Melissa Badeker's 2,000-square-foot warehouse is organized in sections: a pile of 3,800 binders here, a library of teacher's guides and resource books there, and a giant storage bin stuffed with pencils, 10 to a bundle.
All of the donated items are free for the taking, a stockpile to help spare teachers some of the hundreds of dollars they spend out of pocket each year to buy supplies for their students and classrooms.
Badeker, a former Baltimore teacher who has a master's degree in education administration, said the idea behind the Teacher Supply Swap started with the trash can into which she threw away boxes of supplies she saved from her time in the classroom, crying because she knew how much the items would mean if she could get them in the hands of a teacher who needed them.
The supply swap makes that possible.
"We're getting supplies that are excess, and teachers are swamping this place to get those supplies," she said. "No matter who you are, if you think you need free school supplies, you should be able to have access to them, particularly when there is so much available."
Ericka Caruso, a first grade teacher in Prince George's County, discovered the supply swap shortly after it opened three years ago, and stops in regularly. On a recent day, Caruso browsed the shelves along with teachers, parents and volunteers for nonprofits.
"Who knows what we'll find?" she asked. "It's heaven-sent for teachers in the schools that are underfunded. Otherwise, we would have to use our money, and we still do."
Different districts manage the challenges associated with purchasing materials differently. But teachers across the country consistently report spending their own money on supplies for their students and decorations for their classrooms.
In one recent survey, the National School Supply and Equipment Association found that 99.5 percent of all public school teachers buy supplies, and spend an average of $485. Ten percent reported spending $1,000 or more.
One third grade teacher in Oklahoma drew national attention this summer when she begged at a busy intersection with the sign: "Teacher Needs School Supplies! Anything Helps. Thank you."
The Howard County school system created a swap three years ago. Officials estimate it has saved the district $260,000. Schools can post items they no longer need and search for what is available within the system for free.
Previously, district officials say, unwanted supplies, furniture and equipment were either thrown away or sold to the public while other district schools were going out and purchasing the very same items new.
In Baltimore, teachers and administrators say Badeker is helping solve a big problem. She collects donations — leftover pencils from bowling alleys, motivational posters from teachers changing grade levels, and leftover swag bags from conferences at the Baltimore Convention Center — lines the shelves of the rented warehouse, and invites teachers, home school parents, nonprofit volunteers and daycare providers to shop.
She asks visitors to join the swap by making voluntary donations in the amount they think is fair. The suggested contribution is $25 a year.
Badeker estimates the swap has given out $100,000 in supplies in three years. The warehouse at 1224 Wicomico Street in South Baltimore, open Thursdays and Saturdays, received about 1,000 visits last year. It has received about 600 so far this year.
Badeker plans soon to offer a supply delivery truck, and is launching a pilot program in two Baltimore schools to improve inventory control and ordering.
She says her goal is to put herself out of business. She wants to create a system that allows schools to better track inventory, exchange surplus items and do a better job of ordering the supplies that teachers need most in their classrooms to minimize what they're spending out of pocket.
She won an 18-month, $60,000 fellowship from the Open Society Institute's Baltimore office in November to expand the swap. She also received a grant worth about $3,000 from the Abell Foundation for the pilot program at an elementary school in East Baltimore and an elementary and middle school in Northwest Baltimore.
Shandra Worthy-Owens, the principal at Dr. Bernard Harris Sr. Elementary School in the Oliver neighborhood, said she is eager for any solutions Badeker can produce. Worthy-Owens, who was new to the school last year, said on her first visit to its five supply closets she found items that had been there for decades: Math games that were never used, and new pencils intended to be offered as prizes for children.
"A lot of the materials were in stacks on top of stacks, so we didn't really even know what we have," she said.
Teams of teachers went through each of the closets this year, Worthy-Owens said, but the piles are unwieldy, and without an organized inventory system, she said, it will be hard to stay organized. She said she finds it difficult to stretch her supply budget of about $8,000 far enough for the school's 415 students and 25 teachers.
She hopes an intra-district supply exchange could move, say, extra copies of a textbook at one school to another school that needs them.
Badeker said she plans to take inventory in the schools' supply closets and assign a monetary value to items. She will ask principals what they want to distribute to their teachers, what they consider excess and what they would like to store.
She also wants to understand more about the timeline for ordering and distributing supplies. From there, she said, she will analyze the data and begin to develop a system for schools to share extra stuff.
Badeker said teachers are not always invited by principals to participate in ordering materials or developing the lists of supplies that are sent home to parents at the start of the new school year. During the budget process, she said, principals might avoid spending money on supplies, or spend it rapidly if they are at risk of losing it.
"Everyone in schools knows this happens," Badeker said. "It's not nefarious. They are given such limited funds and they try to manage the money properly and hold on to the funds as long as they can."
In Baltimore, ordering is decentralized. Each school manages its own inventory based on budgets developed by principals.
Andre Cowling, the district's chief of schools, said Badeker's pilot program could be a boon to a district that's watching every penny.
"People order things in schools at the beginning of the year, and principals have shortages and overages," he said. "Nobody has extra paper, but they may have pens, paper clips and dry erase markers."
Marietta English, president of the Baltimore Teachers Union, said every little bit will help teachers, especially those whose students come to school with few or no supplies. Even when schools do provide items, she said, they're often rationed to stretch throughout the school year.
"If our teachers have what they need and our children have what they need, we're going to see improvement," she said.