Clutter isn't a dirty word in teacher Thomas Levy's special education classroom at Camden's Woodrow Wilson High School, rich with 10 pairs of Google virtual-reality glasses, a host of new laptops and tablets, a 3-D printer, and hydroponic grow gardens, not to mention the hot chocolate maker and hot dog steamer.
The high-tech haul didn't cost taxpayers in the struggling city a dime. It's the result of Levy's three-year plunge into the online world of donor fundraising to equip money-squeezed public-school classrooms, which has netted about $45,000 to finance his ambition to give Camden kids the same things students have in affluent districts. Maybe more.
"When I got here, the need was great," said Levy, speaking as two 10th graders were taking a virtual tour of the Great Wall of China through their Google glasses and others were practicing spelling on tablets. "We didn't have any supplies. Computers were not working. I said, 'I'm not going to let this go on like this.'"
Today, Levy stands at the head of a class of public school teachers in Philadelphia, Camden, and across the region who – in a time of diminished government aid for education and perpetually crimped budgets – are accustomed to dipping into their own pockets to buy emergency supplies, and who increasingly use online networks like DonorsChoose.org to raise hundreds or thousands of dollars for bigger, expenditures.
Levy, who is the No. 1 fundraiser in South Jersey on DonorsChoose.org – a nationwide network that has raised about $400 million for classroom projects since its 2000 inception – and is ranked sixth in the Philadelphia region, puts extraordinary effort into his philanthropic activities, posting pictures of students using the gadgets on Twitter to delight his current donors and impress new ones.
That's how Levy connected with education boosters across the country like Pam Krank in St. Paul, Minn., who recently helped Levy's class buy a water cooler as part of the roughly $1,000 a month she spends on various classroom projects, a hobby that she finds "addicting."
Krank, a 57-year-old manager with a private equity firm with two grown children, said she looks for projects in places like Camden that have high rates of poverty and kids in the free lunch program. She said her kids "went to a wealthy school district where they would raise money for butterfly gardens and cross trainers and a kiln in pottery class – a public school. That was ridiculous to me when other kids don't have books or water."
Levy has been so successful in using DonorsChoose.org to stock his classroom that he's become an evangelist to his colleagues at Woodrow Wilson, spurring teachers there to raise a total of $160,000 for projects over the last five years – ranking the high school 36th in the nation among 75,000 schools that use the philanthropy.
"One teacher needed a printer," Levy said. "She got it in three days with ink cartridges, and enough paper for the rest of the year."
But it's Levy whose classroom is the school showpiece. Nearly everything was donated, the three round tables where students work, a three-piece wicker set with lamp and rug for reading, a chalkboard, a PlayStation and games, an Amazon Echo, Kindles.
Without the nonstop fundraising, Levy's Camden classroom would probably just be "some desks pushed together, maybe three computers that barely work, maybe some supplies, a few books," he said. "We'd have nothing."
Instead, Levy – who has funded a total of 98 projects through the website – shows off his acquisitions like five DNA kits that he wants to use for a school-wide project on race and diversity, as well as a video camera for filming a student news report.
Vashawn Roberts, 15, a 10th grader using the Google glasses to virtually tour the Great Wall, spoke enthusiastically of having used the tool to study Australia's Great Barrier Reef and climate change. "It protects fishes from larger predators, and it takes carbon dioxide out of the water so it doesn't heat up, same as trees," he said.
Levy said the cooking items in the classroom like the hot chocolate maker and hot dog steamer aren't for learning but simply because "sometimes they don't get a lot to eat, so we make sure we have food for them," he said.
To achieve his tricked-out classroom, Levy writes detailed descriptions of each project. He said he always donates at least $10 to 15 of his own money – one more sign of his commitment to make sure Camden kids get the same as their wealthier neighbors.
"I said, other towns have materials on hand," Levy said, "so why not these kids?"