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Colored Pencils, Watercolors, Brushes: Art Supplies Add Up

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Sheree Woods is sitting in her car in the parking lot of a mini-mall in a Los Angeles suburb, with the air conditioning blasting.

She's here for a huge sale.

Woods is a high school art teacher at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, a big magnet school in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Every year, like countless other teachers around the country, she digs deep into her own pocket for school supplies.

"I would say between $300 and $400 is a pretty average year for me," she says. "Sometimes it's a lot worse, but don't tell my husband!"

Woods notes that she's a veteran teacher, and so she has a lot of extra supplies in her storeroom from years past. Younger art teachers sometimes spend much more than she does.

Art teachers have to switch between classes like painting, ceramics or print-making, Woods says, and each has a different list of supplies: glazes, acrylics, X-Acto knives.

Inside the store, Woods works the aisles, carrying a plastic shopping basket.

After decades teaching, she knows good prices by heart. She calls herself the "coupon queen." But she also knows she can't scrimp on quality.

"I really believe that the students' work, the quality of their work, will go up with the quality of their materials," she says. "So it's worth it for me to spend a little bit more. Just for those two-dozen pencils it could cost me $20, $25. So I'm hoping to get out of here today (spending) under $100."

She stops in the aisle and points out colored pencils that cost $1.84 each.

It's more than she'd like to pay, but her students need these pencils to learn the fine points of shading.

Woods grabs a handful of greens and browns, tears off a paper coupon, and heads off to look for pencil sharpeners.

Over at Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts, music teacher Desiree Fowler also has a unique shopping list, including strings and guitar picks.

"Instead of having textbooks, like a math teacher would, we have to order our own method books, our own sight-reading books," Fowler says. "I'm constantly finding new music."

Fowler says the school district does pay for some supplies, but that can take too long.

"I don't like spending time or energy talking about how we don't have things," she says. "I'd much rather just supply it for the kids."

In all, Fowler says she has dropped about $500, and the school year is still pretty new.

Back at the mini-mall, Sheree Woods has just picked up a can of spray paint and is headed to the checkout line.

There, she does some careful math with the cashier.

"And all of these things qualify for the sale prices?" she asks. Yes, 20 percent off.

So, does she make her $100 goal?

The total comes to $128.08.

Despite going over budget, she's leaving without a few items she'll need this year. There's another big sale in February, and Woods says she'll be back then.

Teachers: How much do you spend out of your own pocket? What do you buy? Let us know in comments, on Twitter at @npr_ed or on our Facebook page.

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