Walking around The Pencil Box on Wednesday, Skelly Elementary teacher Rebecca Bristow filled a shopping cart with school supplies that totaled almost $1,000. She paid less than $40.
Teachers from dozens of schools are taking advantage of the free classroom necessities available at the nonprofit store, which reopened this week at 2002 E. Sixth St. after being forced to relocate from its 23rd Street location.
Bristow is a retired physician who is in her fourth year of teaching and likes to incorporate STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) activities in lessons. But as a single parent and grad student whose daughter has been in and out of the hospital, she’s unable to afford the supplies on her own.
“I can’t buy stuff for my kids,” Bristow said. “If we don’t have it, then they can’t do it. And the school can’t get us STEM stuff.”
Thanks to Wednesday’s shopping spree, now she has paper to make origami cranes and a math quizzer shaped like a miniature guitar. She also picked up backpacks for students in need and plenty of other basic school supplies.
Unburdening teachers is part of why Executive Director Nancy Bolzle launched The Pencil Box four years ago. The free store collects donated materials for teachers in high-poverty schools.
It’s not the schools that meet the call of students who lack essentials like pencils and notebooks. It’s the teachers. Many spend hundreds of dollars a year to ensure their kids have what they need.
“Students are coming to school without the supplies they need for whatever reason, be it economics or just unawareness,” Bolzle said. “So the teachers are having to pick up the slack. They’re having to bridge that gap.
“Our mission is to empower the students, prepare them for the future and instill a sense of hope by giving them the learning tools they need for success today.”
The overall goal is to ensure low-income students are equipped to learn. Only teachers at Tulsa County public schools where at least 70% of students live at or below the federal poverty level are invited to shop at The Pencil Box.
Teachers pay a $35 annual fee for unlimited access to the retail-like shop, which currently serves 47 schools, through the spring. In return, they received an average of about $1,100 worth of supplies during the 2018-19 school year. Bolzle said the equivalent of $1.5 million has been given away since the first distribution in 2015.
The success train nearly derailed this year when The Pencil Box’s former landlord decided to open her own business and informed Bolzle she needed to find a new space two weeks before the 2019-20 back-to-school distribution in August.
She and her team of volunteer teachers pushed through the two-week distribution period, giving out about $250,000 worth of supplies, before packing up in search of a new home.
They found one in the annex of Selser Schaefer Architects, allowing them to open for the school year about a month behind schedule. The Pencil Box normally closes to restock after distribution and reopens the Tuesday after Labor Day.
Despite the inconvenience, Bolzle is thankful for the move. This new larger location should help in her efforts to expand the store’s outreach. There are about 17 eligible schools that aren’t being served due to the lack of room.
“Our previous space only allowed for about 20 or 25 teachers in there at a time,” she said. “I think this space is going to allow us to have more teachers at a given time.”
Irving Peralta, an art teacher at Memorial High School, said he was thankful to see The Pencil Box land on its feet.
The store has been a life-saver for Peralta, who received about $750 worth of supplies during his first year of teaching.
Art supplies aren’t cheap, however. He still spends about a couple hundred dollars each year on products that aren’t available at The Pencil Box. Still, that’s nothing compared to what he would pay without this free access.
Knowing how much it’s helped him and his wife, who also is a teacher, Peralta said he hopes The Pencil Box eventually will be able to serve all schools in the county.
“No matter where you teach, you’re pretty much making the same amount of money,” he said. “You still need any help you can get as an educator, whether it’s just having crayons, markers, simple stuff like even scissors that you don’t have to pay out of pocket. Because that’s what most teachers do.”
The following elementary schools currently are invited to shop at The Pencil Box: Academy Central, Anderson, Bell, Burroughs, Celia Clinton, Clinton West, Dolores Huerta, Disney, Eugene Field, Hawthorne, John Hope Franklin, Jones, Kerr, Lewis & Clark, MacArthur, Mark Twain, Marshall, McClure, McKinley, Mitchell, Owen, Peary, Project Accept, Robertson, Sequoyah, Skelly Primary and Elementary, Springdale, Wayman Tisdale Fine Arts Academy, Walt Whitman and Unity Learning Academy.
The following junior high and high school also are invited: Central, East Central, East Central, Nathan Hale, McLain, Memorial, Rogers, Tulsa Met, Webster Central, Nathan Hale, McLain, Memorial, Rogers, Tulsa Met and Webster.
More information can be found on the shop’s website at pencilboxtulsa.org.