At Diggs-Johnson Middle School in Baltimore, librarian Mary Duginske starts her library lessons by handing youngsters folders holding paper-clipped handouts.
Before class is over, Ms. Duginske makes sure she gets back every folder -- and every paper clip.
This is the Baltimore public school system, where paper clips are scarce. In a school system that's one of the state's poorest, teachers and principals have learned to scrounge for the nuts and bolts of education -- basic things such as pencils, paper, even paper clips. The city spends about $4,600 overall per child, compared with $6,000 in neighboring Baltimore County. Its poverty shows in overcrowded classrooms, underpaid teachers, leaky roofs and a lack of special programs such as art and music.
The dearth of supplies is just another obstacle teachers and principals must overcome. Frequently, they do so by dipping into their own pockets. In informal surveys, teachers in the city
schools estimate they spend an average of $300 a year of their own money on classroom supplies, says Baltimore Teachers Union President Irene Dandridge.
Teachers in other school systems also spend their own money to supplement what's provided, but in this as in so many other areas, Baltimore's schools stand in a class alone.
* At Eutaw-Marshburn Elementary, teachers cut paper towels in half to make them last longer. Here, as in many other city schools, toilet paper isn't left in bathroom dispensers. It's parceled out, one small wad at a time. This year, children in Anne Schmidt's fifth-grade classrooms made Christmas cards in orange and green because there was no red construction paper -- or money to buy some. After 22 years in the school system, Ms. Schmidt is philosophical. "The sentiment's the same," she says.
* Because copy fluid and ditto material are scarce, teachers in most city schools are used to taking one workbook, making only enough copies for a class, then using the same copies for each subsequent class.
* Pam Rutherford has given up trying to get beginning writing paper -- the kind with largely spaced lines bisected by a dotted line -- for her first-graders at Hamilton Elementary. It's just not available, so Ms. Rutherford no longer asks for it. She estimates she spends $200 to $300 of her money a year, but on more fundamental things, like copy paper.
* At a recent state hearing, Southwestern High School student Scott Ross asked legislators for more money for city schools. At his school, said Mr. Ross, he spends most of his class time copying notes from the blackboard because there aren't enough books for students to take home.
* Frederick Douglass High School student Myron Missouri showed up earlier this school year at a press breakfast held by school Superintendent Walter G. Amprey. His complaint: None of the school's five music classes has a tape player.
Deputy Superintendent Patsy Baker Blackshear knows the supply shortage is a problem in city schools. Last year, the system surveyed new teachers and found the lack of supplies to be one of their top concerns.
Put simply, the money Baltimore has to spend just can't compare with what's available elsewhere, said Ms. Blackshear, a former Anne Arundel County school board member.
The situation is aggravated because many children can't afford the supplies schools typically ask students to buy, such as notebooks, she said. As a result, the city's teachers and principals have turned scrounging into an art. Schools hold candy sales and other fund-raisers for extras like field trips and incentives and awards. Parents chip in for big-ticket items, such as band uniforms or, at Roland Park Elementary and Middle School, cafeteria aides.
Then there's the unofficial but thriving market that has developed between schools.
"If I know or I hear that someone has some Latin books that they're not using but they may need some of my math books, I'll call up the principal and we make a trade," says Evelyn T. Beasely, Roland Park Elementary and Middle School principal.
Sheila Z. Kolman, principal of West Baltimore Middle School, has a deal with the state center that tests would-be administrators. They save their pencil stubs for her. Ms. Kolman, who heads the Public School Administrators and Supervisors Association, also lobbies area businesses for used or old notebooks she
keeps on hand as extras.
"I have become a regular beggar for my children in my school," Ms. Kolman says. "That is something that unfortunately has become a way of life, living and working in a school system that is underfunded and unfairly funded. When you go to conventions and things, you see our people in Baltimore City signing up for everything that's free; everything that's a sample."
In some city schools, classroom supplies extend to more fundamental items. At Bay-Brook Elementary, for example, veteran prekindergarten teacher Gail Browne estimates she spends $300 to $350 a year on classroom supplies.