Once upon a time, back to school meant buying your child a new lunchbox, and maybe a new backpack; parents could count on the school to provide binders, paper, pencils, and pretty much everything else. Those days are long gone, and now many parents mark the end of summer by descending on Target or Walmart to scoop up deals on school supplies that cash-strapped schools can no longer afford. Some generous parents even buy extra materials for their own child's class, but teachers still end up spending hundreds, even thousands, of dollars of their own money each year to outfit their classrooms.

It's not just pencils and paper, either. Some teachers need books for their budding readers, or art materials, or even a rug for the children to sit on. These classroom basics that we took for granted years ago are now unaffordable luxuries for too many schools across the country.


What other profession requires employees to bring their own supplies - do office workers have to bring paper if they want to use the copier? Do surgeons have to plead with the families of their patients to donate surgical masks and gloves so that they can properly perform their job?

Combine that with low teacher pay that ranks the US 22nd out of 27 countries, an ongoing push to rate and even fire teachers based on test scores (sometimes even scores of students they never taught), and a steady drumbeat of Blame the Teacher coming from some quarters, and it starts to feel like there has never been a worse time to be a teacher.

Regardless of where your personal beliefs are about the possibility that "bad teachers" could be the root of all education problems, the fact remains that when there isn't enough money to buy sufficient books for the classroom reading shelf, or when the rug that should beckon students to the Welcome Circle on the first day of school is tattered and stained, it is the students who suffer for it.

As students in San Francisco head back to school this week, please consider helping our schools to provide the kind of rich classroom environment that we took for granted years ago. "Making sure classrooms are staffed is the first priority, so unfortunately many schools can't afford to fund classroom supply budgets," SF Board of Education President Rachel Norton told me. "Helping teachers purchase paper, pencils, art supplies and other items is a great (and easy) way to support schools."

You won't find an easier way to do just that than Donorschoose. As their website explains, "DonorsChoose.org is an online charity that makes it easy for anyone to help students in need. Public school teachers from every corner of America post classroom project requests on our site, and you can give any amount to the project that most inspires you."

Created by a social studies teacher in the Bronx over a decade ago, the site now helps public school teachers in all 50 states find funding for projects that pinched school district budgets can no longer support. If you believe that public education is the foundation of a democratic society, and want to support teachers, Donorschoose.org is a must-visit.

The site is very user-friendly, making it easy to find projects by city or state, by grade level, or by subject area; you can even search for projects that are already almost fully funded, so that with even a small donation, you can complete the project for a lucky teacher and classroom. Donating couldn't be easier and it's tax deductible too. It's a great site.

Here's just a small sample of schools in San Francisco that could really use your help:

A physics teacher at Galileo High School needs art supplies to help his students do creative presentations of basic physics concepts. The teacher say, "I am always able to scrape together enough supplies to make it work, but what if I was able to have the materials and worry about creating other engaging demonstrations and learning opportunities beyond what we currently do in the classroom?" His students, he says "have hidden talents that are not obvious to the casual observer, but can accomplish much more when given the opportunity and tools. Believe in them and they will deliver."

A teacher in a classroom for severely disabled students at Aptos Middle School is asking for some basic supplies "so that we can concentrate on learning and not on hunting and begging for necessities." About his students, he says, "Half of my students use wheel chairs and most have cerebral palsy. All have significant cognitive impairments..... Life is difficult for my students. Not having basic materials and useful learning materials makes it even more difficult. Please help us. The students will be greatly appreciative, and you will be making a difference in their lives."

A teacher at Jose Ortega Elementary School is hoping for a new rug for her classroom. She says, "We use our rugs for everything, class meetings, whole class lessons, read aloud time, small group work, extra help sessions, board games and puzzles on rainy days. Our current rugs are showing their considerable age and need to be replaced with new ones that are welcoming rather than distracting because of old stains and edges that are disintegrating. My kids need to feel that they are in a happy place."

Another teacher at SF Community School has a similar dream of being able to furnish her classroom with a new rug. She says, "Spreading out to read a good book, working hands-on with a group member, sitting attentively for a good read aloud, listening to a mini-lesson, these are all activities that are done on a classroom rug where so much learning occurs... A classroom rug creates more space to discover, community build, play and share."

At E.R. Taylor Elementary School, a teacher makes a heartfelt plea for books. She says, "We just moved in to a new classroom with nothing in it. It's my first year with these children. They have a new teacher, a new classroom, and are at a new school. I want to fill the class with something very familiar: books.

"My students are coming to a new school this year, and their new class is being set up after being a storage room for many years. We've got shelves to store books for our library, but so few books. These little guys are beginning readers that need to be inspired to get more into books. The must have instilled early, a love or reading, that they can carry with them the rest of their lives."

There are many more projects at San Francisco public schools, and at schools all across the country. No matter where you live, there is bound to be a needy classroom somewhere close by, and a teacher eager to help students make the most of the new school year.

It's still early autumn, but before you know it, the winter holidays will be looming. How many parents will purchase a "World's Greatest Teacher" mug or holiday ornament for their child to bring to school as a gift? Trust me, there is not a teacher anywhere who needs another World's Greatest Teacher knickknack, but there are thousands of teachers who need help right now just to provide the basics that every student should have in their classroom.

Making sure kids have the tools they need to learn is not just the parents' responsibility. It is our job as a society for each generation to help the next, and if we cannot provide hands-on help ourselves, then at least we can "help the helpers." Wasn't there a teacher somewhere along the way who helped you? It's time to say thank you, and there is no better way to do that than to help another teacher's dream for their students come true.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife.