It's one of the worst kept secrets in education; teachers spend their own money on the job. In today's climate of shrinking budgets, as their allotments go down, the need to reach deeper into their pockets goes up.

After substituting for three years, Cindy Black became a full-time teacher. Now at Rabbit Creek Elementary School in South Anchorage, she's in her seventh year. Dedicated to her third grade class, she aims to bring new ways to stimulate her students' love for learning. 

But ideas can cost.

"My funding allocation is typically $5 a student for supply money," Black said.

In Black's first three years, she says she spent about $500 per year of her own money on supplies. After staring at the bills, she decided she couldn't keep doing it.

That's why Black, like some of her colleagues, learned how to raise money for the projects she believes will add to her students' experience.

In a rapidly growing trend, Black is now asking for help online. Her website of choice is DonorsChoose.org, where teachers can lay out their project ideas in the hopes that people will donate to make them happen.

"At the end, I summarize what the materials are and how they'll help my students," she said. "And explain why this is the best thing ever and you should totally give my classroom money for it to make my kids' lives amazing."

Once a proposal is submitted, the waiting begins. On DonorsChoose.org, once a project is fully funded the organization purchases all of the teacher's requested items and ships them directly to the school. According to the website, every donor gets a letter from the teacher, photos from the classroom, and a report of how their money was spent.

In the past few years, Black has received donations for an LCD microscope, a set of books and even flexible seats for a class that was eager to learn, but had trouble sitting still.

"I call it wiggle while we work," Black said.

The school community and parents, as well as Black's friends and family, helped fund her first successful request. Chevron did the second. Some donors choose to remain anonymous.

"I wish DonorsChoose wasn't necessary, but I am so grateful it exists," Black said.

Black says she has the basics in her room, but strives to do more for her students.

"If you want to actually try to meet their needs, you have to look for other funding," Black said.

Black is quick to point out the great support she receives from Rabbit Creek parents, but doesn't feel right about asking them to fund these ideas even if it is for their kids.  

"I don't think you become a teacher if you're not an optimist, and so my optimistic side says yes, of course, we're going to get it right and we're going to start having reasonable supply budgets for schools," she said. "But, realistically we have all better figure out grant writing if we want our classrooms to function the best way they can for kids."

DonorsChoose.org is just one of many crowdfunding websites teachers are turning to for help in their classrooms. Since its start in 2000, teachers in Alaska have used the website to fund over 4,000 projects and raise close to $3 million.

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