Jennifer Pride, a language arts teacher in the Heritage Middle School, Wake Forest, can’t say enough good things about the WakeEd Partnership’s Tools4Schools store in Cary. “Things that I would normally have to pick up on my own or ask my school for, they are offering it to us free of charge,” she said. “Every teacher I know spends money out of pocket to support their classroom.”

Tools4Schools in Wake County. Photo by Maya Reagan. Carolina Journal

The store opened in January and allows Wake County teachers to pick out items like Post-It Notes, pens, markers, and pandemic necessities like hand sanitizer and tissues that they need for their classrooms without having to spend any of their own money. They get a certain number of points that they can use for the year. The store comes at a time when the inflation rate has reached 7.9% and is expected to grow exponentially in the months to come.

“Teachers we have heard from have been really excited,” said WakeEd Partnership President Keith Poston. “The idea of having a place they can go and shop for free and get the things they often have to buy themselves. Teachers spend about $500 a year out of their own pockets just on things for their students and their classrooms that they don’t get from the school system. That’s not just Wake County. That’s a statewide average. “

According to the NC Department of Public Instruction, public schools spent $1,234,502,755 ($918 per student) on supplies and materials in 2020-21. But that accounts for only 8.5% of the total per-pupil expenditure. Salaries and benefits are, by far, the largest share.

Poston said they were inspired to start the store after seeing a similar one run by the Guilford Education Alliance and credits Executive Director, Winston McGregor, for taking them “under their wing.” “They connected us to this great organization that aggregates materials across the country,” he said. “We buy things in bulk from them at a discount price. We hope it is such a huge success that people want to replicate it. We are counting on it.”

Currently, the first wave of Tools4Schools has been for Title 1 schools, those that serve a lower-income population that tends to have more needs. Poston said they will be adding more schools each week and hope to open it up to all Wake County teachers by July when the year-round schools start up again.

Poston said while things like education policy issues, professional development, and career pathways are important, the impact the store is making is really rewarding, seeing the tangible aspect of things that teachers need and can get for free like crayons, construction paper, etc. “For us, it’s a cool way for people who want to get involved in helping the schools,” he said. “We’re trying to give them a place they can donate money, supplies, host a school supply drive.”

“Runaway inflation and supply chain issues have made it difficult for teachers to supplement stockpiles of school supplies provided by districts and parents throughout the school year,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “Fortunately, Wake County churches, nonprofits, civic organizations, and businesses consistently step up to provide teachers with additional resources for their classrooms.”

“I commend WakeEd Partnership for attracting some of the area’s largest philanthropies and corporations to their initiative,” Stoops added. “Tools4Schools is a program well worth replicating elsewhere.”

Tools4Schools in Wake County creates a retail shop for teachers by bringing together private non-profit organizations. Photo by Maya Reagan. Carolina Journal

Poston said there is a need for private but especially public grants for projects like this because there is such a need for the things that are essential for teachers to do their jobs. WakeEd was entrepreneurial with private fundraising that he said resonated with companies and individuals because they could see the tangible effect of the items coming into the store and into the hands of teachers. “The fundraising has been good, but it is going to be an ongoing effort,” Poston added. “We raised $100,000 in the first three months.  It’s huge for a project for us that didn’t exist 7 months ago.”

“I have taught in two states in three different school districts, and I have never seen anything of this magnitude, said Pride, who currently serves on the Partnership’s Board of Directors and is the Wake County 2021-22 Teacher of the Year. She said it was so exciting and encouraging to see the positive effects the store has been having in a time there has been a lot of negativity surrounding education. “To see the community and businesses partner to support us as educators, it has been a wonderful asset to the school year as we bounce back to normal as normal can be,” she said.