Just crayons and scissors won't cut it for back-to-school shopping

 
 
Updated 8/14/2016 8:05 AM
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  • Deborah Halstead of Big Rock shops for school supplies at Wal-Mart in Batavia with her 14-year-old son, Tyler. She does so one child at a time. "Otherwise, I'm a nut case at the end of it," she said.

      Deborah Halstead of Big Rock shops for school supplies at Wal-Mart in Batavia with her 14-year-old son, Tyler. She does so one child at a time. "Otherwise, I'm a nut case at the end of it," she said. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • The length of the lists for back-to-school supplies has grown immensely over the years, as have the choices for pens, papers, notebooks, fillers, binders and more.

      The length of the lists for back-to-school supplies has grown immensely over the years, as have the choices for pens, papers, notebooks, fillers, binders and more. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer

  • A Geneva school asks parents to purchase this multitude of items for their kindergartners. The list was much shorter in 1970.

      A Geneva school asks parents to purchase this multitude of items for their kindergartners. The list was much shorter in 1970. John Starks | Staff Photographer

Envy the mom who shopped for school supplies for a kindergartner in Geneva in 1970.

According to an advertisement in a local newspaper, she had to buy:

• An 8-pack of crayons.

• A pair of scissors.

• An eraser.

• A pot of paste.

This week, a Geneva parent has 27 items to drop off at the school, at about 10 times the cost. The 1970 bill of 73 cents would be $4.53 in today's dollars. Filling today's list at the local Wal-Mart? $56.

Nationally, a four-person household (with an average 2.2 children) will spend about $107 on school supplies, according to an annual study for the National Retail Federation.

The list has grown, educators say, because kindergarten is different now.

"We are focused on academics, not play," said Ami Engel, principal of Westfield Community School in Algonquin.

Westfield's kindergartners attend school all day, unlike the half-day kindergartens of the 1970s. The curriculum is more rigorous. More time is spent on teaching mathematics and literacy skills that, decades ago, would have been covered in first and second grades. As recently as 1998, a survey of kindergarten teachers showed only 31 percent thought children should learn to read in kindergarten. By 2010, that figure was 80 percent, according to researchers at the University of Virginia.

"As such, there are items (on the list) that help support the academic part of the school," Engel said. Thus, parents of kindergartners are asked to buy two dozen No. 2 pencils (not the fat ones of yesteryear) and a pocket folder to hold paperwork.

The list grows longer the older the student gets. That same Geneva kindergartner will need 87 items by fourth grade, including two different styles of notebooks, two different-sized three-ring binders and 24 pencils.

There also have been big changes in technology: Headphones and calculators are on elementary lists.

Outfitting school

Today's lists also contain items that aren't supplies for individual students.

Almost every school asks for markers and erasers for the whiteboards that replaced chalkboards. Disinfectant wipes for cleaning hard surfaces are on many lists, as are baby wipes for cleaning hands. At least one Elgin teacher asks for a ream (500 sheets) of copier paper ($6 for Office Depot brand).

Supplying that stuff does not bother Deborah Halstead of Big Rock. Her family includes teachers, and she said she knows that many of them spend their own money on supplies for classrooms. Halstead, a mother of four, was back-to-school shopping at a Wal-Mart in Batavia with her 14-year-old son, Tyler, a high school freshman.

She's not a fan of schools' requesting specific brands; in particular, she's flummoxed by a list that includes a specific brand of calculator.

"Are you kidding?" she said. "They all do the same darn thing!"

And she doesn't buy all the loose-leaf paper requested. She swears the first year, the school asked for so much, "I had three years' worth of paper" left over.

Halstead finds the shopping nerve-wracking. She does it one child, one list at a time.

"Otherwise," she says, "I'm a nut case at the end of it."

Brand names

In defense of brand names is Kevin Skomer, principal of Louise White Elementary School in Batavia.

The brands his school requests are better quality, he said.

That's why the school tells parents to buy Crayola crayons. They last longer and don't break as easily. And the Crayola markers' tips don't crush easily, the ink glides on smoother, and other brands leak. "We're not sponsored by Crayola," he said with a laugh. "They last."

The name-brand scissors, he said, have a design that stabilizes kindergartners' little hands. The brand cuts smooth and clean; while other brands bunch and tear the paper.

The White School PTO offers a program in which parents can buy packs of supplies, and this year a PTO member tested items before the list was settled.

"We're not doing it (asking for brands) just to be difficult," Skomer said.

By contrast, the 1,270 students at Westfield School in Algonquin are free to bring any brand.

"There's no need for brands here. In fact, we have tried to take brand names off (requests for) things," Principal Engel said. "The brand never really mattered."

Backpacks on wheels?

Just because something is on the special "back to school" display at the store doesn't mean the schools want you to get it.

Some doctors suggest using wheeled backpacks, so kids don't hurt their backs carrying heavy bags.

Westfield School says "no."

Those bags "are a very sizable trip hazard," Engel said, because kids aren't very good at maneuvering them in crowded hallways. And they won't fit in some schools' lockers.

Other typically banned items: gel pens and zippered binders.

Most of that Geneva list can be ordered online and shipped to your house.

But Engel, a mother of three as well as the Westfield principal, enjoys the hunt in the stores.

"I may be in the minority," she says, "but I love shopping for school supplies."

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