Over Soup Dinner, Philadelphia Teachers Network for Classroom Funding
On a Sunday evening this spring, a few dozen teachers have lined up for soup here on the 15th floor of an office building. Through the windows, they can catch a panoramic view of the city, if their eyes don’t stop to linger on a sweeping buffet of Girl Scout Cookies just to the left. But they aren’t here for the atmosphere or the food: In a couple hours, one of the educators in attendance will walk out with a cool $200 to use for their classroom.
That’s the idea behind PhilaSoup, a microgrant dinner event where attendees hear different pitches from educators for classroom projects that need funding and vote on which ideas most deserve a pot of money, raised from entrance fees. It's "Shark Tank" meets DonorsChoose, although that analogy might undercut the positive atmosphere in the room.
Held quarterly in the City of Brotherly Love, PhilaSoup is a grassroots effort started by teachers to provide support—both moral and financial—to one another. Over the past four years, the group has helped distribute more than $10,000 to area teachers.
"You hear so many negative things about education in Philly and public education in Philadelphia but there are so many incredible teachers doing incredible things in their classroom," says Claire Landau, a former teacher who co-founded PhilaSoup. "And so it's a space to celebrate how innovative Philadelphia teachers are."
Among the negative things Landau might be referring to: Numerous staff layoffs throughout the city, triggered by year after year of budget shortfalls. In a cash-strapped school system, generating some extra funding for a classroom project can be a significant boon.
Nationally, teachers spend hundreds of dollars out of pocket on school supplies every year, according to a 2013 survey by the National School Supply and Equipment Association. To fund projects that their schools can’t or won’t pay for, many educators also turn to crowdfunding sites like DonorsChoose, Kickstarter, and Tilt.
But PhilaSoup provides the added dimension of finding camaraderie among other educators looking for ways to improve their schools, and meeting with them face-to-face, over a warm meal.
"It started with dinner in a house with maybe 15-20 educators, and by the end of the year we were throwing dinners in the Franklin Institute with 100 people there," Landau said.
Winning the Pot
For this spring’s soup dinner—featuring a delightful tomato with orzo soup, among other varieties—roughly three dozen have turned up at the downtown Graham Building. The floor, owned by Pipeline Philly, a shared-office-space provider, has a sleek open-office layout. (This is a soup dinner, but it doesn't have to be Oliver Twist.) Most of the teachers are on the young side—in their 20s—and many work at charter schools.
Over the course of two hours, diners munch and schmooze and hear three pitches. Daniel Kannengieszer, a teacher at the Alliance for Progress Charter School, makes his case for building a classroom library. Teacher David Shen wants to scale up and supply Math Corp Philly, a summer math camp he co-founded for area students. Kelli Mantell, a community partnerships coordinator at the Andrew Jackson School, hopes to secure funding to help students maintain the musical instruments used in their prized music program.
Attendees ask a range of questions, some tougher than others, as when presenters are pressed to provide some notion of accountability for their programs.
At each PhilaSoup event, the pitch with the most votes gets half the pot, which comes directly from ticket sales ($10 each), along with extra donations. Thirty percent of the total goes to second place, and 20 percent to the remaining presenter.
Around five or six educators apply for the chance to pitch at any given soup. PhilaSoup’s 11-member board, made up of educators and nonprofit workers, selects the three ultimate presenters using a rubric that evaluates proposals based on level of student impact, innovation, timeliness, and need.
After all pitches are heard and every diner is satisfied with the information given, the voting begins. A large bowl of stones and three empty jars are hidden behind a nearby wall. Attendees enter the makeshift voting booth one at a time, dropping a stone in whatever jar represented their favorite pitch.
In the end, Kannengiezer wins the night, getting half of a $400 pot for his classroom library; Mantell takes second place ($120), followed by Shen ($80).
Easy as that. Light on dinner, light on bureaucracy.
“I liked that we removed much of the red tape,” says Rachel Hodas, a school psychologist in training and PhilaSoup board member. “Folks can pitch their project on Sunday, and walk into their classrooms on Monday with some extra funds.”
Evan Overton, a K-8 Spanish teacher at Chester A. Arthur Elementary School, agrees.
"Not every school has a place like this where teachers can come and just have one more option to buy some books for a library for their classroom," he says. "Every little bit goes a long way in this profession."
A Place at the Table
Landau founded PhilaSoup with her sister, Nikka, in 2011, after Nikka discovered Detroit Soup, a similarly designed microgrant program for Detroit artists. Given teachers' struggles in their own city, the sisters' decided to adapt the model for education.
Neither sister is involved in PhilaSoup in an official capacity anymore. Claire, who stepped down from both the organization and teaching in order to become chief of staff to the Philadelphia School Reform Commission, says it has been important to her to see PhilaSoup outgrow any one person.
In addition to the attendance fees, a small amount of funding for PhilaSoup comes from an assortment of local businesses, but those are more along the lines of local restaurants than education policy groups or foundations.
"We're very keen on staying a non-political organization," says Meagan Ingerson, a bilingual education teacher and the current president of PhilaSoup.
The fact that the organization doesn’t have a larger agenda beyond supporting and bringing together teachers was one its main draws for her. "I really enjoyed the fact that it was a neutral space," she adds.
In addition to funding worthy projects, meeting and learning from other teachers is an integral part of PhilaSoup, and another of the reasons that Landau and her sister started it.
"There weren't very many networks for teachers in the city and it was very hard to find community among teachers," Landau says.
Over and over again, attendees at the soup highlight that community aspect.
Overton, a regular at the dinners since the beginning, estimated that he's attended at least seven soups. "It's one of the most consistent learning networks I've been a part of," he notes, adding that it's opened up a dialogue with fellow Spanish teachers.
While it has attracted educators from all across the city, PhilaSoup is hoping to increase its geographical impact. Ingerson says that soup attendees tend to come from Center City, the rectangular hub of Philadelphia that encompasses the city's small, main business district. To expand its reach, the organization launched an ambassador program in fall of 2013, where educators can apply to start soup programs in their own neighborhoods. There have been six ambassador-led soups over the past two years.
PhilaSoup members also want to expand beyond its young, charter-heavy core of participants, according to Ingerson. She chalks up the imbalance in part to the possibility that charter school teachers might feel more isolated than those in traditional public schools and thus are more likely to search for more professional networks in their city. And younger educators may just have more free time to spend Sunday evenings hearing pitches for school projects.
PhilaSoup hasn't spread to other cities yet, although a group from nearby Wilmington, Del., has expressed interest. But its supporters in Philadelphia are proud of the unique venue they’ve created.
"I always like that I get a better sense of what's happening across the city," Ingerson says. "And I get ideas for my own classroom."