Non-Profit Organization - Adopt A Classroom

Interview with James Rosenberg
Executive Director, Adopt-a-Classroom

When did Adopt-a-Classroom start out, and how long ago did it take on a nationwide focus?
I started Adopt-a-Classroom in 1998, and it has been national since 2000.

Do you recall how Adopt-a-Classroom and Jones Apparel Group got onto each other's radar?
It was, I believe, 2005 when Adopt-a-Classroom got onto Jones Apparel Group's radar. It was at that time that Jones Apparel Group was seeking a community outreach campaign targeting teachers. That campaign connected with Adopt-a-Classroom, and as a result of those communications we formed a partnership. It's my belief that Jones really wanted to make a difference, and it wanted to make a difference in children's lives and in women's lives. When they focused on making a difference in education, they realized that, while there were a lot of initiatives and campaigns focused on helping schools or kids in general, none were really focusing in right on the teachers, who play such a pivotal role in the success of our schools and the success of our children. So they fine-tuned their objectives to focusing on the teacher, and that's what we came together on.

Adopt-a-Classroom has a very fine-tuned approach to recruiting individual classrooms, one-on-one, so that the donor may pinpoint his or her generosity specifically. How does that work?
The way the program works is that the donor can make a contribution to any classroom in the United States. They can either pick a specific classroom with which they have a relationship—either they know the teacher or they have a child or a relative in that classroom—or they can pick a classroom that might be in their local community, or simply allow Adopt-a-Classroom to partner them with an underserved classroom in their community. The donation requirement is simply a minimum of $25—and any amount truly makes a difference. One hundred percent of the donation is passed through to the teacher, and the teacher uses the funds to purchase resources in order to increase opportunities for students. Through the process, we like to pride ourselves that the donors truly see and feel the impact of their donations. All donors hear directly back from the teacher via e-mail, and most often hear from the students by way of thank-you letters and thank-you packages. As the teachers shop, all the shopping is done online; the donors receive impact reports that show, item-for-item and dollar-for-dollar, exactly how the teacher has been using the donated funds. So it's 100 percent accountable, 100 percent transparent.

So through the transparency, the donor can see exactly how the funds are spent in the classroom he or she adopts. Do these relationships between the donor and the classroom teacher tend to last beyond a single school year?
Absolutely. A majority of our donors renew. Many of them renew with the same classroom teacher. Many of the partnerships evolve beyond a financial donation, where the donor visits the classroom, reads to the students, chaperones field trips, and truly becomes a community partner that the teacher can rely on for support year after year.

What are some of the classroom materials most commonly purchased?
It's broken up into thirds. About one-third of the funds are used for classroom learning materials, those hands-on learning items that make learning fun and exciting and engaging. In today's age, students need to be engaged at a high level—so whatever the teacher can buy that is hands-on, that is interactive, that increases the chances the student can understand the curriculum and apply it in the everyday world. Another one-third is books. Literacy is a big component in that teachers like to have books for their libraries. So the students are reading and constantly finding new and interesting things to discover. The last third is consumables—the basics: paper, pencils, notebooks, highlighters, things of that nature that are needed not only in the classroom, but that oftentimes students come to school lacking at home. Without any notebooks, without any pens or paper or utensils. The teachers usually go out of their own pocket to buy these types of supplies.

Are there any things that individual Jones Apparel Group employees can do to get involved and be supportive of Adopt-a-Classroom, beyond Jones' support at the corporate level?
Jones employees are already doing so much. They have, throughout the company, raised funds for Adopt-a-Classroom at the respective areas where they work. I know that they volunteer a lot of hours. They visit the schools, together with the makeovers and things of that nature. So the employees are doing so, so much. But the best way to help is to spread the word that the program is making a big difference, and it's our goal that the more people learn about us, the more people can participate in our programs.

How did you become involved in founding the organization?
I was a mergers-and-acquisitions attorney. While practicing law, I was mentoring a student at a nearby school for mentally and physically delayed pre-kindergarten-age children. A few things occurred that really altered my life's path. One, I developed a special mentorship with one of the students. That fulfilled a desire to be connected with this type of activity. I wanted to be around children, serving them and doing those types of endeavors that enabled me to make a difference. And second, I was able to witness first-hand how much money the teacher was spending out of her own pocket—how little resources she had to work with. Through that, I went searching for a program where people like me could help—specifically to help the teacher. When I found there was no easy way to do that, that's when I thought of the Adopt-a-Classroom program. I was able to present the concept to the superintendent here in Miami-Dade County Public Schools. I quickly was given two pilot schools to work with. It started off as a side project. I also really just left my profession full-time, and gave it a go to see if I could make a career out of it. That's how Adopt-a-Classroom got started.

At a time when education budgets are constrained probably more than at any time in decades, I would imagine that the programs of Adopt-a-Classroom are in demand more than ever before.
That's absolutely true. We're seeing that our donations are actually up this year from last year.

Which runs counter to the trend for many other not-for-profit organizations.

Is there a reward you've discovered that you may not have anticipated 12 years ago when you started?
It sounds like a cliché, but one person can make a difference. I was, on reflection, very surprised about how warm a reception people gave, how willing people were to help—and still are. Before you know it, what was a simple idea, I think we adopted seven classrooms in my first year, just taking baby steps and crawling, then walking, then running a little bit, we've raised now over $10 million for more than 35,000 classrooms around the country, improving the learning environment for more than 1 million children. I feel that you can make a difference if you just put your mind to it. People out there are willing to help you.

I've become a huge teachers' advocate. I think that, objectively, it's very easy to understand what teachers do, but in getting in the trenches and in getting to know teachers on a one-to-one basis, you truly appreciate the sacrifices and the passion and the adverse circumstances that these professionals are up against, for what I and I think everybody would agree would be probably one of the most important jobs in our society. Teachers are underpaid and, despite that, go out of their own pocket, over $1,000 a year, to buy materials for their classroom. With the budget cuts and with all these high-level debates and stories about education, things like that, what we still have to keep in mind is that every day a student goes to school eight hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year. No matter what we talk about, in my opinion, the teacher is the key to the success of that child. And so I just really have grown as a teachers' advocate, and I truly appreciate what they do, not only for their students, but for all of us.