Supplies for Success
“Anyone need a brand-new air purifier?” Abbie Marx asks after removing the shrink wrap from a pallet of brown boxes.
A wall fan hums in the background as hands begin to dart into the air—one, two, then three.
It’s a Thursday in the middle of July and a dozen teachers with shopping carts are making their way through The Education Partnership’s Teacher Resource Center.
This, in case you’ve been wondering, is where many Pennsylvania teachers disappear to on those long, sought-after summer vacations—a former welding building on Pittsburgh’s West End that has been renovated into The Education Partnership’s warehouse and office space.
The Teacher Resource Center occupies a rectangular room the size of an elementary school cafeteria. Aisles are created by a line of the same hip-high cardboard containers grocery stores fill with watermelons—only here, they hold brown markers and weathered copies of Jack London’s “Call of the Wild.”
Every teacher who enters the room has arrived for the same reason: they’re here to prepare for the year ahead. More specifically, they’re here to prepare for what they won’t have in the year ahead: books, glue sticks, hand sanitizer, tissues, notebooks, pens, pencils, colored pencils—the list, unfortunately, goes on.
The teachers make their way through the aisles thumbing through coloring books and stocking up on packages of socks. Marx, the Teacher Resource Center’s program manager, watches as they “play Tetris with their carts,” reorganizing boxes of books to make room for a stack of backpacks. After an hour, they leave the building to pack their car trunks with $1,000 worth of school supplies. Not once do they reach for their wallets.
For teachers at 160 schools in southwest Pennsylvania, the Teacher Resource Center is a solution—often the only solution—to a decades-long, state-wide problem which almost always comes at the teachers’ expense. For that reason, some drive over an hour away to get here.
Brother’s Brother Foundation began working with The Education Partnership (TEP) in 2022 when it sponsored West Liberty Elementary PreK-5 in TEP’s Adopt-A-School Program. The funding provided a year’s worth of school supplies to each of the school’s 200 students and gave every teacher at the school two opportunities to visit the Teacher Resource Center; once at the beginning of the year and once halfway through.
BBF is sponsoring West Liberty Elementary in the Adopt-A-School program again this year and for the next two years. It’s a commitment that will ensure teachers and students have the supplies they need to thrive in the classroom until 2026.
Sherine Raymond recently retired from a 40-year career in the Sto-Rox School District, which encompasses McKees Rocks and Stowe Township. Ninety-five percent of the students enrolled in the district come from low-income families and 100% of them can receive free meals through the National School Lunch Program’s Community Eligibility Provision.
Sto-Rox was one of the first school districts to receive supplies and furniture from The Education Partnership after the nonprofit began in 2009. She remembers how having access to school supplies changed the way students saw themselves.
“They didn’t feel left out. It wasn’t where they were looking for a pencil on the floor,” Raymond says. “Learning was taking place. They had a bookbag, so they were fitting in. When they would get home, they would get their work done because they weren’t embarrassed.”
The National School Lunch Program (NSLP) uses federal funding to provide free or reduced meals to students from low-income families. Students who qualify for free meals through NSLP come from families with an income at or below 130% of the poverty line—that’s $39,000 a year for a family of four—or families that receive government aid through programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or food stamps. Schools in areas with widespread poverty can qualify for the program’s Community Eligibility Provision, which will provide free breakfast and lunch to all students in the school without collecting paperwork from each individual family.
TEP provides services to schools where 70% of the students qualify for free or reduced lunches. Currently, the organization supports 191 schools in eight southwest PA counties, where, on average, 96% of the students qualify for the NSLP.
State funding only covers 38% of Pennsylvania’s public education costs—one of the lowest percentages among all states in the country. Local districts rely on property taxes to make up for the difference, but in low-income areas that funding isn’t enough, and students from struggling families wind up attending struggling schools.
The result has created large disparities in the quality of education students receive across the state, even those who live just a few miles apart.
“These kids want to do the same thing. They want to have the same education; they deserve the same education,” Marx says. “Why don’t they have the supplies?”
People across the state have been asking that same question. In 2014, a group of parents, school districts, and Pennsylvania organizations filed a lawsuit against the state, arguing Pennsylvania’s system for public education violates the state’s constitution. Among their claims was that Pennsylvania has been underfunding schools to the tune of 4.6 billion dollars.
In a landmark decision in February of this year, the Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court ruled the state’s funding model for public education unconstitutional, saying its heavy reliance on local tax dollars deprives students in low-income districts of equal protection of the law. At the time of publication, it was not yet clear what this ruling would mean for the future of Pennsylvania’s public education.
Some of the teachers who arrive at the Teacher Resource Center have taught students who show up to school not wearing any socks. Some work in schools that have run out of copy paper, and others, toilet paper. Kindergarten teachers have found themselves eating lunch in the same tiny plastic chairs their students squirm in because their classroom doesn’t have an adult-sized chair.
After graduating high school from Sto-Rox School District, Raymond pursued a career in education. When many of her high school classmates left the area, she stayed. She became a teacher in the same school district she attended as a student. That’s where she stayed for more than 40 years.
When asked why she stayed, she remembers the way students looked up at her with bright eyes the moment a concept they were struggling with finally clicked.
“I loved it,” she says.
A Different Kind of Teachers’ Union
Schools may be struggling with teacher retention, but some teachers are not ready to leave the public education field.
Seven former school employees found their way to The Education Partnership.
“It’s deeply personal to us,” says Kiki Reis, advancement director at The Education Partnership. She left her job as a school social worker back in Texas.
“We all have seen it firsthand, the impact that educators can have at schools [and] the difference that a single caring adult can have on students,” she says.
Marx taught science at the Academy Charter School in Pittsburgh before coming to The Education Partnership a year-and-a-half ago. As for Raymond, she’s found that there’s time in retirement for volunteering. She spends a few days every couple of weeks at The Education Partnership, where she stands behind the front desk of the Teacher Resource Center, greeting people who enter.
“[The Education Partnership] gave so much to us, Sto-Rox. I want to give back to them,” she says.