When Data Gets Personal

DonorsChoose.org is using data to make a difference.

A few weeks ago, as I was researching DonorsChoose.org for an upcoming case study report on how various nonprofits measure and track their success, I decided to look up my old elementary school on the website.

At DonorsChoose.org, any public school teacher in America can ask for funding for a particular classroom need and any individual can donate to support that project. The site is a revelation. Never before has it been so easy for anyone to jump in and make a difference in a school. Requests range from basic supplies to high-tech learning aids, but in every case the goal is the same—give every kid the tools and experiences needed for an excellent education.

My own public school education began about 30 years ago in Mrs. Olson’s first grade classroom at Washington Elementary in Mount Vernon, Washington. Tucked just inside city limits on a long straight road that runs like a furrow across the farmland, we were a mix of farm kids and townies on both sides of the Skagit River. The first fieldtrip I ever took was two miles down the road to a dairy farm where the bravest 5- and 6-year-olds got to milk a cow. As far as I was concerned, I went to the best school in Mount Vernon. Maybe the whole world.

It’s funny how much you can learn about the world in 30 years and how little of it seems to reach your kid self still running around on the ball fields and playgrounds of your mind. I found a listing for a project at my old school and the first thing I saw, before I read anything about the teacher or the project, was: “

Highest poverty school.” I was shocked and a little offended, although I’m not sure by what. I did a little more research and found that more than a quarter of the school received free or reduce-price lunch. Had my old school changed so much? 

Then I started thinking about my own school years. I rode the school bus with kids who lived in migrant farm camps. Our bus picked up kids who had no coats and lived in weathered houses low in the flood plain. In class, I sat next to kids who got teased for coming to school smelly. The house of one of my best friends was insulated with newspaper. Although I knew both of my parents grew up poor, I didn’t realize how close to the edge of poverty my own family was until my dad grew too sick to work. 

My old school probably has changed some, but probably not as much as I want to believe. Class and poverty in America are hard to talk about. They’re even harder to admit. Numerous studies confirm this bias. 

But data defies all that and has the potential to show us both what’s real and what works. DonorsChoose.org tells all of us: Here’s the need and here’s what you can do about it. And it’s doing so much more. The organization has warehouses of data that have the potential to open our eyes to patterns that we’ve failed to see thus far and to show us how we can be our best selves.

Data is no panacea. Numbers aren’t answers. But that’s the genius of DonorsChoose.org. The numbers, added to a teacher’s reasoned and heartfelt plea, equal solutions in classrooms. It’s hard truths finding big hearts one school at a time.   

I didn’t give to my school that day. I hesitated, and by the time I had checked back again a few days later, the project was gone. But I gave to a school not far from where I live now. The need is just too obvious now. Maybe it always was.