over several years, Parsons has spent a few thousand dollars of his own money to bring lizards and snakes into the classroom - an expense approved, but not covered, by the district.

"This is why animals in the classroom are so great," Parsons said, gesturing toward four of his students a few feet away, who passed snakes and lizards back and forth, laughing and studying the reptiles closely.

"My first year, I brought in a female bearded dragon named Crunch, and it was like flipping a switch. Everyone immediately sat down and listened. It's so engaging for them."


jterruso@phillynews.com856-779-3876 @juliaterruso

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