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Crowdfunding for Philly schools? Here's how regular folks can buy basketball hoops and computers for city kids

A new system will allow donors to have direct effect on city schools, funding playground equipment, computers, and other projects earmarked as priorities by principals.

Mayor Kenney:  “It is important that we are as resourceful and as creative as possible.”
Mayor Kenney: “It is important that we are as resourceful and as creative as possible.”Read moreDAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

Muñoz-Marin Elementary kids play on a big stretch of blacktop that has two backboards but no basketball hoops. Principal Ariel Lajara wants to buy them, but that costs $650 he doesn't have.

At Overbrook Educational Center, a Philadelphia School District school where nearly 100 blind and visually impaired children are educated, principal Meredith Foote dreams of buying Braille printers and other technology that will help level the playing field for her kids. Price tag: $42,500.

And at Francis Scott Key Elementary, principal Pauline Cheung hopes for $5,000 to buy musical instruments for her new music program.

The Fund for the School District of Philadelphia, the philanthropic arm of the school system, on Wednesday unveiled an online platform that allows the public to fund such projects directly, bypassing the school system bureaucracy and allowing for maximum impact.

Potential donors can browse a map for individual schools to see specific projects identified by principals, and then donate — securely, online — to fulfill all or part of the educators' requests.

That's a departure for a district traditionally viewed with skepticism by many, especially those in the philanthropic community.

"People used to say, 'I don't want to give $25,000 to the School District,' because people felt like that would get lost somewhere and not have any impact,'" said David Feldman, executive director of the Development Workshop, a nonprofit whose organization recently donated $25,000 to projects at five city schools.

The tool allows principals to think big in a way their operating budgets do not. Greenberg Elementary wants $19,000 for new lunchroom tables. Prince Hall Elementary wants $4,000 for new gym equipment. Blankenburg hopes for $1,000 to be able to provide regular rewards for students who exhibit good behavior.

Foote, the Overbrook Educational Center principal, said she hopes the new tool will move people to help her deserving students. She has big hopes: the technology, regular field trips for her blind students, and even $60,000 that would turn the empty parking lot her students now play on into a real playground.

"That," Foote said, "would be a dream come true."

In his five years as superintendent, William R. Hite Jr. said, he has heard from many people — ordinary folks and people with deep pockets — interested in donating to a cause they can identify.

"People want to be very helpful, but they don't know where to go," Hite said.

The crowdfunding tool, Mayor Kenney said, is a way to connect "people of good will" with the enormous and important needs of the city's children. He hailed the development as "an ingenious tool."

"It is important that we are as resourceful and as creative as possible," the mayor said.

Kenney alluded to a Thursday announcement about the future of the School Reform Commission by saying the city was "on the cusp of a new era in Philadelphia — for education, for our students." He declined to divulge more details; a 9:30 a.m. event is planned.

The mayor did, however, heap praise on Hite, who has been able to make some modest investments in schools after years of cuts.

"We are never going back to the cutting days," Kenney said. "Ever."