Schools should be places where children feel safe, empowered, and equal -- an environment where a student’s background or home life need not determine their success or belonging. However, this kind of equitable environment is not a given in the classroom. Issues with school supplies are a significant barrier to a healthy school experience for many children.
The national average of what parents spend on school supplies per child is $696.70, with many asked to pay far higher amounts. While some families don’t think twice about the yearly routine of rounding up binders, calculators, pencils, and pens, the cost of these items can be overwhelming for low-income parents who may need to weigh school supplies against absolute necessities, such as groceries and rent. As a result, many children do not have the option to follow these prescribed lists of supplies and come to school less prepared than their classmates.
These students face a difficult social situation. Gail O’Connor with Teach for America writes that “teachers are in a unique position to either add to a student’s feelings of inadequacy, or be sensitive to the mental burden that comes from financial insecurity.” Upon seeing students unprepared, teachers sometimes lean towards the former. They may be less than understanding, failing to consider possible financial issues and accusing students of being forgetful or careless. “It’s often seen as a behavioral issue,” Dr. Heather Clawson from Communities in Schools reports. Such assumptions can set students up for a negative relationship with teachers, producing feelings of shame and alienation. This negatively impacts the student’s ability to learn.
Conversely, teachers who do recognize the student’s situation often buy school supplies for them out-of-pocket -- which isn’t sustainable for those teachers who are often already underpaid. O’Connor writes, “ninety-three percent of public school teachers spend their own money on school supplies without reimbursement, and on average, teachers spend $479 on items for their classrooms.” While teachers who go above and beyond in this manner should be applauded, it is unfair for the burden to be set upon them.
Many teachers note how the lack of school supplies negatively impacts their students. One teacher, Mario Black, reported of his own students, “When scholars don’t have what is needed for school, they don’t give it their all.” (WSOC)
But beyond the negative impacts of not being prepared with adequate supplies, it is deeply empowering when students are prepared.
If you had the chance to start each school year with new supplies, you may remember how exciting it felt to look through the different colors of your binders and carefully assign colors to school subjects, or the satisfaction of pulling out cleanly sharpened pencils as you learned how to take notes. In the turbulence of starting a new school year, the prevalent feeling was that of a fresh start, and some control.
And the data confirms these memories -- teachers have reported in studies that students having their own school supplies seems to increase students’ self esteem, class participation, class preparedness and interest in learning. (Kids in Need Foundation)
At Bergen Volunteers, we want to make sure children in our community are prepared to do their best -- and feel their best -- in school. That’s why we run Tools for Schools, our program focused on providing school supplies for students in northern New Jersey. We invite businesses and individuals to donate to our annual drive, which this year runs from July 22 to August 31. Then, we distribute the supplies to our agency members -- hand-selected organizations that we have history with, and pool volunteer resources with -- who pass the supplies directly on to schools and students!
If you’re ready to get involved in this important mission, contact Melissa LaRobardier at firstname.lastname@example.org. We need your help to ensure that more and more children can enter their school year confidently, with the tools they need for success.
“School Supply Donations Have a Positive Impact on Student's Ability to Learn.” WSOC TV, WSOC TV, 24 Nov. 2019, www.wsoctv.com/community/school-supply-donations-have-a-positive-impact-on-students-ability-to-learn/571267245/.
O’Connor, Gail, et al. “The School-Supply Gap.” Teach For America, Teach For America, 8 Sept. 2019, www.teachforamerica.org/one-day/top-issues/the-school-supply-gap.
“Why It Matters.” Kids In Need Foundation, 19 Apr. 2021, www.kinf.org/why-it-matters/.