A Helping Hand: School Supplies as Easy as ABC

A Helping Hand: School Supplies as Easy as ABC

The Education Partnership helps teachers get what they need without breaking the bank.

Notebooks, pens, pencils, crayons — the list goes on, and can add up fast. It’s back-to-school season, but when thousands of area students don’t have access to needed materials and school budgets are limited, teachers are often faced with a daunting ultimatum: pay for the stuff themselves or go without.

The Education Partnership is working to change that.

Located at 281 Corliss St. near the West End, the Education Partnership is a non-profit organization designed to lessen the financial weight placed on educators by providing supplies for teachers and students in low-income schools (defined as those where more than 70% of the student body qualifies for the National School Lunch Program). The Education Partnership distributes, free of charge, almost $5 million worth of resources annually.

It’s made possible through donations — which cover about 95% of materials — and additional funding from donors such as PNC and Giant Eagle.

In the Teacher Resource Center, a wide and welcoming room bustling with educators out on a shopping trip, bins are piled high with what Executive Director Josh Whiteside calls core items: paper, pencils, notebooks and crayons. Teachers are given a limit on how much they can take (usually about $240 worth) to ensure there’s enough for everyone.

On the other side of the store sits a more eclectic collection of odds and ends: fabrics for home-economic courses, a projector, tall stacks of poster paper and whiteboards. These things, mostly donated, are called incentive items — things that can give a classroom a much-needed dose of personality.

The limit on those items? “Usually the question is, ‘How much does your car hold?’” Whiteside jokes.

Among the collected miscellania are objects that paint a picture of the struggles faced by countless students in Pittsburgh and its surrounding areas: clothing, food, pallets of water and air mattresses.

“If a student is sleeping on the floor at home, how effective do you think they’re going to be in the classroom?” Whiteside says. “We give the teacher access to resources that will help the student with their home life, because that translates directly to their overall academic success.”

Serving a seven-county region of Southwestern Pennsylvania — including 50 Pittsburgh Public Schools — the partnership impacts 55,000 students, 4,500 teachers and 139 schools, according to Whiteside.

“We’re doing something right,” he says. “Part of that is just giving teachers access to the other stuff you might not think about that’s so valuable in a classroom, like colorful drapes, a rug or a lamp.” Those are the items that teachers might ignore when dipping into their own pockets; according to a federal Department of Education survey released in 2018, teachers reported spending an average of $479 of personal funds per year.

For the 2018-2019 academic year, 85% of teachers who utilized the Resource Center saw improved rates of homework completion; 93%, better self-esteem among students; and 95%, an increase in classroom participation.

The Education Partnership also houses an office space for community collaboration and a STEAM Learning Library. Teachers can borrow kits for classroom use, complete with iPads, laptops and coding hardware.

Part of a national affiliation of free stores — there are around 40 similar organizations nationwide — and with the Kids in Need Foundation as a parent procurement body, the Education Partnership is determined to bridge the gap between district lines and incentivize learning for all students.

More than half of a school’s funding is determined by its local property tax base. If property values and home ownership within a ZIP code are low, the funding allocated to area schools will reflect that in kind.

“What’s the long-term goal for us? To go out of business,” Whiteside says. “[But] until education funding finds an equitable solution — where the same number of students get the same number of dollars regardless of the ZIP code that you’re living in — an organization like this is necessary.”

For the 2018-2019 academic year, 93% of teachers who utilized the Resource Center saw better self-esteem among students.