School is Back in Session: Here’s Our Assignment

The back-to-school ads start showing up in July and August — with beautiful folders, crisp lined white paper, the latest have-to-have sneakers. Like many parents, for years, taking my two sons shopping for their school supplies has helped mark their transition from one grade to the next.

But for millions of kids, back to school isn’t about a new backpack or a new pair of shoes.

“Sometimes I’ve had families who have to choose between school supplies or food,” said Sean Bellamy, an elementary school teacher in Washington, D.C.

So at the beginning of the year, Sean provides each student with identical school supplies. “In order for us to run the same race, we have to have the same start. I just believe that equity starts at the beginning and not at the end. We don’t average up at the end. We make sure that everybody has the same starting line.”

Like so many teachers across the country, Sean goes above-and-beyond, spending his personal funds to provide school supplies for the kids in his classroom whose families can’t afford them. Throughout the country there are teachers like Sean, single-handedly subsidizing our educational system to try to create a more equitable starting line for their students. It is an impossible — and unsustainable — situation.

And teachers like Sean don’t just purchase books and school supplies: they help meet kids’ basic needs. With 22% of U.S. working families with children considered low-income — trying to survive on $48,678 or less for two adults and two children –sometimes even the basics are out of reach. We hear this from teachers across the country: in inner cities, the suburbs, and rural areas. Some teachers are purchasing essentials for their students, like deodorant, socks, toothbrushes, soap, and snacks.

Stephanie Hawkins is a District Food Service Manager in rural Iowa. “I’m the lunch lady, so I knew the kids that came in in the morning that hadn’t eaten since lunch the day before. We talk about barriers to education. If you’re hungry, how engaged are you in what you’re doing?”

Last year, Highlands Elementary School in Wilmington, Delaware, went so far as to convert a storage room into a closet full of basic needs items provided by First Book, the organization I lead, with socks, snacks, coats, combs, and whatever else kids might need for the first day of school. These things aren’t on back-to-school supply lists, but they are the kinds of things students need. Local barbers and hairdressers also volunteer their time at the beginning of the year to come in and provide free haircuts and braiding. It makes a difference, said Assistant Principal Equetta Jones.

Assistant Principal Equetta Jones at Highlands Elementary School in Delaware.

Instead of being embarrassed and acting out, “their focus is now on coming in and being the best student they can be,” Jones said.

In addition to basic needs items, educators are also asking for resources that help them better support their students experiencing emotional trauma and chronic stress. With so many students coming from impoverished families, teachers find their classrooms filled with anxiety, trauma, and related social and emotional issues — but they are rarely given the tools to handle it.

In this environment, there is no question that providing an equitable, quality education is a complex issue — and we cannot wait for government to provide the solution. An astonishing 29 states spend less per student than before the recession. Indeed, currently, there are lawsuits in more than half a dozen states asserting that those states are violating their constitutions by denying children an equal quality education.

Right now, educators are doing all they can. They have high hopes for the children they serve — but they can’t do it alone.

As kids and educators start a new year, we have an assignment: We must step up and be part of a child’s success:

  1. Learn more about your school district and its needs;
  2. Contribute to organizations that provide resources for educators;
  3. If you know a teacher, ask them how you can be a champion for them and their kids;
  4. Volunteer at a school, especially in less affluent neighborhoods;
  5. Together, we can ensure that every child gets a great start.

As lunch lady Stephanie Hawkins says, “It’s people who care about kids. And there’s people who care about kids in every community.”

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