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Back to school: Local teachers buy, fundraise for needy students

Chippewa Valley residents have options to help kids heading back to school: they can help fill a backpack through the Eau Claire district’s Adopt-A-Backpack program or donate to a “greatest needs” fund for needy students.

But every year behind the scenes, local teachers buy school supplies for their students, some individually fundraising for larger projects at their schools.

But for school supply purchases, the money usually comes out of teachers’ own pockets.

Teachers buying classroom supplies “is extremely commonplace, to the point where I’d be interested to hear of a teacher that doesn’t do that,” said Dani Claesges, coordinator of the Eau Claire school district’s homeless program.

Basic hygiene products are "a great need" for some Eau Claire kids and families, and many local teachers pick up the slack with their own money, said Sarah French, Eau Claire Public Schools Foundation executive director.

Educators can deduct up to $250 on their taxes for school supplies they purchase themselves, according to the IRS.

But that deduction may not cover some teachers’ expenses. A 2018 study from the National Center for Education Statistics found 94 percent of public school teachers spent their own money on classroom supplies without reimbursement. From those teachers, the average amount spent was $479.

“You can’t help but want to enhance your classroom, and part of that means making sure your students are all prepared,” Claesges said.

For some teachers, classroom supplies aren’t always books, crayons and pencil cases.

“I tend to purchase things to keep kids engaged with reading,” said Aaron Athas, library media specialist at Roosevelt Elementary. “Bookmarks, maybe free ice cream tokens for summer readers.”

Greg Emerson, an Altoona Middle School teacher, spearheaded a $600 fundraiser in 2017 for hygiene items for Altoona students.

Some students don’t have access to menstrual products or new shoes, he said. In his 2017 fundraiser, deodorant was the biggest need.

“We’ve bought shoes before,” Emerson said. “A lot of the teachers will buy them, and I know for a fact one student bought another student a pair of shoes. He didn’t tell him he bought them, he just put them in his locker. That’s pretty heartfelt.”

The Eau Claire school district’s Adopt-A-Backpack program is meant to alleviate strain on both students and teachers who might otherwise have to purchase classroom supplies, Claesges said.

Through the program, community members can take backpacks from each school, fill them with school supplies for a grade of their choice and return the backpacks to the schools.

Going to the community

Some teachers, whose students could benefit from more expensive school supplies, are asking for community support directly.

Emerson’s students would learn faster and more safely with updated fitness equipment, specifically exercise balls, replacement folding foam mats and foam box platforms for jump exercises, he said.

The total cost of the new equipment was $1,925. So Emerson began an online fundraiser, hosted on a site for public school teachers to raise money for student supplies:" target="_blank">

The site occasionally offers matching grants to some projects. Food manufacturing company Kelloggs’ matched funds for Emerson’s fitness project, doubling the pace of the fundraising.

“We need to update a lot of our equipment, and our class sizes are getting bigger,” Emerson said.

Local online fundraisers for students usually get funded quickly, he said, and he’s always surprised at people’s generosity.

“It’s crazy. I don’t even know some of these people,” Emerson said. “They’re just looking, or they know someone. You get $20 here, $30 there and all of a sudden you’re meeting your goal.”

Athas is also fundraising for a larger project: student iPads for first and second-graders at Roosevelt Elementary.

The Eau Claire school district provides iPads for third through fifth-graders in elementary schools, but only schools with enough low-income students receive Title I funding for iPads for first and second-graders, Athas said.

“A few of us that don’t receive Title I funding, Roosevelt included, have had to get creative with how we’re providing this tech,” Athas said.

Athas’ goal is about $4,700, enough to buy 12 iPads for the students he works with. The tech would supplement Roosevelt’s math program, help students learn and practice reading and help students in writing, science, social studies, art and music, Athas said.

“It’s a big goal, but it’s what we need for this round,” he said. “It’s not going to get everything we need, but it’s going to significantly help us out.”

To view the fundraisers, visit and search by city or a local zip code. The fundraiser can also be found on Roosevelt Elementary’s Facebook page.

Going without

Local schools send out supply lists yearly so parents can buy materials for their returning students.

