ROSCOE VILLAGE — Lane Tech students don't claim to be bedding experts, but they do have mattresses for sale at the school this Saturday.
Mattress sales are the newest fundraising gambit for cash-strapped schools that have maxed out traditional efforts like car washes and candy sales.
"I'm crossing my fingers. I have no idea how this is going to go," said Italian teacher Patricia Paganelli, the sponsoring faculty member of the sale at Lane Tech, dubbed "Snoozefest."
She's working with her counterparts in Lane's foreign language department to help students raise money for trips to Italy, Greece, Costa Rica and France.
A class trip can cost close to $4,000 per student, she said, including airfare, accommodations, food and spending money.
In August, Paganelli received an email from Mark Matejka of Custom Fundraising Solutions, which has operated mattress sales out of 1,600 schools to date.
"I thought, 'Who is this person?' And how does he know we're taking a trip to Italy?" she recalled. "I went to my colleagues and said, 'This guy's either a lunatic or an angel from heaven.'"
Matejka is used to the skepticism.
"I know when I step into the batter's box, I've got one strike against me. When I bring it to a school, I invariably get a snicker. I know the reaction every time is going to be 'You've got to be kidding,'" he said. "Eventually they say, 'This is logical.'"
Recognizing a niche after running a mattress sale for a friend's school, Matejka's brother founded Custom Fundraising Solutions in 2006, based out of Cleveland. Matejka, who lives in Wilmette, came on board in 2011.
"In some districts, parents can just write a check" for things like band instruments or new football uniforms, he said. "But in most, they can't."
The concept is simple: At some point, everybody needs a mattress. So, why not try selling those to parents, relatives and random strangers — at a 30 to 60 percent discount from retail — instead of rolls of wrapping paper or 15 pounds of cookie dough?
Matejka provides all of the marketing materials to schools free of charge, sets up the mattress display — he'll have 22 floor models at Lane Tech — and brings in a team of sales professionals to answer customer questions and seal the deal.
Students just have to spread the word to get people in the door, with Lane Tech receiving a portion of each sale made on Saturday. Schools have netted anywhere from $3,000 to $16,000, according to Matejka.
His pitch to Paganelli caught the teacher at just the right moment.
"We've been banging our heads against the wall" to come up with creative fundraisers to replace food sales, which Chicago Public Schools banned two years ago, according to Paganelli, a career-changer now in her 10th year of teaching.
"We couldn't even have a spaghetti dinner," she said.
Raffles are also forbidden "because it's gambling," she said. "CPS has our hands tied with fundraising."
If trips abroad seem like a luxury in the midst of budget cuts that have many schools scrambling to pay for essentials like toilet paper, Paganelli insists they provide students with an invaluable academic and cultural experience.
"It opens up a world for them," said Paganelli.
The Lane students shadow their Italian peers in school for two days, where they've been stunned to see things like cappuccino machines and fresh pastries in the cafeteria, or to discover that in Italian schools, students don't change classes, the teachers do.
"At the same time, they see they're teens just like them — they go bowling, they go to the movies," Paganelli said. "The kids see the differences and the similarities."
She's hoping to take 15 to 20 students — juniors and seniors are given preference — to Italy for eight days in the spring, where they'll spend half the time with host families in Milano and the other half exploring the sights in Rome, Florence and Siena.
"You get to see three of the biggest churches in the world," said Paganelli, an East Coast native who lived in Italy for 12 years before settling in Chicago in the '90s.
Students also become immersed in their language of study, gaining in confidence and ability.
"They're having to go into stores and and shop for things," she said. "I tell them, 'You go, you know how to do this.'"
For the past six years, Paganelli has coordinated an exchange with a school in Italy. This weekend, a dozen students from Italy will arrive in Chicago for an eight-day visit at Lane Tech. In the spring, the plan is for Lane's students to stay with the families of the teens they hosted this fall.
They just need to sell some mattresses first.
Lane Tech's mattress sale runs 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Oct. 19, at the school, 2501 W. Addison St. Enter via the main parking lot on Western Avenue. All mattresses are new and backed by factory warranties.