Your Schools

From tennis balls to flash drives, back-to-school lists add up

Thirteen notebooks. Forty-eight pencils. Highlighters, colored pencils and index cards – all are on the back-to-school supply list for fifth-graders at one public school.

And that’s before you get to the flash drive, the tennis balls and the hand sanitizer.

It’s the time of year when parents and teachers alike marvel at how much it costs to get ready for school.

In this case, a mother of preschoolers sent me the supply list for Joseph Grier elementary in east Charlotte, where most students come from low-income homes. She asked me to figure out how much the supplies for one student cost and wondered how parents could afford it.

After a trip to Walmart, I left with 40 items that cost $76.44 – and that was going as cheap as possible, including a $5 book bag. It’s easy to see how a family’s tab could add up fast.

I checked other lists around Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, and Grier’s didn’t seem out of line. National groups that track back-to-school spending peg the average at $70 to $100.

CMS officials say supply lists are recommendations, not requirements. Kids aren’t penalized for falling short, and plenty of groups donate school supplies.

“If they don’t have it, it’s OK,” says Grier Principal Theresa Townsend. “Don’t stress over it. What’s important is getting them to school.”

For newcomers, some items on the lists can be puzzling. Of course there’s technology, with some schools asking that students bring ear buds or flash drives to store data.

There are tissues, wipes, hand sanitizer, paper towels and plastic bags, all designed to keep students healthy and classrooms clean and tidy.

And those tennis balls have nothing to do with sports. They’re cut open and placed over the ends of chair legs to protect the floor, reduce noise and/or keep chairs from sliding. The request is common enough that the store I visited had tennis balls displayed with back-to-school supplies.

School supply drives are big here. The School Tools campaign, sponsored by WSOC-TV, Classroom Central and Communities in Schools, collects and distributes in 22 Charlotte-area counties. The campaign is in full swing now (check for details).

Countless churches, business and civic groups do their own collections for neighborhoods and schools. Townsend says Grier faculty use such partnerships, as well as Classroom Central, to cover gaps for children who bring few or no supplies. The school cafeteria is full of supplies bought by the school and donated by outsiders, ready for teachers to pick up.

Grier is among 76 high-poverty CMS schools that provide free breakfast and lunch for all students. I asked whether it would make sense to do the same with donated supplies.

Townsend says giving families the option to bring their own gives them dignity and builds school pride.

“I think some (parents) like the joy of going with their kids to shop,” Townsend said.

Parents are already prowling the school-supply aisles with checklists. But there are a growing number of alternatives, including companies that offer prepackaged supplies that can be ordered through schools and websites that compile school lists and let families order online.

And some suggest avoiding the frenzy.

“I actually encourage parents to wait until the first few days of school to buy supplies,” says Kimberly Muhich, who taught at Oakdale Elementary. New teachers hired during the summer may want to revise the list put together in May or June, she said, and parents can find out what kind of free supplies are available at school.

“When in doubt,” Muhich said, “always buy pencils, a bottle of hand sanitizer and a few boxes of tissues and then wait until Day One.”

Marybeth Kubinski, a teacher and the mother of a fourth-grader at Crown Point Elementary in Matthews, sees the shopping lists from two perspectives. She expects to spend more than $100 for her child’s supplies, and she says parents should never feel ashamed about skipping items to cut costs.

The classroom hygiene items are among the easiest to omit, Kubinski says, but buying them can help reduce the pinch on teachers. Crown Point’s PTA gives each teacher $150 a year for supplies, but even so, she says, “a lot of our teachers spend over $1,000 a year.”