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Teacher’s tennis-ball tip: Take them off the school shopping list

Ka-ching! Watch the back-to-school tab add up

Observer reporter takes a parent's challenge: See what it costs to buy fifth-grader's supplies
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Observer reporter takes a parent's challenge: See what it costs to buy fifth-grader's supplies

Parents across the country are buying tennis balls to use as “chair slippers” for their children’s classrooms, but a recently retired teacher says there’s a smarter way: Collect used ones.

Alex Edwards, who taught at Bailey Middle School in Cornelius, says public parks and country clubs are happy to donate used balls that can be cut and slipped onto chair legs to reduce noise and scuffing. She’d get 300-400 at a time from River Run Country Club and share them with other teachers.

“They are free,” Edwards said. “If you call them ahead of time and let them know, they will pack them up in garbage bags for teachers. Old ones work just as well as new.”

To the uninitiated, tennis balls are one of the more perplexing items on back-to-school supply lists. But their use on classroom chairs is common enough that stores display them in school supply aisles and online vendors sell them pre-cut as chair socks, slippers or shoes.

If you call them ahead of time and let them know, they will pack them up in garbage bags for teachers.

Retired teacher Alex Edwards

The Lake Norman Education Collaborative has bins at tennis courts around northern Mecklenburg County and distributes hundreds of used balls to area schools. The collection drive started in 2013, and the demand hasn’t diminished, say co-chairs Steve Gilbert and Melinda Bales.

“Being on the floor, with kids tracking in dirt, pencil shavings, they do get a little grimy,” Bales said. “They do need to be replaced yearly.”

Like everything in education, the tennis ball trend sparks online debate: Skeptics say the balls make it difficult to stack chairs and can contribute to allergies by gathering dust.

Edwards got in touch after reading my recent column about shopping for the supplies listed for a fifth-grader at Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s Joseph Grier elementary school. That list included four tennis balls. I found them conveniently located with school supplies – and inconveniently sold in three-packs. I bought two tubes, at $1.92 each.

I asked Principal Theresa Townsend about the tennis balls when I dropped my haul at Grier on Thursday. Most of her children come from low-income homes, and very few bring all the requested supplies, she said. The school cafeteria is full of notebooks, book bags and other items donated or bought with school money.

It’s rare to see a child bring tennis balls, she said. But she defended their inclusion on the list, saying students feel an added pride in their building when their families pitch in to protect the floors.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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