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Joe Henderson: Hillsborough teachers have come to depend on foundation’s free supplies

We have all heard stories about public school teachers reaching into their own pockets so their students will have basic classroom supplies.

It goes on throughout the system because budgets are tight. The money allotted for pencils, markers, notebooks and so on often doesnít stretch far enough to ensure every student has what they need.

Laura Dunn knows about that.

Dunn has had a long career teaching at schools in some of Hillsborough Countyís most economically challenged neighborhoods. Over those years, Dunn says she spent around $270 of her own money each month during the school year on such things.

"If I wanted them to do what I wanted them to do, they needed supplies," she said.

"There are always four or five kids who had no stuff. My aim every year is that when students come to the first day of school, all the supplies they need are on their desks and waiting for them, so you canít tell the haves from the have-nots."

Fortunately, the Hillsborough Education Foundation, a nonprofit now in its 30th year, helps fill that gap for Dunn and other teachers in similar situations.

Charitynavigator.org gives the Foundation a four-star rating and 100 percent on accountability and transparency.

At its Teaching Tools store in West Tampaís iconic Centro EspaŮol building, they focus on helping teachers from Title I schools. Those are places with a high percentage of children from low-income families.

Teachers can shop once a month for supplies.

And itís free.

"They have been critical for us," School Superintendent Jeff Eakins said. "They have been a huge difference-maker. We canít do it alone in the school system. We need partners that are advocates for teachers."

Thatís especially true these days, given constraints the Legislature imposed on public school budgets.

Hillsborough has 166 schools that meet federal guidelines to be designated Title I, including 93 elementary schools. The total is 13 more than a year ago.

Those are schools where about three-fourths of the students come from low-income families and qualify for free or reduced lunches.

For a family of four, that is about $32,600 per year.

It can be hard to stretch those dollars far enough to pay the rent and put food on the table, let alone cover the basics needed to succeed in the classroom.

"There are so many students who donít have the essentials ó no pencils, no paper, no backpacks, no folders," Foundation Chief Advancement Officer Mike McCollum said.

"I canít even tell you how many teachers from Title I schools come in looking for basics like toiletries, deodorant and other personal items for their students. There is so much need. We view it as an opportunity to step up to the plate."

The foundationís annual budget is about $6 million, raised by sponsorships, grants and donations. Suncoast Credit Union, Casperís McDonaldís and Citibank are major sponsors.

Besides classroom supplies, teachers can apply for special grants to pay for field trips or extra programs. At-risk students also can qualify for college scholarships by keeping their grades up and attending regular mentoring sessions

"Anything that is used in the classroom, we try to provide," McCollum said.

Itís an ambitious mission, and the Foundation doesnít try to go it alone. It cooperates with charitable organizations like Metropolitan Ministries on things like clothing or even housing.

Itís all designed to give the most vulnerable students a fighting chance to succeed while taking pressure off beleaguered teachers who serve on the front lines.

Some schools may not have a Title I designation, but still have a high percentage of needy students. Teachers from those schools can still get supplies if they promise to volunteer three hours a month.

Dunn is doing that now, and she wants to spread the word.

"The service they provide is huge," she said. "I donít know what we would do without them."

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