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Teacher Ashley Cox, center, helps Noel Lopez with an assignment on his Chromebook while Aniya Woodruff does the assignment on her phone during an ACT preparation class for juniors at Howard School on Wednesday, Jan. 31, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Cox is raising funds through DonorsChoose for extra Chromebooks for use by students in her classroom. Students whose Chromebooks are lost, damaged or stolen can still do exercises on their phones, but they cannot connect to the school WiFi network and must use their own data.

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Teachers ask for help, funding for Opportunity Zone classrooms

Ashley Cox waltzes around her classroom at The Howard School, leaning over students' shoulders to check on their work or leaning down to offer advice or answer questions. Resting across her right arm, like a waiter's tray, is a laptop.

Many of the 11th-grade students in Cox's ACT preparation class are also tapping away on their own laptops, but some are not — some are hunched over cellphones or even scribbling on loose-leaf paper.

"If you are online, if you have your Chromebook," Cox told the class, "we are going to start taking notes on the biggest ACT English skills."

Each student at The Howard School receives a Google Chromebook laptop as a freshman. The laptops are provided free, with a charger and a case, but not every student shows up to class with one.

Some students lose or damage their laptops and cannot afford to fix them. Some are also stolen.

"Then you have the kids, who if they don't have data on their [phones], they can't do anything," Cox said. "They're taking notes on paper, but miss out on videos and other aspects of the lesson."

Cox is hoping to raise enough money — $804 — to purchase four extra Chromebooks for her classroom to serve as spares for students without their own.

Cox's fundraiser, located on DonorsChoose.org, a crowd-sourced fundraising site, is part of a larger campaign partnership between Hamilton County Schools and the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga. Teachers from Opportunity Zone schools are invited to submit a project to the campaign and all donations gathered on the website will be matched by the Community Foundation through a $10,000 donation.

"The DonorsChoose platform makes it easy for anyone to support a classroom in need, helping to ensure that all students have the tools and experiences they need for a great education," said Maeghan Jones, Community Foundation president.

With the $10,000 matching grant, she said, "we hope to jump-start the effort to utilize DonorsChoose as a tool to rally community support for our teachers and students demonstrating, once again, how collectively we can achieve so much more than we can working alone."

The projects vary — an Orchard Knob Middle School teacher is asking for stability balls and a rocking chair for flexible seating for her active students; a teacher at Clifton Hills Elementary hopes for supplies for math activities; and various classrooms need more books for their libraries — but all represent the diverse needs of classrooms, as well as the lack of funding.

"Teachers spend hundreds and hundreds of dollars out of their own pockets," said John Cunningham, community schools coordinator for Hamilton County and one of the project's organizers. "This project gives teachers a chance to tell the story about what their needs are in their schools."

At The Howard School, Cox receives $200 a year for classroom supplies, but those funds are quickly eaten up by staples such as notebook paper, pencils and pens. Some teachers buy snacks for their students or extra copies of books for lessons.

"Teachers in inner-city schools are not going to let our kids do without," Cox said. "If that means it comes out of our own money, then we are going to do it."

At Dalewood Middle School, library media specialist Taunya Lovelace hopes to raise money for an alternative learning space in the school's library.

Lovelace, who just started working at Dalewood this year, was inspired to start exploring the concept of a "makerspace" for students. Makerspaces are collaborative environments where students can work on hands-on projects with a variety of tools and resources. The first such space Lovelace visited was the Chattanooga Public Library's own downtown makerspace.

"It gives them the opportunity to collaborate," Lovelace said. "It's a great space for learning, exploring, and creating."

Lovelace has already begun transforming a space within Dalewood's media center into a makerspace, adding computers and a puzzle table to the area. The school community also raised money for a green screen, camera and light kits for student projects.

Next, she hopes to add a LEGO wall to the space where students can build their own projects.

"It's an alternative form of learning," Lovelace said of the opportunity for students outside the classroom. "It's really thinking outside the box."

Some of the projects are even the results of student ideas.

Ladies First Leadership, a leadership group for girls at Brainerd High School, submitted a project with the help of sponsor Marie Dean, a data coach at the school.

The girls, who describe themselves as "young, intelligent open-minded ladies," are organizing an activity for local elementary schools that the Brainerd students will lead at the schools' field days.

"They want to participate in the elementary school's field day and lead an activity," Dean said. The project hopes to fundraise for scooter boards, so the girls can lead a live-action game of Hungry Hungry Hippo with the elementary school students. The leadership group, like other clubs, does not get any funding from the school.

The district had previously not allowed crowd-funded projects like those posted on Donors Choose, Cunningham said. But Superintendent Bryan Johnson and the Opportunity Zone leadership team have been supportive of the project and the potential to shift how community members approach donating to or working with schools.

"Across the country, schools that excel point to community involvement and participation as a key factor for success," Johnson said in a statement. "The effort to support the schools in Hamilton County's Opportunity Zone is a community collaboration that will impact learning for children."

The Opportunity Zone's executive director Jill Levine also hopes highlighting teachers' own projects will help them feel more supported.

"We know that hiring and retaining top teachers is the most important factor in improving schools, and Hamilton County Schools is excited to provide this new funding option for teachers. We are grateful for the partnership of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga in this important support of our teachers," Levine said. "Supporting teachers starts with ensuring every teacher has the needed materials to offer children in their classrooms exciting learning experiences."

For more information on the fundraising campaign and to donate to individual projects, www.donorschoose.org/hcdeopportunity. Check back periodically as more projects in need of funding are added to the page.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at mmangrum@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.

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