By Chris Maggio
“I didn’t do my homework because I didn’t have a pencil.” A flimsy excuse? No, as too often it’s only half the truth, and the whole is so much worse—students sometimes don’t have pencils because they, their guardians, or their schools can’t afford them.
Justin Brown, The Education Partnership’s founder and executive director, believes not many people know about this problem. He himself didn’t grasp it until 2008 when he attended a summit on “teacher free stores” through Kids in Need, a national foundation which provides school supplies to children. He was then director of the Pittsburgh Community Storehouse and had about seven years experience providing general gifts to the impoverished.
Inspired, he founded Storehouse for Teachers in 2009. With the help of hundreds of volunteers, the nonprofit purchased and refurbished a 30,000-square-foot former tool and dye warehouse at 281 Corliss St. in the West End. The warehouse contains one of four operational manual freight elevators in Pittsburgh. Perfect for hauling erasers.
Storehouse for Teachers became The Education Partnership after completing its pilot program in May 2011. Today, the nonprofit provides school supplies to 42,000 students across 100 schools in Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Washington, and Westmoreland counties.
One of its programs is the Supplies Initiative. A school qualifies if at least 70 percent of its students also qualify for the National Free and Reduced Lunch Program. The thinking, according to the partnership’s website, is if students “cannot afford to buy lunch, they can’t afford to buy school supplies.”
Four thousand teachers visit the newly renovated Resource Center at least twice a year. Here they fill shopping carts with up to $400 worth of Core Products, such as pencils, notebooks, and folders, thus eliminating having to pay out of their own pockets. The partnership uses Salesforce, a customer relationship management software, to track inventory. Teachers afterwards take a survey on their experience to maximize the partnership’s efforts.
Non-Core Products are also often available and include cleaning supplies, technology items, and even furniture. Brown related a story of a teacher who received a comfy chair. The teacher told his students that the first ones to class got to sit in it. Students never arrived so early. He later snagged a couch. His students became virtual interior decorators as they debated where to fit the couch into a classroom that was no longer his but rather theirs.
“The application of our mission is simple,” Brown said. “The implications are profound.”
Schools qualifying for the Supplies Initiative also qualify for the Adopt-A-School program. Sponsors adopt a school and annually assemble Power Tools Homework Kits, bags containing $38 worth of school and personal supplies, for the school’s students. The kits include handwritten notes, e.g., “I hope you enjoy your new school supplies and are able to use them to excel in your classes.” Sponsors have adopted 22 schools, and the goal is to have that number rise to 36 for the 2017-2018 school year.
Brown’s vision went full circle when The Education Partnership became one of 38 members, and the only Pennsylvania member, of Kids in Need during the 2014-2015 school year. Through this affiliation, the partnership receives not only items like Dixon Ticonderoga pencils and 3M tape but also kids’ shoes and shirts.
Comcast has been one of the sponsors for the quarterly Educator Advisory Council meetings, where school administrators meet to ensure the partnership is serving their needs. These meetings are often a chance to discuss Internet Essentials, a program which brings low-cost internet to homes. Brown, who comes from an IT background, said, “I know the value and disconnect when people aren’t wired.” Students also receive Internet Essentials information with their Power Tools Homework Kits.
Brown hopes to expand the building’s warehouse and parking within the next three years. Other future additions include a community room for events, a coffee bar for teachers, and an upstairs STEM/STEAM lending library for students.
The nonprofit garnered 14,000 volunteer hours and gave away $4,000,000 worth of supplies during the 2016-2017 school year. This was all while fundraising and administrative work accounted for only five cents on every dollar donated.
Most important is the improved quality of education for the 42,000 students served. And for sponsors and volunteers who want to watch their money and time transform lives right before their eyes, Brown said it best: “I think we’re a real good option for the public to have a real impact on the grassroots level.”
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