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School Supply-Side Economics

The need to equip the neediest of schoolkids

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Six-year-old Aubrey says she just can't wait. The nearly always bouncing blonde is counting down August's remaining days until she hops on a school bus. She'll be starting the first grade at Whittier Elementary--at least that's what her social worker tells her.

Unlike most of her fellow 1,800 first-graders in the Boise Independent School District, Aubrey will have a case manager helping sort out her educational affairs. Aubrey's mother, whose name remains confidential for security concerns, lives at the City Light Home for Women and Children, enrolled in the shelter's New Life developmental rehabilitation program. Simply put, City Light is the only home Aubrey has ever known. And Megan Korthals, community relations coordinator for the Boise Rescue Mission--which operates the women and children's shelter--has watched Aubrey grow from infancy to student, every day for the past five years.

"None of our kids chose this," said Korthals. "None have said, 'I want to be homeless.'"

For the roughly 25,000 students returning to the Boise School District later this month, the accumulation of new binders and glue sticks, not to mention new clothes, can easily rack up a staggering bill at a local store. According to the National Retail Federation, families with school-age children will spend an average of $450.76 on back-to-school items.

That said, every year, the City Light Home is tasked with collecting school supplies for the 80-plus school-age kids the shelter houses.

"We want to make sure we help them," said Korthals, who also oversees the Rescue Mission's annual school supply drive.

In a kitchenette-sized room at the Boise Rescue Mission's learning center and administration building, staff has begun to strategically sort school supplies: pencils and erasers overfill storage bins; boxes of markers and crayons are piled high on a nearby table; and backpacks are stacked countertop-high. They won't be there long. Officials know that the donations are a mere fraction of what the shelter needs to equip its kids for their first day of class, let alone through an entire academic year.

"We're estimating that more than 80 kids from the shelter will be going back to school, and each kid needs about $250," said Korthals. "And that's not even the fancy stuff; that's just the bare minimum."

Korthals knows that notebooks and paper are only the tip of a pricey iceberg of mounting costs incurred throughout the full school year.

"That's why we have a Sponsor-a-Kid program, where donors might give anywhere from $70 to $100 worth of donations. We ask donors to go out and buy one pair of pants, two shirts, seven pairs of socks and underwear, a pair of new shoes and one hoodie. That's how we make sure that our kids have good, new school clothes," Korthals explained. "Luckily, we get hundreds of donors, from moms and dads already spending hundreds of dollars on clothes for their own kids. It's an absolute gambit, from $1 to hundreds of dollars. The paper, folders, notebooks, rulers and other supplies alone, just to send an elementary-age kid back to school, are over $50."

According to the Meridian Joint School District No. 2, the largest district in Idaho, school supply lists for all students, grades K-5, include bottles of hand sanitizer, facial tissues and pencil boxes. Add to that glue sticks, scissors, folders, composition books, three-ring binders, dry erase markers and watercolor paint sets. Additionally, the district recommends that students be equipped with earbuds or headphones and even flash drives for fourth- and fifth-grade students.

Supplies for high school get even pricier, since scientific and graphing calculators come into play.

Filling a shopping cart for any student's back-to-school needs is daunting for parents, but usually not considered by most children. That's not necessarily the case for a child who happens to live in a shelter.

"It's amazing how they see the world through different eyes," she said. "They have a better understanding of where they are than some adults."

Korthals was quick to add that the Boise Rescue Mission will gladly accept back-to-school donations through Monday, Aug. 12.

"This is the least we can do to help them," she said.

The Rescue Mission isn't the only organization working against the clock to assist children in need.

For more than a decade, the Salvation Army has held its own school supply drive, assisting hundreds of children each year. Supplies gathered with the help of Treasure Valley food banks and school districts are distributed by the Salvation Army to hundreds of students in late August, according to the Salvation Army's Treasure Valley social service director, Amber Young.

"We assemble between 500 and 600 backpacks every year," Young said. "We'll fill the backpacks, based on the school supply lists provided by the districts, so each grade level is different. A kindergarten through sixth-grade backpack will include crayons, colored pencils, markers, glue, rulers, notebooks, Kleenex and paints. The junior- and high-school backpacks get binders, loose leaf paper, composition books, pens, pencils, highlighters. We also have protractors and some more upper-level items."

But outfitting those backpacks with even the barest of essentials remains a challenge. The backpacks that will be handed out on Thursday, Aug. 22; Friday, Aug. 23; and Monday, Aug. 26, each cost a minimum of $15 to fill--even more for older students.

The Salvation Army has received extra assistance--in the form of a $3,000 grant from Best Buy--to help purchase some extra science calculators for high-school students.

"We'll loan some of these calculators out to high-school kids enrolled in the upper-division math courses with a referral from a school counselor; they can get one loaned out for the semester or the whole year," Young said. "It's very difficult to do the homework for those classes if students don't have a scientific calculator, and these calculators are around $150 each."

Young pointed out that scientific calculators aren't items students need forever, so they can be passed on to help other students the next year.

"Right now, we have 35 calculators; we're starting small, but if it's a success, we may go back and try to expand the program," she said.

As for the backpack distribution set for later this month at the Salvation Army's Family Service Office on State Street, Young is keeping her fingers crossed. If tradition holds, the supplies will run out long before the requests do.

Meanwhile, 6-year-old Aubrey should be equipped with her own new backpack, crayons and paper when she joins her new schoolmates on the first day of class, Tuesday, Aug. 27. She just can't wait.