Charles Best Knows What Teachers Need

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Two decades ago, as a 23-year-old history and English teacher at Wings Academy in the Bronx, Charles Best noticed he was spending a lot of his $30,000 salary on school supplies. The public high school was a bright place in a newish building, but copy paper was often rationed and teachers with ideas for science experiments or art projects usually had to fund them themselves. During his 5 a.m. excursions to Staples to photocopy pages of “Little House on the Prairie” for his class, Mr. Best began dreaming of a website that would invite donors to help pay for the books and field trips that he and his colleagues wanted for their students. In 2000, he founded the nonprofit DonorsChoose, initially running it out of his classroom.

Since then, DonorsChoose has raised over $1.1 billion to support 2 million projects in public schools across the country. Because the organization vets requests and purchases the materials or services itself, it has become a rare “force for equity in crowdfunding,” says Mr. Best, 45, over the phone from his home in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife, Bridget, and their two children. “A teacher does not have to have friends with money or students with money to get a classroom dream funded,” he explains, noting that most of the projects serve students from low-income communities and around three-quarters of the funds raised on the site come from sources teachers don’t know personally. Four out of five public schools in America have a teacher who has posted a request on DonorsChoose.

As schools gear up for what promises to be another unpredictable academic year, many educators are posting pandemic-related requests. A teacher in Evanston, Ill., is hoping to buy air filters for her third-grade classroom, while another in Houston wants more disinfecting wipes and spare masks for her high-school students. Teachers across the country need technological tools for students who may still be learning remotely, and there are hundreds of requests for snacks for those who don’t have enough food at home. Mr. Best says that requests in the “Warmth, Care & Hunger” category have multiplied over the past year. “Educational inequity really widened in the pandemic,” he says.

Nearly 5 million people have donated to DonorsChoose, half of them from households that make less than $100,000 a year. The benefits of their modest donations were analyzed in a recent study of Pennsylvania school data by researchers at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, which found that schools with funded DonorsChoose projects saw gains in standardized test scores, particularly in the lowest-income schools. “We are finally able to show that even though DonorsChoose is a platform and not a prescription, the site has an incredible impact on student learning,” says Mr. Best.

The reason for this success, he argues, is that teachers are well-placed to know which resources will make the biggest difference for their students. “We think that by tapping into teachers’ front-line experience, we can unleash microsolutions that are better targeted, more innovative and more effective than what someone might come up with on high,” Mr. Best explains.

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