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posted: 8/20/2014 2:07 PM

School supplies drives ease back-to-school costs for needy families

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  • Backpacks given out by College of Lake County's Womens Center.

      Backpacks given out by College of Lake County's Womens Center.
    Courtesy of College of Lake County

  • Project Backpack volunteer and Elgin Community College alumni, Joel Aguilera of Elgin, grabs backpacks from the reserve piles to bring to students waiting in line to pick one out at a recent event. The free school supplies and backpacks were on a first-come, first-served basis to local students enrolled in schools.

       Project Backpack volunteer and Elgin Community College alumni, Joel Aguilera of Elgin, grabs backpacks from the reserve piles to bring to students waiting in line to pick one out at a recent event. The free school supplies and backpacks were on a first-come, first-served basis to local students enrolled in schools.
    Laura Stoecker | Staff Photographer

 
By Sabrina Tong
Daily Herald correspondent

For Waukegan resident Melissa Rivera, $300 could go toward her house mortgage and food, but it's also the amount needed to buy school supplies for her four children.

"Three hundred dollars, that's a lot," she said.

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Rivera, 33, a part-time student and employee at the College of Lake County in Grayslake, didn't have to spend the money on those items, thanks to a school supplies drive run through the college's Women's Center that helps families in need.

It's one of many events and efforts across the suburbs aimed at easing some of the rising back-to-school costs for low-income families.

A pink eraser, priced at $1.48 in 2012, was $1.79 in 2013. One Elmer's glue bottle that cost $2.75 in 2012, rose to $3.49 the following year. Those examples may not seem like much, but the price differences add up. The average total cost of school supplies for an elementary school student was $120.87 in 2012, compared to $161.27 in 2013, according to the 2013 Huntington Backpack Index, an annual assessment of school supply costs.

The 2013 index revealed school supply prices have risen 7.3 percent since 2012, outpacing the 1.8 percent inflation rate.

Experts say while those rising costs affect teachers and low-income families the most, they are important items for students to have to start the school year and to get the most out of their education.

Rivera said preparedness is an essential skill, and having school supplies helps students be prepared.

"They never need anything so they don't miss any assignments, and they don't have any delays on their schoolwork or assignments because they have these supplies already," she said.

Teachers are also affected, since they pay out of pocket for many items in their classrooms. According to the National School Supply and Equipment Association's Retail Market Awareness Study, teachers spent a total of $398 on school supplies for the 2010-11 school year.

Schools are required to provide funding for their teachers to buy supplies, but the amount is not enough.

Tammy Burns, a specialist at CLC's Women's Center, said she struggled to find enough funds from the Waukegan school district when she was a teacher.

"I've been in a district that was not very affluent, and one of the problems with these different school districts is that the actual school district isn't giving the teachers what they need in the classroom," Burns said. "That's why it has to come to the parents."

Hank Bohanon, associate professor in the School of Education at Loyola University Chicago, said teachers should have more financing since they are only funded for basic school supplies now, such as pencils, pens and notebooks.

"Many teachers are very creative, and they have ideas on how they want to provide an educational experience for their children," he said. "They really need more resources for them to practice that."

Bohanon advocates for "Positive Behavior Support," an educational model funded by the school district where students earn tickets in the classroom for good behavior, and cash in the tickets for such supplies as mascot-themed pencils, pens and notebooks.

This reward system lets students have "more time for education and less time to be disciplined," he said.

Schoolsupplies.com CEO Jeff Goldenberg has made saving families money his company's mission. Goldenberg compiled a bundle of school supplies by grade level that students need.

His company also helps teachers by offering a 5 percent rebate in school supplies credit for a teacher if a student buys a bundle from the website.

"We also wanted to create a tool that lets teachers take our school supplies bundles to our students and then get school supplies back to their classroom as credit for the sales they drive," Goldenberg said, "because the average teacher spends about $400 a year out of their own pocket for school supplies. We wanted to try and help alleviate some of the expense."

CLC's Burns works with low-income parents to ease financial burdens that include providing their children with school supplies. Since the center opened in 2004, the school supplies drive has helped clients by creating 100 to 120 backpacks to give to children annually. Each backpack contains most of the supplies children will need for the school year.

"Even preschoolers get a backpack, and it has a workbook and a box of crayons in it," Burns said. "They may not have it full of things because they can't use all that stuff, but we try to put something educational in there, so it's always some sort of books on numbers or alphabet."

A similar event sponsored by Elgin Community College has handed out more than 7,000 backpacks since 2010. ECC teams with local volunteers, businesses, churches and community organizations for Project Backpack to distribute supplies to families in need on a first-come, first-served basis.

As a client of the CLC Women's Center, Rivera received a backpack for each of her four children in 2013 and again in 2014.

To low-income parents and their children, the backpacks mean more than a few pens and pencils.

Rivera said the evidence is in her children's report cards.

"When my kids get their report cards and progress notes, what the teachers always notice is that they always come to class prepared," she said.

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