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To call the notebooks big would not do them justice. They were huge. Encyclopedia Britannica huge.

When a friend asked me if I'd serve as an outside reviewer for grant proposals submitted to the Norman Public School Foundation, I agreed without a second thought. I was eager to do all I could to ensure that thousands of Norman students--including my own children--had the classroom tools they needed.

But until I received the notebooks, I hadn't realized just how many tools they needed. I hadn't realized all of the things -- vital things -- our schools can't supply to the people who teach our children.

Each semester, the Norman Public School Foundation offers $50,000 in grants to teachers. At first blush, with a ceiling of $1,000 apiece, the grants seemed relatively small. Yet the flood of applications from teachers told me otherwise.

The Foundation received applications from more than 200 teachers in Norman Public Schools, seeking a total of $130,000 in funding. But with only $50,000 available to fund the projects, the non-profit Foundation simply could not underwrite every project.

"You're going to want to fund them all," the Foundation's executive director, Jenny Dakil, told us when we met at the outset of the process. And she was right.

A piece of playground equipment suitable for pre-kindergarteners. Microscopes and graphing calculators for high-school students. Books to replace lost and worn-out titles. A few hundred dollars so that a special education teacher could buy groceries to teach her teenage students to cook, a skill they'd soon need when they found themselves in the adult world.

My heart broke with every page I read.

I had hoped against hope that there would be clear losers, submissions seeking paintball guns and video games. Yet in the end, I was forced to make countless difficult choices, deciding between library books and whiteboards, math software and musical instruments.

I did my best to cast my votes for basic needs. After all, how could I deny a teacher who'd submitted an entire proposal seeking $39.96 worth of supplies for her room? Still, I tried also to support those teachers striving to keep their classrooms--and their students--in step with our ever-more-technologically sophisticated world.

When it came time to hit the send button and submit my scores for all 206 proposals, I paused. What if I'd underscored deserving applicants? Shouldn't I give the grants just one more read to ensure I'd been fair and consistent?

I took a deep breath and pulled the proverbial trigger. Then I got out my checkbook and made a contribution to the Foundation.

As an independent non-profit, the Norman Public School Foundation is funded not by tax dollars, but by contributions from the people of Norman. Over the years, our community has given generously, building an endowment that allows the Foundation to enrich Norman's classrooms. But still, it's not enough.

Next spring, there will be another grant cycle. And more thick notebooks filled with more deserving applicants than the Foundation can afford to fund.

As we make our year-end charitable gifts, we should remember the Norman Public School Foundation. Think of it as an insurance policy against the inevitable funding shortfalls that plague our schools. Or better yet, think of it as the best holiday gift we can give Norman's children.

Cohen lives in Norman.

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