It’s a week of setting classroom expectations and learning new names for teachers across the state this week, as they welcome students back to a new school year. For many, it’s also a week of troubleshooting school supply shortages. Not all families can afford to splurge on back-to-school shopping. And, despite a number of local charitable efforts, not all have accessed free backpacks filled with school supplies ahead of the school year.
To help address this resource gap, Kids In Need Minnesota operates a school supply store out of a warehouse in Roseville that’s filled with donated supplies.
Teachers serving schools with high levels of poverty — in which at least 70 percent of the student population qualifies for free-and-reduced-price lunch — are invited to come and stock up on all of the essentials.
Wednesday afternoon, the store opened its doors to its first wave of teachers shopping for the 2019-2020 school year. Pushing carts up and down aisles filled with glue sticks, tag board, scissors and notebooks, the teachers kept tally on an inventory list. Each has 100 points to “spend,” with different values ascribed to items in each aisle.
“For me, it’s really about making sure we have basic materials,” said Amy Strickland Johnson, a health and wellness teacher at Anne Sullivan School in Minneapolis.
During the course of her 28-year career as an educator, she says she’s spent thousands of dollars out of pocket on classroom supplies. So having the opportunity to stock up on the basics for her students and her classroom at no personal cost comes as a welcome relief.
“Oh my gosh, Sharpies — super exciting!” she said, tossing a package into her cart next to her other great find: yarn.
She’ll use it to hang name pennants her students have already begun making from the classroom ceiling.
“I see everyone in the building, so there will be a lot of pennants by the end of the year,” she said.
Her colleague, Kathy Dawson, a physical education and health teacher of 25 years, had a shorter wish list: mostly pencils and notebooks for students to participate in her class. Then she stocked up on a variety of extra items to give to her school’s social workers to distribute to students as needed.
Nearby, three teachers from Hmong International Academy, another school in the Minneapolis Public Schools district, cruised the aisles.
They do send a list of suggested school supplies home with students, says Toufe Yang, who teaches Hmong studies to middle-schoolers. But he knows the supplies he picks up today will make up the bulk of the supplies many of his students have access to this year.
“If you’re gonna have 25 students, you get 25 notebooks ahead of time,” he said.
Filling a persistent need
Taking inventory of qualifying schools, Jeff Dahlman, executive director of Kids In Need Minnesota, says more than 250 schools across the state are eligible to use the school supply program this school year.
“We know it’s right around 15 percent of Minnesota children live at or below the poverty line,” he said. “We know that school supplies simply are not a priority in their lives. That’s why we try to provide this opportunity for teachers to get what they need for their classroom.”
He estimates that the cost of items on school supply lists ranges anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars, depending on the school, the grade level and specific course or activity supplies like lab and sports equipment.
“Even if the minimal list is around $50 and you’re getting it this time of year, when all of the supplies are on special, that’s still a lot of money for a family where school supplies are not a necessity of life, they’re a necessity of learning,” he said.
Last year, the resource center outfitted teachers with roughly $1.7 million in school supplies, says Dale Walton, the center’s manager. From year to year, the needs remain fairly consistent: notebooks, backpacks, glue, scissors, markers, pencils. But he says, more recently, school budget cuts have driven up the demand for other basic supplies.
“The one item that does kind of surprise me — and it’s one of our biggest items here — is copy paper,” he said.
Local businesses donate all of the store’s inventory. Qualifying teachers are invited to shop once in the fall, and again in the spring, with a shopping guideline meant to ensure they get roughly $450 in supplies each visit.
Expanded its reach outside metro
This past spring, the nonprofit expanded its reach by sending pre-packaged boxes of donated school supplies to teachers farther outside of the metro area.
We know of 55 qualifying schools, says Maia Johnson, program support specialist for the nonprofit. Of those, about 30 schools are already slated to get supply shipments this fall.
Certain bonus finds, however, await those who are able to visit the resource center in person.
For Anna Newcombe, a secondary English language arts teacher at an area learning center in the St. Paul Public Schools district, coming across a row of printers in the resource center seemed too good to be true.
Her students at Gateway to College are all taking college courses as they complete high school. But the vast majority can’t afford school supplies — let alone other basic necessities that impact their ability to focus on school.
Stopping by a stash of toothbrushes and toothpaste, Newcombe grabbed a few off the shelf to add to the fleece blankets she’d snagged earlier.
“We just figure kids will come with what they can and we’ll supply the rest,” she said. “Any obstacle to them not feeling good about being in our building, we try to eliminate.”