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A fourth-grade elementary classroom is stocked with chapter books Dec. 13, 2022 at Little Elementary School in Arvada. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Colorado educators building up their inventory of school supplies for a new year can ease the amount of money coming out of their pockets through a new state grant program that will offer teachers up to $800 in classroom materials toward projects focused on helping students overcome pandemic-driven learning setbacks.

The program, which Colorado Education Commissioner Susana Córdova announced at a Thursday morning news conference at Westview Elementary School in Northglenn, will divvy up $11 million in federal COVID relief funds among public school educators who teach any grade from preschool through high school. Another $818,000 is being covered by the national nonprofit DonorsChoose, which has facilitated similar programs in other states, including Utah, Nevada, Arizona and Oklahoma.

“We wish that we could make sure that every teacher has access to all of the materials and supplies … and the funding to be able to make sure that all of our students in Colorado have what they need,” Córdova said to a classroom filled with second- and third-graders. “And unfortunately we know that that is not true.”

She said that many teachers “are reaching into their own pockets, that they’re scanning the sales starting in early August for where the cheapest notebooks are or where you can get the multipacks of crayons.”

The new grant funds could help up to 12,000 Colorado teachers stock their classrooms, Colorado Department of Education spokesman Jeremy Meyer said.

Colorado Education Commissioner Susana Córdova talks to a group of third graders at Westview Elementary School in Northglenn on Thursday, Aug. 24, 2023, before announcing a statewide grant that is covering the cost of $800 worth of classroom supplies for individual teachers as they help kids accelerate their learning after the pandemic disrupted their school days. (Erica Breunlin, The Colorado Sun)

Those dollars are targeting projects and supplies teachers need to boost student learning at a time many kids are still struggling to reach grade-level expectations in subjects including math and English. That could include materials for science experiments or puzzles and games to coach kids in literacy, according to a statement from the state education department.

The grant funds will not cover gift cards or professional development resources.

Grants are offered in $1,000 increments, but with fees and other costs, teachers will receive $800 worth of materials, Meyer said.

The grant program follows a 2023 bipartisan bill that aimed to reimburse public school teachers for classroom expenses, including school supplies, through an income tax credit. The legislation ultimately failed.

The grant application opened Thursday morning and will award educators on a first-come, first-served basis. The application will remain open until the end of September, but the state education department anticipates all funds will be spoken for long before then, Meyer said.

To apply, teachers can visit DonorsChoose and detail the kinds of supplies they’re seeking. The nonprofit, which has funded close to 30,000 projects and supported nearly 11,000 teachers in Colorado with about $17 million since 2000, will vet the proposals and fund qualifying projects within two to five days, shipping the materials to each educator’s school. 

“We know how hard the last few years have been on teachers and students in Colorado who are working diligently to regain their footing after the pandemic, and we wanted to invest in our teachers directly, knowing they have the insight and the experience to choose classroom resources that will be most helpful to their students,” Córdova said in a statement. “We know teachers have been trying all sorts of imaginative and inventive methods to assist their students during these difficult times.”

One of the second grade students who learned about the grant Thursday morning said she hopes her teacher will use the money to buy more markers and paper so that she can keep drawing. Other students want their teachers to expand their classroom libraries.

Audrey Parker, a third grade teacher at Westview Elementary School, plans to apply for a grant to, in part, purchase plastic tools called “fraction circles” that help students understand how much individual fractions are worth. She also hopes to redesign her classroom with more flexible seating.

“Their bodies just need to wiggle while their brains are working, and that gets them more focused,” said Parker, who just started her seventh year of teaching.

In preparing for the last school year, Parker said she spent a few hundred dollars on her classroom, including on storage caddies that alone cost $250. She also spends about $100 a month on snacks for her students so they can continue to concentrate on learning.

The grant funds will help her save more within her personal budget while also tailoring her classroom and lessons to the needs of her elementary schoolers.

“We want this place to be acceptable for all students,” she said, “and we want them to do their best and learn and be engaged and have a great time.”