In School, The Silent Suppliers of Last Resort

Michelle Johnson, right, owner of Loudoun Learning Center, assists Terry Finks, a teacher at Dominion Academy.
Michelle Johnson, right, owner of Loudoun Learning Center, assists Terry Finks, a teacher at Dominion Academy. (Photos By Tracy A Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

The posters were hung, the scissors and glue stashed in their proper places and the bulletin boards in Brenda Burlingame's classroom at Legacy Elementary School wrapped and trimmed in a cheery color.

The room simply screamed "Welcome to first grade." That feeling didn't come cheap.

"I probably spent $500 this year," Burlingame said as she shopped for a few last-minute adornments at Loudoun Learning, a teacher supplies store in Leesburg. "No matter if you've been a teacher for five minutes or five years, it has to be done."

Across the region, teachers are digging into their pockets to buy the supplies that turn four walls and a few tiny tables and chairs into the image of a child's classroom, complete with cubbyholes and attendance charts and a cozy reading corner with pillows and a rocking chair.

In a nationwide survey conducted last school year by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, 94 percent of teachers said they spent their own money on school supplies. On average, they estimated they would spend $552 of their own money on their classrooms before the school year was over.

Because Loudoun County is a fairly wealthy district, teachers have plenty of paper and other essentials at school, said Wayde B. Byard, spokesman for the public school system. In addition, teachers ask parents to donate tissues, sandwich bags and other supplies.

"Teachers get just about everything they'd like as far as the basic needs go," he said.

But tape and glue sticks are not enough to give a classroom its inviting feel.

"It is some of the competitive nature coming out, trying to make your room look the spritziest," said Michelle Johnson, owner of Loudoun Learning. "But typically, whatever you get from the school isn't enough to cover any of the decorative stuff."

For example, teachers usually buy bulletin board decorations and wall hangings out of their own pockets. Some even purchase computers and books. Even the little stuff adds up -- all those alphabet cutouts and "Way to Go!" stickers that people come to expect from their elementary school teachers.

Johnson's store is to teachers what Bloomingdale's might be to a shopaholic. Loudoun Learning is full of lefty scissors and chalk holders, bulletin board trim of every pattern, racetrack-printed decorations inspired by the movie "Talladega Nights," and racks of smiley-face and gold-star stickers.

Johnson, a former Loudoun teacher, said teachers are expert at stretching dollars. For example, they laminate all posters and decorations to make them last, she said. When a colleague retires, they put in their requests. Need that human skeleton wall-hanging? That solar-system mobile in the corner?

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