School supplies, an annual ritual


Tree leaves may change color from green to gold and the air may feel cooler, but there is no signal more definitive for the onset of fall than the annual family ritual of shopping for school supplies.

Curious about average costs of equipping a student with the tools for learning, I set out Wednesday to get a rough estimate using the Anchorage School District’s generic lists available for elementary- and middle school-aged students.

My adult daughter helped with the unscientific shopping spree. She shopped at Fred Meyer. I shopped at Wal-Mart. Then, we compared notes.

At the elementary level, for upper grades, we found it would cost $15-$20 to get a kid set up, not including shoes, backpack or lunch bags.

At the middle school level, we came in at just under $40, not including gym clothing or the suggested reference supplies for home like a dictionary, thesaurus, world atlas and map of Alaska.

The aisles were busy with parents and kids looping their way through the maze of choices between color, quantity and brand. Eyes glued to shopping lists, we joined other families racing around in this inglorious school-year version of NASCAR.

“Do you know where the compasses are?” one woman asked me, killing my hopes of checking out with all of the items crossed off my list.

“No. I was just about to ask you the same thing,” I answered.

I’d zoomed up and down the aisles two or three times, eyes scanning like the Terminator, trying to find compasses. And protractors. And white glue.

Maybe if I had just made one more loop they’d have magically appeared on shelves in logical spots. It wasn’t to be.

I finally broke down and asked an employee for help, only to learn that Wal-Mart had run out of compasses, protractors and four-ounce bottles of white glue.

The same woman who’d asked me if I knew where the compasses were was lamenting not having purchased the school packets online through the store’s website, which had everything nicely bundled and seemingly at a good price.

Who are the people that are organized enough to do that? And where are they? The world needs them.

My daughter and I shopped swiftly and with an eye for getting what was on the list for the lowest price. No doubt some families will spend more per child. Others will spend less.

This, in spite of the reality that there’s only so much preparation a family can do in advance. Many teachers hand out their own lists once school begins. The lists are likely to overlap with the district’s generic lists but may include different items.

For families who need help getting their kids ready for school, a few options for assistance remain, even though most of the large free giveaways are over. (Help Us Give School Supplies, a nonprofit event now in its 17th year, took place on Tuesday.)

Families who are not in permanent housing — anyone who’s couch surfing or staying in a hotel or camping — may qualify for assistance through the district’s Child in Transition Program.

For everyone else — families who are in stable housing but are struggling to make ends meet — the School District recommends speaking with your child’s school or your child’s teacher. Schools will be aware of smaller donation efforts. Also, schools that meet federal poverty guidelines also receive federal funding to help bridge the needs gap, said Heidi Embley with the Anchorage School District’s Communications Department.

School supplies are “recommended but not required,” Embley said, and the goal is to get every student off to a good start.

“The school is not going to give (a student in need of supplies) a bucket load of supplies, but they are going to work around the need so the student is prepared in the classroom,” Embley said.

Jill Burke

Jill Burke is a former writer and columnist for Alaska Dispatch News.