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'Wish list' to help stock classrooms

Project aims to provide classroom items not covered by elementary schools' supply budget

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Karina Rude, a special education teacher at Phoenix Elementary School, feeds a fish in a classroom aquarium that was donated by PetSmart as part of the Grand Forks teachers wish list project, initiated by Katie Edwards.
Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald
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Karina Rude, a teacher at Phoenix Elementary School, was quite surprised when she learned she would be receiving a fish tank for her special education classroom.

Rude had asked for the tank in response to an email from the school’s principal, inviting teachers to record items they want for their classrooms on a “wish list” set up by Katie Edwards.

Later, “when I got the note (from Edwards) saying it’s on its way, I thought, oh, my goodness, I can’t believe it,” Rude remembered.

Edwards had arranged for the 10-gallon tank to be installed in Rude’s classroom. The tank, the fish, chemicals, rocks and all the necessary supplies were donated by the PetSmart store managers in Grand Forks.

Rude uses the fish tank to teach her students “self-understanding” and as an incentive to help them learn positive behavior. For example, if they meet certain daily goals, their reward may be they get to feed the fish or add a decoration to the tank.

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“Boy, it made a difference,” Rude said of the new feature in her classroom. “(Students) can see what they have to work for.”

“The students love it,” she said. For some, watching the fish is “a transition time” from a regular classroom to her special education classroom. “It gets them ready to work.”

The fish tank “is useful in a lot of ways,” she said, noting that, using the fish as an example, she teaches about “different behaviors, emotions and how we treat others.”

For some students, watching the fish has a “calming effect” and provides a good break in their routine, she said. “If you think back as a kid, it was fun to have something a little different.”

It’s all part of a program that Edwards started to provide Grand Forks public elementary school teachers with items not covered by their school supply budget. She asked principals to invite their teachers to place items on wish lists, which can be found at https://wishlist.com/l/8J1eLB or visit the Facebook page, search @gfteacherwishlist.

People who view the lists may donate the items, new or used, or contribute funds so Edwards can purchase them.

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Karina Rude, left, a special education teacher at Phoenix Elementary School, meets with Katie Edwards, an elementary school parent who started an online wish-list to provide teachers with items that they want for their classrooms, but which are not covered by the district's school supply budgets. Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald
Eric Hylden / Grand Forks Herald

The idea for the teacher wish list sprang from conversations Edwards, the mother of a Discovery Elementary student, had with a couple of moms as they reviewed the school supply lists distributed before the start of school last fall.

“We wished we could do more for (the teachers) – and not just the teachers, but also the specialists,” such as gym teachers, librarians and speech therapists, because “they don’t get to put out a supply list at the beginning of the year; so they start with nothing,” Edwards said. “They don’t even get the tissues the other teachers get at the beginning of the year.”

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Out-of-pocket spending

Nationwide, teachers spent an average of $750 out-of-pocket on school supplies during the ‘20-21 school year – the highest amount ever, according to the 2021 AdoptAClassroom.org survey of 5,400 U.S. teachers. About 30% of teachers spent $1,000 or more on school supplies.

Teacher spending has increased 25% since AdoptAClassroom.org began surveying teachers in 2015.

Another survey by Savings.com found that teachers spent an overall average of $511 per year on school supplies without reimbursement.

The Grand Forks Education Association, which represents the district’s 779 teachers, has never surveyed its members on the amount of money they spend purchasing items for their work, said the association’s president, Melissa Buchhop, but “I am guessing we fall in line with the national numbers.”

“I think it is pretty safe to say a majority of us spend a couple hundred (dollars), if not more, each year on our classrooms,” Buchhop said.

Rude, the special education teacher at Phoenix, is among those who buy things for their classrooms, she said. “The amount each year depends on how much I want to change the classroom. I’m thrifty; I go to garage sales.”

‘Overwhelming’ requests

The number of requests she’s received for the wish list was “overwhelming,” said Edwards, who enlisted her daughter’s Girls Scout troop in the project. “It almost brought me to tears, because it’s so sad. The things they’re requesting are so simple, and (are) easy things for us to provide for them.”

When she contacts teachers to clarify their requests, it’s common for Edwards to get responses such as: “I can’t believe you emailed me,” “I can’t believe you’re a real person” and “Are you a real person?,” she said. “They were, like, is this for real?”

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Many teachers’ requests are for items “you wouldn’t even think of, like, laminating sheets,” she said, which “are expensive, and they have to buy multiples of them.”

She’s had requests for cardstock paper, white board erasers, fidget devices, and clipboards for doing work around the classroom, she said. “And lots and lots of books.”

A few teachers have requested things that make the classroom more inviting, she said, such as “string lights, so they can turn the harsh fluorescent lights off during the day and have a calmer (setting). Or board games and puzzles for days when it’s too cold for kids to go outside for recess.”

If she receives multiple requests for the same item, she chooses the recipient using a lottery.

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Girl Scout troop member Leah Edward, daughter of Katie Edwards, picked up donations at the Grand Forks' PetSmart, with the help of managers Tony Kelley and Ashley Torkelson (right) who, along with David McVeigh (not pictured), contributed the fish tank and all its supplies for Karina Rude's special education classroom at Phoenix Elementary School. Rude had requested the fish tank on Katie Edwards' teacher wish-list site.
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“My heart goes out to (teachers) because they do make such an amazing environment for our kids – and especially this year with ArtWise being cut,” Edwards said. Teachers have asked for art supplies, such as oil pastels and watercolor paints.

“Those kinds of things aren’t provided any more because of the budget cuts,” she said.

In recent years, funds for classroom supplies have diminished, as school district officials search for ways to trim spending and achieve a balanced budget.

As part of the $4 million budget reductions implemented for this school year, the budget for districtwide supplies was reduced by 10% – from $252,000 last year to $228,000 this year, Berge said.

The budget was $250,000 in 2018-19 and $248,000 in 2019-20, he said.

Anonymous donations

Donors who give items for teachers on her wish list – or provide funds to purchase them – make their contributions anonymously, Edwards said. Donors do not know who specifically receives their gifts, and the recipients don’t know who gave them.

Edwards maintains anonymity “so all of the schools could benefit from it,” she said, noting that she also wanted “equity” across the district because parent involvement and donation vary among schools. Some schools already have wish lists, but teachers at those schools may also request items on hers, she said.

Her goal was to allow all elementary teachers to “ask for things without anybody knowing who was asking, and then you could just help, and you don’t know who you’re helping but you know it’s going to a local school.”

“It’s been really great,” she said. “The things that I have brought to the teachers, they are just so appreciative. … You just want to do everything for them, as hard they’ve had to work, especially these last few years.”

As part of her work with her daughter’s Girl Scout troop, drop-off boxes are also being set up again at local Bully Brew locations to collect donated items for teachers, she said.

Edwards hopes to expand her wish list program into East Grand Forks, as well as to middle and high school teachers, she said.

“It’s been so rewarding. I hope I can do more for them.”

Pamela Knudson is a features and arts/entertainment writer for the Grand Forks Herald.

She has worked for the Herald since 2011 and has covered a wide variety of topics, including the latest performances in the region and health topics.

Pamela can be reached at pknudson@gfherald.com or (701) 780-1107.
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