Friday, Nov. 16, 2007 | Third grade teacher Kerri Felcyn is racking her brain for all the lesson ideas she discarded, believing them impossible. Pedometers to whip kids into shape; chess to hook the sharpest math students; magazines to keep her classroom full of soldiers’ kids tuned into reading.

“You just think, ‘I don’t have the money, so forget it,’” said Felcyn, who teaches at Hancock Elementary in Tierrasanta. “Now you think, ‘Ooh, what were all those great ideas that I abandoned?’”

In the past, Felcyn had to shell out her own money for classroom extras, try to squeeze it from a tight school budget, or hit up working-class parents for donations. Now, she clicks onto DonorsChoose.org, a website where teachers like Felcyn can post proposals for the resources they need.

Private donors surf the site, choose their favorite projects, and donate money. Teachers watch the donations rack up online until the project is fully funded. DonorsChoose.org then ships the supplies from its New York warehouse.

Already, Felcyn has received boxes of books, a stack of math games, and a year’s subscription to Time for Kids magazine for every kid in her class, thanks to the website. Before, she photocopied articles from 7-year-old magazines. She’s one of the first local teachers to use the site, which expanded to San Diego this fall.

Thursday, the nonprofit went national after bracing its warehouses and offices for a flood of new requests.

“The need is so, so high that we should be in every school in America,” said Julie Lacouture, southwest regional deputy director of DonorsChoose.org. “We just had to get ready for that volume.”

DonorsChoose.org was founded in 2000 by a Bronx high school teacher, and expanded to the West Coast in 2005. Lacouture said the website’s direct, no-frills approach appeals to donors, who can pick specific projects to support. Teachers are required to document their projects with photographs. Students pen thank you notes to donors.

Tuesday, Felcyn’s students hunched over sheets of notebook paper, writing their letters along a glossy new Time for Kids magazine. The magazines have been important for Felcyn’s students, the sons and daughters of military workers in the Murphy Canyon housing encircling the school. They’re keenly aware of current events, Felcyn said, and stale articles don’t snag their interest.

“I don’t know how to spell magazines,” one boy said, showing his letter to Felcyn. Another student offered up her letter timidly for Felcyn to read. Felcyn coached her to add more detail. She reminded the girl of the photocopies the class once used instead of the real-thing magazines.

“Like that we couldn’t see the pictures?” the girl asked.

“You couldn’t see the pictures! That’s a great detail,” Felcyn agreed, handing her the paper.

Every year, teachers typically spend more than $400 of their own money to bolster limited classroom supplies, from art supplies to owl pellets, according to a study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association. First-time teachers often spend more, trying to bring their classrooms up to snuff. Among teachers, it’s part of the culture, said union president Camille Zombro.

“When my husband and I did our taxes together for the first time, he was shocked by how much I was spending,” Zombro said. “It hadn’t occurred to me until then that that was something people in other jobs don’t do.”

Buying supplies through the school district takes time, as the recent delays in laboratory equipment for Lincoln High School illustrate. Buying them with parent donations means asking parents — often low-income parents — to pony up themselves. At Hancock Elementary, 67 percent of students are low-income.

“I can ask for boxes of tissues from my parents,” said Jerry Steele, another third grade teacher at Hancock. “I can’t ask for a camcorder.”

Steele got his camcorder this month after posting the project on Donors Choose. He uses it to send digital video to parents deployed overseas, linking them to the classroom. For Steele, a veteran teacher with 6,000 books lining his classroom, most of which he bought himself, the site opens new possibilities.

At Hancock, “there’s a buzz. There’s an excitement,” Steele said. “I catch myself sneaking peeks at the progress of the funding. … It really gets your creative juices flowing. With this, why limit yourself? It won’t hurt to ask.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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