Straight from the Source: Give children the resources to succeed

  • Back 2 School Illinois CEO Matthew Kurtzman says doing well in school starts with giving all children the resources they need to succeed in the classroom.

    Back 2 School Illinois CEO Matthew Kurtzman says doing well in school starts with giving all children the resources they need to succeed in the classroom. Courtesy of Back 2 School Illinois

By Matthew Kurtzman
CEO, Back 2 School Illinois
Updated 12/22/2018 5:58 PM
Editor’s note: Matthew Kurtzman is the CEO of Back 2 School Illinois, a Chicago-based nonprofit that provides Illinois kids from low-income families with free school supplies to help them succeed in the classroom. To learn more about Back 2 School Illinois and to donate, visit

The education system in the United States is broken. We are not allocating the proper resources to provide each and every student with a good education and the necessary tools to succeed academically.

Everywhere you go in this country, we seem to be falling behind or lacking, when it comes to education. Teachers are overworked and many administrations lack the funding for building and facilities upkeep. Indeed, many schools don't have gyms, proper libraries or lunchrooms.


I attended a pretty good elementary school in the Chicago area, but I remember finding it odd that the nurse was on the premises only on alternating mornings or afternoons. Were we supposed to plan our illnesses or injuries accordingly?

The return on investment for a child's education is truly the best way that we, as a society, can spend our money.

When I participate in media interviews or talk to people on behalf of my nonprofit, Back 2 School Illinois, I ask folks to consider that a child can take one of two paths in life: They can become a contributor or a detractor.

For the first 20 years of their lives, the children in our care are truly being molded. Once that mold is hardened, they will spend the next 50, 60 or 70 years being someone who makes the world a better or worse place.

Fixing education is not going to solve every problem -- and it's certainly not going to happen overnight -- but we need to have a starting point. We need a baseline. If we want our children to learn and do well in school, the first step is to give them the resources they need to do the work and succeed in the classroom.

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While we are in the second longest post-recession economic expansion this country has ever seen, the reality is that much of the country is still struggling. According to the National Center of for Children in Poverty, 43 percent of Americans live in low-income households. That means more than 15 million children come from homes in which their parents are struggling financially and can't afford to buy even basic school supplies to send their kids to school with.

Imagine what it's like for a child to show up at school without school supplies. Imagine them having to ask a teacher or classmate to borrow paper, notebooks, pencils or rulers. It affects their self-esteem. It makes them feel unprepared and -- perhaps, worse yet -- unworthy of learning. Is that what we want for our children? Is this the kind of education we're OK with providing them?

There are more than 1.2 million students in Illinois each year who live in low-income households. That figure means roughly 40 percent of kids in our state may be going to school ill-prepared to learn. Each month, these kids' parents are forced to make impossible decisions about what bills to pay. Rent, utilities, food and health care usually win out over school supplies.

A 2017 Kids in Need Foundation Impact Report revealed that providing school supplies to underserved students reduces the chances of those children being ostracized due to their families' poverty.


What's more, teachers have consistently reported that giving kids from low-income families the supplies they need has a positive impact on those students' classroom preparedness and participation, and significantly contributes to healthy self-esteem and overall interest in learning, as well as social engagement, good student behavior, homework completion and regular attendance.

While students suffer myriad problems if they don't have necessary supplies, so do their teachers. Not only does it make their job as educators that much more difficult, but teachers are often pressured into reaching into their own pockets to purchase supplies for their students.

The New York Times recently reported on a new federal Department of Education survey indicating that 94 percent of U.S. teachers pay for supplies for underserved students without ever receiving reimbursement. The survey indicated the teachers spent $479 on average out of their own pockets for supplies in the 2014-15 school year.

This holiday season, let's make it our mission to ensure no child has to go back into the classroom in January without the supplies they need. Doing so will give them the tools to succeed academically, while also increasing their self-esteem and lessening the financial burden felt by their families.

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