If six years in the classroom have taught Samantha Smith anything, it is how to be frugal.
Take the "homework log" that she created for her seventh-grade students at Hardy Middle School in Northwest Washington. It is little more than a few plastic dividers and some loose-leaf paper clipped inside a three-ring binder salvaged from the Environmental Protection Agency by a sympathetic parent. The word "pathology" is still visible on the side.
"I keep everything," she said.
It is a habit born of necessity. When she began teaching, Smith said, she spent several hundred dollars at the beginning of each school year on supplies. Other teachers reported spending more than $1,000. From $2.09 for a spiral-bound notebook to $500 for a high-tech Jeopardy! game, teachers dig deep into their own pockets for props that might entice children to learn and basics that some of their students might not be able to afford.
"Teachers who spend the money, who really care enough about their classrooms to spend the money, are going to be more successful because they have more tools to use and resources to pull from," said Amy Mason, who teaches second grade at Running Brook Elementary School in Columbia.
According to a study last year by the National School Supply and Equipment Association, teachers nationwide spent an average of $458 of their own money on school supplies, said Adrienne Watts, vice president of marketing for the trade group. Local educational supply stores said August through early September is their busiest time. Jeff Faw, president of Learning How, said he doubles staffing at the company's seven locations for the back-to-school rush.
At Crown Educational in Centreville on a recent afternoon, Carolyn Frank roamed the aisles in search of flashcards, posters, name tags, pens, pencils, stickers and glue.
"I look for everything," said Frank, a third-grade teacher at Centreville Elementary. "Anything that will add to what the school already gives me."
Teachers said that although schools usually provide basic supplies, they often do not cover such extras as scratch-and-sniff stickers to give to students for a job well done. And teachers also often stock up on supplies for students whose families might not be able to afford to fill their backpacks.
The report by the school supply association showed that about 60 percent of teachers' out-of-pocket expenses were for basic school supplies and that the rest went toward instructional materials.
"Parents sometimes forget that the supplies that they send with [children] at the beginning of the year aren't necessarily going to last until May or June," Mason said.
For Frank, the biggest expense is books, she said. She stocks her classroom library with books on animals, mysteries and the "Arthur" and "Amelia Bedelia" series. Often, they don't last very long.
"As long as you were reading, that's fine with me," she said she tells her kids. "A used book is a good book."
The PTA at Frank's school is giving teachers between $50 and $75 to help defray costs, she said. And all teachers receive a federal tax deduction of up to $250 for their out-of-pocket expenses. Those who work at high-poverty schools also can shop for free at a school supply donation center in the District run by the SHOPA Kids in Need Foundation.
Smith of Hardy Middle also relies on the generosity of parents. Before Christmas, she sends her students home with a wish list. The idea is to prevent a dozen parents from sending her coffee mugs when what she really needs is a new pack of highlighters and a toner cartridge.
She has developed lots of similar cost-saving strategies over the years. Parents sometimes will photocopy handouts for her at their offices. She creates decorations for her bulletin boards out of construction paper and markers, rather than buying ready-made ones at the store.
Her efforts should help keep expenses down to about $60 this school year, she said.
But that doesn't mean she has sacrificed quality -- just that she has had to get more creative. The class homework log may be rudimentary, but it has helped combat student apathy, she said. The kids must apply for the privilege of writing down the day's assignments, keeping them motivated and creating a record that students can reference. When students go on trips, Smith asks them to bring her maps and other souvenirs to incorporate into her lessons.
Smith was in her classroom last week unpacking boxes and taking down last year's bulletin boards. The laminated decorations for "How to Build a Poem" will be stored until next year in one of the many brown envelopes she keeps in a file cabinet near her desk. In its place, she will put up visuals for Hispanic Heritage Month.
There are just a few weeks left to get ready for the stampede of students who will occupy the 30 desks in her classroom.
Smith can only dream of the things she could do with her classroom if she had an unlimited budget.
Hardy was built in 1926, and Smith's is one of only six rooms with air conditioning. The massive window unit is held together with duct tape and keeps the classroom at about 80 degrees during the summer, she said.
Then there are the computers that don't work and the lack of storage space.
Still, Smith takes pride in her classroom, its hardwood floors and the bulletin board trims that are beginning to fade. It's a bond that many teachers feel with their rooms. After all, for nine months of the year, the classroom is virtually a second home.
"That's our little castle," said Maleeta Kitchen, who teaches first and second grades at Running Brook. "You want to make it the place to be."