Dollars4Schools: Responding to the Needs of Local Teachers & Students
Essential funding for classroom needs
It’s no secret that New Mexico ranks poorly when it comes to education. Our statewide graduation rates are low, and these rates reflect challenges throughout the educational pipeline — including the number of young children who are not proficient in reading and math.
Notably, New Mexico’s complex colonial history and ongoing poverty contribute to these challenges.
In recent years, the state has made historic investments in early childhood, including allocations from the Land Grant Permanent Fund and increased funding for the Early Childhood Education and Care Department. Early signs indicate that these commitments are beginning to improve outcomes for young learners; in the coming years, we hope to see progress continue.
In the meantime, a range of local community-led philanthropic initiatives are also contributing to school betterment and student well-being. Here in the Santa Fe area, one shining example is the Santa Fe Community Foundation’s Dollars4Schools (D4S) program.
The brainchild of Pat and Michael French, Dollars4Schools was created in 2010 to support teachers, students, and classroom programs at the Santa Fe Public Schools (SFPS). It came under the umbrella of the Santa Fe Community Foundation in 2013. A year later, Ona Johnson, the Foundation’s Board and Community Relations Manager, took over responsibility for the program — and she’s been at the helm ever since.
D4S operates as a locally-focused, validated, education-specific funder — one that allows members of the public to contribute to supporting local students and teachers.
“Whatever grant requests come our way, we put them out to donors,” says Ona Johnson, adding that the Foundation conducts due diligence and collects receipts to ensure that donations are used for their intended purposes.
Dollars4Schools is able to provide support very quickly due to its nimble framework, often distributing funds directly to teachers shortly after they submit their requests. The Santa Fe Community Foundation underwrites administrative costs, so every dollar goes straight to end users.
“We recognize that our Santa Fe Public Schools community faces real need, and we’re here to address that,” adds Johnson. “To try to meet those needs, D4S strives to be as responsive as possible. Last year, for example, the program partnered with the Santa Fe Police Department to purchase and distribute school supplies for more than 2,000 children; the program has also purchased and distributed more than 1,500 warm winter coats.”
“Every year is different,” adds Johnson. “Sometimes teachers request readers or science and math kits; other times it’s art supplies, hats and gloves, after-school snacks,or pantry items.”
Myrna Barbee-Lee, lead nurse for SFPS, is a longtime user of the Dollars4Schools website. For a decade, she has relied on the site’s donors to support “socks, underwear, pants, chapstick, lice combs, and gardening supplies for projects supporting SFPS students.”
Last year, Barbee-Lee’s team also used funds to help the student Diabetes Club create and decorate emergency fanny packs at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum. “It was a great combination — lots of fun, and medically useful at the same time,” says Barbee-Lee.
Johnson succinctly articulates Dollars4Schools’ underlying philosophy: “We rely on the people who are closest to students to tell us what they need.”
Johnson also acknowledges that teachers and school staff live busy lives and juggle a wide range of responsibilities; for this reason, D4S strives to make it easy to request funding. “We’ve created a straightforward interface at our website. Teachers describe the project they hope to run, submit it to the site, and we post it,” says Johnson. “Donors contribute any amount they choose, and we all watch as programs accrue funding toward their goals. If programs have chosen a large funding goal, we even cut checks on a rolling basis so programs can get off the ground quickly.”
Since the program’s inception, D4S has funded nearly 1,000 classroom requests, including 10 within just the first few weeks of the current school year. The average funding request is approximately $500.
“Over the last nine years, we’ve funded at least a portion — and often the entirety — of every request we’ve received,” Johnson reports. In total, Dollars4Schools averages between $45,000 and $55,000 in disbursements each year. “We get requests year-round and I even have teachers approaching me in the grocery store. They know me and that’s exactly what we want,” says Johnson.
Dollars4Schools’ flexible funding motivates many teachers to stay involved year after year, proposing new projects as they perceive new needs in their classrooms. Alexandra Van Camp, a sixth grade teacher and 21st Century Site Coordinator at E.J. Martinez Middle School, has received donor funding for a wide range of initiatives, including “flexible seating, math manipulatives, online resource programs, new library books, and even buses for field trips to take our learning outside the classroom!”
“Each year I am reminded how grateful I am. I look forward to working with this organization for years to come,” she says.
Other teachers report similar gratitude for the chance to realize cherished visions of what education can be. Deborah Unger, a music teacher at Atalaya Elementary, tells this story:
“In 2019, the SFPS Music Department adopted a wonderful new curriculum for Elementary General Music. However, there were only enough funds to purchase the curriculum for grades K-4. Because I teach PreK-6, I felt that I needed more curriculum materials to effectively teach my students throughout their elementary years. The support of D4S has provided two grade levels of curriculum each year since 2019, for which I am so very grateful! “
Unger tells a second anecdote that perfectly illustrates how D4S funds translate directly into creative, joyful, even world-expanding experiences for students:
“Years earlier I began an African Drum & Dance program at both Salazar and Nava elementary schools. The community loved the program but it was not possible to fund the costs for hiring Akeem Ayanniyi and other teachers without the support of D4S. Additionally, D4S has provided support to purchase a classroom set of ukuleles, which students love!”
School administrators also sing the praises of D4S for supporting essential ongoing professional development. Capital High School Associate Principal Lisa Vigil writes:
“Dollars4Schools funded Santa Fe Public Schools’ Language and Culture Department through the purchase of ‘Culturally and Linguistically ResponsiveTeaching and Learning,’ written by Sharroky Hollie. Mr. Hollie's work is a resource for our teachers and explores how we, as educators, can validate our students' cultural identities. Along with the book, the Language and Culture Department brought Dr. Hollie to Santa Fe Public Schools to provide on-site training. With the support of Dollars4Schools, we were able to provide teachers with a hard copy of Dr. Hollie's book and a complementing book of resources.”
These stories are just a few examples of D4S’ impact on local schools. To see more, including recently-funded programs and current funding requests, please visit the Dollars4Schools website. For SFPS employees interested in proposing a project, please complete the brief “Submit a Program”form at this link. You can also email Ona Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org or reach out via mail at
c/o The Santa Fe Community Foundation
P.O. Box 1827
Santa Fe NM 87504-1827
Donors receive adonation letter from the Santa Fe Community Foundation for tax purposes. They also rest comfortably in the knowledge that SFCF conducts due diligence on each request — and that their gifts support the kinds of learning initiatives that expand horizons for teachers, students, and the community as a whole.
In the words of music teacher Deborah Unger:
“The support from D4S has been a huge boost for me not only in what I am able to offer students, but in knowing thatI have the support of the community to help Santa Fe's children experience all the possibilities teachers love to share with them. It really makes everything so much better as a teacher. Seeing what I want to do, but not having the money to make it a reality for my students is one of the more challenging aspects of being a teacher. D4S makes all of our teacher dreams possible, and I am so grateful!”