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Classroom Central: Easing a burden on teachers through free supplies

In 2000, the Charlotte Chamber of Commerce took more than 50 business leaders on a field trip of sorts.

On this visit, the North Carolinians traveled to Cincinnati and Indianapolis. The purpose of this visit? To get leaders from different cities in different states to talk about shared challenges and what they are doing to combat those challenges. On this particular trip, the Charlotte group visited Crayons to Computers in Cincinnati and Teachers’ Treasures in Indianapolis.

What they discovered was a shared challenge — that teachers were paying out of pocket for classroom supplies. What they also discovered was soon to be a shared solution, a place where educators could go to get those necessary items for free.

New backpack with Classroom Central. Courtesy of Classroom Central

Out of this Charlotte leadership field trip, Classroom Central was born in 2002 with the mission to equip “students in need to effectively learn by collecting and distributing school supplies to their teachers.”

In the beginning, the organization provided for 36 schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg area, and of those schools, at least 80% of the kids were receiving free- or reduced-price lunch. Today, the organization serves 198 schools in six school districts.

Meeting teachers at every corner

Classroom Central has four main programs that eligible educators can access to get supplies for their classrooms and students. The bread and butter of the organization is the Free Store. This is a retail operation where no money is exchanged. Executive Director Karen Calder says they try to provide a caring and supportive atmosphere when the teachers come in.

“We know that their work is hard. They’re coming to us primarily after school hours, and so they’ve worked a full day and dealt with all kinds of things along the way. But when they get here, we want them to exhale,” said Calder.

The Free Store has everything from pencils, notebooks, and book bags, to an entire STEM section with bouncy balls, balloons, craft sticks, and lesson plans to accompany. Duke Energy and Piedmont Natural Gas sponsor these STEM shelves. After one stop at the Free Store, a teacher could walk away with supplies valued at up to $400.

STEM section at Classroom Central. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Central Classroom saw a need to meet teachers in the field, so in 2017, the ClassVROOM was launched. This is the free store on wheels, and it is most utilized by schools that are the farthest away from Central Classroom’s main office.

Classroom Up allows educators from eligible schools to order specific, more traditional, classroom supplies online. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools (CMS) picks up the shipping cost and all items are, once again, free to the teacher.

The Lending Library gives educators the ability to share resources around the CMS area using literacy and STEM kits. Literacy kits can focus on reading comprehension, sight words, handwriting, or even have a bilingual component. STEM kits come with all the supplies, instructions, and key lesson takeaways using anything from Ozobots and Bee-Bots to Legos. These kits are rented out to classrooms a month at a time.

Bee-Bot STEM kit at Central Classroom. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Dominique Johnson, a former math teacher who now works in community affairs for the Duke Energy Foundation, says that for a lot of people, STEM can be thought of as an abstract idea. Classroom Central gives easy access to materials and the opportunity for real life applications of STEM.

“Whether it’s the Bee-Bots, or the Makey Makeys, or even down to the graph paper [and] rulers, you really see the difference between what this can mean in a child’s life or a teacher’s life,” Johnson said. “I can only imagine, you know, trying to walk into a classroom and do a lesson and half my students aren’t equipped for what they need.”

Classroom Central lifts at least one burden off teachers so they can focus on taking care of their students in other ways.

“On the first day of school, my students were so happy to receive the composition books, pencils, paper, and other materials that I got at Classroom Central. We wasted no time starting our lessons, because they had the supplies they needed and they were ready to learn.”

– Ms. Knight, Gaston County Schools

Central Classroom in Charlotte, NC. Caroline Parker/EducationNC

Editor’s note: Duke Energy supports the work of EducationNC.

Caroline Parker

Caroline Parker is a multimedia storyteller for EducationNC. She covers the stories of rural North Carolina and STEM education.