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Every year around the holidays, KMUW News introduces us to some of the volunteers making a difference in the community.

Project Teacher Supports Educators Spending Their Own Money On Classroom Supplies

Stephan Bisaha
New teacher Esmerelda Gutierrez scans the racks at the Project Teacher resource center for free school supplies for her classroom. She says she's already spent half of her $200 budget from the school.

It started as "the ruler thing."

Terry Johnson and his wife, Rachel Johnson, were watching the "Today Show" about 10 years ago when they saw a story about a resource center providing free classroom supplies to teachers. It was part of the Kids In Need Foundation.

It was an idea that stuck in both their heads.

"About every year for the next seven years we got to the point where we were like, you know, what do we need to do?" Terry says. "We need to start the ruler thing."  

It wasn’t until Rachel started teaching her own class in 2013 that the couple understood how much such a center was needed in Wichita. Rachel says they spent around $1,500 out of pocket on her class and students that first year.

Credit Stephan Bisaha / KMUW
Project Teacher runs its resource center in the back of GracePoint Church in Wichita.

"We started realizing teachers go way above and beyond their normal call of duty to really care for their students," Terry says.

Terry and Rachel Johnson founded Project Teacher later that year. The charity runs a resource center in the back of GracePoint Church — though it is technically not affiliated with the church — where Terry serves as executive pastor.

Since its launch, Project Teacher has given away more than $3 million in supplies to Kansas teachers. Project Teacher also became part of the Kids In Need Foundation that first planted "the ruler thing" in the couple's heads.

Credit Stephan Bisaha / KMUW
Esmerelda Gutierrez "shops" for free school supplies at Project Teacher's resource center.

Esmeralda Gutierrez is gathering pencils, pens, organizers and other teaching supplies at the resource center for her new classroom. She was recently hired at Minneha Elementary School for her first teaching job. The school is giving her a budget of $200 for her classroom; Gutierrez says she’d already spent more than half the budget before visiting the resource center.

"Supposedly that’s a little extra money because I’m a new teacher," she says.

The Republican tax overhaul bill keeps a provision that gives teachers a $250 deduction for supplies. But a survey by Scholastic says teachers spend on average $530 of their own money on their classrooms and students; high-poverty teachers spent $672. NPR found at least one teacher who says he spends more than $2,000 a year.

The money is often spent on the usual products, like binders and notebooks. But teachers often will use non-traditional teaching supplies — Harry Street Elementary teacher Katie Strickert once picked up Spider-Man duct tape at Project Teacher — as a reward for students.  

Strickert eyes a New York Yankees flag at the resource center and says she could use it in a similar way.

"Even you go to work for a paycheck," she says. "We expect kids to just sit there and do it no matter what when they’re constantly being rewarded on video games with new levels and unlocking things. Education has to follow suit."

Strickert says traditional products with some added flair also have their own benefits.

"It’s amazing the amount of work a kid will do on a pretty Post-It versus a regular piece of paper," she says. "I know it’s silly, but it is what it is"

Strickert says she would normally stick to the generic sticky notes if she weren't able to get a fancier version at Project Teacher.

"We started realizing teachers go way above and beyond their normal call of duty to really care for their students." -Terry Johnson, co-founder of Project Teacher

Most of Project Teacher's supplies come from large companies like Walmart and Target, though Terry Johnson says the charity is working on encouraging more local donations.

The charity has reached the limits of its current space. Johnson says they’ve had to turn away "six semi-loads of school supplies" because they had nowhere to store the products.

"That’s probably a ballpark of about $1.5 million of school supplies we had to say no to just because we didn’t have the space,” he says.

Johnson says they’re currently talking with Wichita’s school district about a new space. The resource center is currently open about once a week, but Johnson hopes to be open much more with a new location.


Follow Stephan Bisaha on Twitter @SteveBisaha.

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