Sponsor a Classroom initiative underway in Ionia, Montcalm counties

Sponsor a Classroom initiative underway in Ionia, Montcalm counties

By Mike Taylor | on July 21, 2018

IONIA — There’s an old saying among teachers, one you can find on posters hung in faculty lounges across the country. It reads: “It’ll be a great day when schools have all the supplies they need and the military has to hold a bake sale to buy a new fighter jet.”

It’s meant as a joke, but only in part. As any educator can tell you, there never seems to be enough money to adequately outfit a classroom. Many teachers make up this disparity out of their own pockets.

Fortunately, for the past couple years teachers in Ionia and Montcalm counties have had a little help in the form of The United Way’s Sponsor a Classroom program. According to local United Way Executive Director Terri Legg, the organization recognized the need and then researched the most effective way it could help.

“We randomly sampled teachers to find out what they needed in their classrooms,” Legg said. “Repeatedly, teachers told us that they did not need more paper and crayons. Teachers told us over and over that they needed other things for their classrooms, such as hand sanitizers, snacks, tissues and other learning aids.”

Based on that feedback and the size of the United Way’s local territory — 12 public school districts, some more than a 90-minute drive from the organization’s headquarters — a plan was developed to provide teachers with the cash, then allow them to decide on and purchase the supplies they needed most.

“It allowed teachers the flexibility to get what they really need,” Legg said.

Legg also noted Sponsor a Classroom is a local effort and not part of a nationwide program. This was something she and her peers felt made sense for the communities served within Montcalm and Ionia counties. However, its popularity and success has prompted other United Way chapters to explore similar programs in other areas.

Legg stressed that 100 percent of the money raised goes directly back to the schools. Last year, using social media and email to advertise the effort, United Way raised $22,100 in just four weeks. Legg is hoping to better that figure this year.

“My ultimate goal is to extend the program to all elementary classrooms in every school located in Montcalm and Ionia counties,” Legg said. In the first day of our program this year, we have 15 classrooms sponsored. That’s a great start.”

Last year, many teachers used the money as soon as it was available to purchase needed supplies; others spread it out over the course of the school year, waiting to see which supplies would run low and require replenishing. United Way places no restrictions on how teachers use the funds.

According to Legg’s research, teachers typically spend about $480 of their own money to provide supplies for their classroom each year. With ongoing state changes to the rules surrounding school finance, many schools no longer receive the per-student funding they once did; this puts even further pressure on teachers to provide for their students out of their own pockets.

The problem is widespread, but can be particularly vexing for rural districts, which may be experiencing declining enrollment.

“We are a rural community where approximately 50-percent of both counties are one crisis away from financial disaster,” Legg explained. “That means that many families are not able to provide extra supplies and that is OK, because that is where United Way comes in to help.”

Ionia Public Schools Superintendent Ron Wilson noted money provided by the program has made a real difference in classrooms throughout his district.

“We definitely benefit from that (program),” Wilson said. “What they do is get local businesses and groups to help sponsor the classrooms with monetary donations. It’s really a wonderful program.”

Wilson, who taught for many years prior to going into school administration, said that it is very common for teachers to spend their own money on classroom supplies. In Ionia, he says, many of the teachers benefitting from the United Way program have used the money to purchase “enrichment” materials; items to supplement and enhance daily lesson plans.

“It’s certainly a great program and it’s welcome by the district,” Wilson said. “I’m just thankful they’re willing to take it on.”

Legg said she was impressed with the creative ways in which teachers spent last year’s donations. At St. Charles Elementary in Greenville, eight teachers pooled their funds to purchase a new reading program for their students. An Ionia school teacher bought three special chairs to help “fidgety” students participate in class without being a distraction to others.

Many other used the funds to purchase food for hungry kids.

“In Ionia County one in five children and in Montcalm County one in four children are food insufficient,” Legg said. “When children are hungry, their little minds cannot focus on learning. Even though our schools have breakfast and lunch programs that help, there are many children that go home to little to no dinner and many others that have dinner choices that are not the healthiest of options.”

The local United Way chapter also hosts other programs to deal with hunger throughout the area, such as the End Hunger food packing event held earlier this year in which more than 300 volunteers packed 60,000 protein fortified meals during a community event. Another, similar effort is slated for October with all meals staying within the Montcalm and Ionia counties area.

For more information on how you can donate to the Sponsor a Classroom program, visit liveunitedm-i.org online.