But some parents can’t afford to buy their kids colored pencils, notebooks, binders and glue sticks.

A little over one-third of Eau Claire school district students qualify for free lunches, said Claesges, who runs the district’s homeless program in addition to a homebound student program and the ECASD Closet supply pantry.

“It takes quite a bit lower income just to get to the reduced meals point, but many of our students are qualifying for free, not reduced (meals),” Claesges said.

For students to qualify for reduced-cost meals — 30 cents per breakfast, 40 cents per lunch — their household of four people must bring in $47,638 per year or less, according to Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction income eligibility guidelines on the Eau Claire district’s website.

To qualify students for free meals, that same household of four must make $33,475 per year or less.

Many local families who would qualify for free or reduced lunches from the district don’t even apply, Claesges said.

“They have their own reasons for that. Or, potentially, they don’t understand the whole process, as best we try,” she said. “We know our numbers are less than what (the statistics are) out there in our community.”

Fall — when kids are gearing up to return to school — can be a difficult time for low-income families to spend money.

Many are bracing themselves for winter’s higher heat bills and transportation costs, Claesges said: “You can walk and go more places without using your car in the summer and have to rely on that more in the winter … there’s a stress response there."

Transporting kids to school is also a difficulty for some local families, French said in an email to the Leader-Telegram: "It’s so hard for our families without reliable vehicles to get to and from school conferences, work, etcetera."

But members of the community have rallied around their children, especially teachers: Several have filled over 10 backpacks each, Claesges said.

“It’s not anything we have to ask people to do,” she said. “They know how important it is. They see these kids and families all the time, they know their stories and love these kids.”

Backpacks and school supplies are the most important for low-income students because it doesn’t isolate them from their peers, Claesges said.

“The feeling when they come in and don’t have that stuff is very real,” she said. “Kids may not say anything, but they very much feel it if they don’t have what they’re supposed to and everyone else does.”

Donations to the district's Homeless Children and Youth Fund lets Claesges take students shopping for specific items they need, like winter gear, school supplies or hygiene items, French said.

"Gifts of any amount can be used to impact a child today," French said.

Students return to classes Tuesday, Sept. 3.

Kids deserve our support

My son is a grade school teacher in the Fox Valley. He loves his job, seeing kids grow physically and academically before his eyes during a single school year. During his summer job as a grunt for a tree removal company, he thinks about the coming school year and mostly about “his kids.”

He’s not a parent yet, but he still worries about his kids. He sees the financial struggles some students and their families face. Those struggles are on the minds of kids when they come to school each day. At this time of year, kids’ and parents’ thoughts turn to finding a way to fill their annual list of school supplies like pencils, notebooks and markers they are to bring to school at the start of the year.

So like so many other teachers in the state and country, my son pulls out his wallet and buys school supplies for the kids who can’t afford it. He also picks up non-academic items like toothbrushes and deodorant — we’re talking fourth-graders, whose bodies are changing — for his classroom.

I never thought much about it before my son became a teacher, but the Chippewa Valley’s needs are no different, as you can read in Leader-Telegram reporter Sarah Seifert’s story today. School district budgets everywhere are strained. Items like facial tissues and disinfecting wipes don’t make the cut when there are computers to buy and textbooks to replace. So it’s up to teachers to make up the difference.

That’s not right.

This community ponied up more than $15 million for the magnificent $60 million Pablo Center at the Confluence performing arts center. I dropped more than $100 earlier this month so my wife and I could see Justin Hayward, songwriter, lead singer and guitarist for The Moody Blues. We enjoyed the Jamf Theatre show very much. It was money well spent.

Now I’m going to take another $100 and put it where my mouth is. I live in the Altoona school district and my children graduated from Altoona High School. I’m a taxpayer who no longer has children in the school system, but I’ve dropped a check in the mail to the Altoona school district to be used to buy school supplies for elementary students.

I’m doing it because it’s the right thing to do. If you’re already helping out, I thank you. If not, I hope you’ll consider supporting the school of your choice with a donation of any size. It can make a difference in a kid’s life.

Johnson, the Leader-Telegram’s editor, can be reached at or 715-833-9211.