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Erin Haag: How can we live united in the area with school supplies?

Living United by Erin Haag

There’s a popular video going around of a teacher explaining why she asks for very specific items. She uses the example of her supply list item of “Crayola 16 pack of crayons.”

Erin Haag

The teacher goes on to say you can get that 16-pack for $2.99, but most parents complain that it’s too hard to find and it’s cheaper to buy the 24-pack of Crayola, which is around 50 cents. Parents assume that “more is better” and just grab the 24-pack.

She then explains why it’s important to her to have the 16-pack and not 24. The 16-pack is more appropriate for kindergarteners learning their colors, instead of having multiple shades that look similar but when you color they’re different. This leads to frustration and confusion in the classroom, which is not what you what to spend your time focusing on.

I get it. I truly do get it. After all, I taught in early childhood classrooms for several years before going back to get my social work degree. I can’t stand the Crazy Art brand, and wood pencils are a thousand times better than those fun plastic printed ones. Any educator can tell you that low quality supplies can be worse than no supplies at all.

I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with supply lists. I passionately want to support our teachers, provide them with what they need and prefer for their classrooms. I’m awful at Christmas gifts, I’m awful at teacher appreciation week, but by golly, I’ve got the supplies down. At the beginning of the year, mid-way through the year for a little refresher, I’m the one that you want to call when you have a broken pencil sharpener. Chances are, I found one on sale six months ago, and I’ve been hoarding it in my basement. I’m passionate about this, because I’m hyper aware that some families struggle to buy a pack of crayons at 50 cents. Some families don’t know how to access the resources to find school supplies or ask for help. Sometimes, there’s not enough supplies to go around. And sometimes I wonder: What if we could change the game? Sure, families could try to scrape together the money to pay $2.99. For 50 families, the approximate equivalent of two classrooms that’s $149.50. Or, we could come up with a plan to raise money, sponsor a classroom or even charge families a sliding scale fee and buy the supplies in bulk. Currently a 50 set of 16 colors is $58.99 on Amazon. Yes, it’s the Crayola brand.

Even if families paid for it, it’s a cost savings. Fifty families that can afford $2.99 saving over a dollar on their school supplies? What if they took that dollar saved and put them together? That’s another $50 that could be another almost two classrooms.

(Let’s not talk about classroom sizes today, OK? That’s a whole other rabbit hole).

I want to be clear here though. I don’t believe it’s the teacher’s responsibility to organize such a system. We all know that teachers have too much to on their plate as it is. So whose job is it? I think it’s a dream fit for a strong parent teacher orientation to take on. Or even a service club. Or even — United Way. Except I’m tapped out at the moment for projects like this. Maybe someday we could tackle this.

So if I’m not going to tackle this project, then why am I writing about it? It’s more about awareness building. I’d like our community to consider why our teachers ask for specific things, and provide those if they’re able. If you’re buying school supplies to donate, then buy the brands requested, instead of buying the most bang for your buck. I get it, my little frugal heart wants to stretch the donation dollar a little further too but remember that low quality supply is almost as bad as no supplies.

I’d like our community to recognize that there could be solutions that go beyond just providing the needed school supply. There’s potential to change the game if we can start thinking outside the box and being creative with our solutions.

Before anyone gets all fired up, I’d like to make clear that the teacher was not a local teacher. The bulk supplies may not be a logistical solution for some of our classrooms, especially during COVID-19 guidelines. Before anyone attempts to change the game, there should be questions asked and some serious listening to those on the front lines — our teachers. My article is an analogy — not a specific situation that needs a specific call to action.

In the meantime, school supply lists are available on the district websites and at Walmart. Salvation Army is having its school supply distribution for grades K-7 with registration starting on Monday. To learn more or to register, call 507-373-5710. They gladly take donations to help fill that need. Social workers at each school would gladly take supplies as well. One school can use tennis shoes for their elementary kiddos. Can’t find a social worker? Not sure how to get to the school during summer hours? Call me. I’ve got half the social workers in my phone contacts, and I’m pretty sure Nikolle’s got the rest.

THAT’s your specific call to action. This is how we live United in the month of August, by gearing our children up for school.

Erin Haag is the executive director of the United Way of Freeborn County.