A helping hand with school supplies

Demand high for assistance, local giveaway programs show

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter



Growing poverty in school districts

Percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch in the three largest districts in Clark County.

• Battle Ground

2006-2007: 26.7 percent

2012-2013: 38.4 percent

Increase: 43.8 percent

• Evergreen

2006-2007: 34.4 percent

2012-2013: 47.2 percent

Increase: 37.2 percent

• Vancouver

2006-2007: 43.5 percent

2012-2013: 53 percent

Increase: 21.8 percent

SOURCE: State Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction

How to help

Donate new school supplies, backpacks or cash.

• Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools: 360-313-4730, www.foundationforvps.org.

• Evergreen School District Foundation: 360-604-4022, www.evergreenschooldistrictfoundation.com.

• Battle Ground Public Schools’ Learning Support Programs Office: Donate new school supplies or backpacks only, but not cash. 360-885-5434.

About 2,100 Vancouver Public Schools students and their families stood in 90-degree heat Wednesday at the prospect of receiving new backpacks stuffed with school supplies. Inside the Boys & Girls Club, 600 backpacks waited for their owners.

It wasn't enough.

Although the giveaway event didn't begin until 1 p.m., families started lining up at 8 a.m. By 11 a.m., the line snaked out to the parking lot.

"It was phenomenal," Pat Roe, the district's family community engagement coordinator, said about the inaugural Go Ready! Back-to-School-Readiness Festival. "Unfortunately, we only had supplies for a third to one half of those people. We are still asking our community if they can donate, please help. All of our Clark County schools need help."

That scenario was similar to recent events at Evergreen Public Schools this week and in Battle Ground Aug. 22.

Back-to-school expenses can drain a family's resources quickly. Most schools provide detailed grade-level lists of school supplies families are asked to purchase. Then add a backpack to hold it all. Over the summer, many students have outgrown their shoes and clothing. All of those expenses add up as the first day of school approaches.

Families with school-age children planned to spend an average of $634.78 on back-to-school shopping in 2013, according to a study by the National Retail Federation.

As poverty rates continue to rise in Clark County school districts, more families need a hand. A reliable indicator of growing poverty is the percentage of students whose families qualify for free or reduced price school lunches. Of the three largest school districts in the county, Battle Ground has the smallest student enrollment and the lowest percentage of students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch. Yet its poverty rate has increased the most, by 43.8 percent, since the recession began.

Evergreen Public Schools, with the county's largest student enrollment, saw its poverty rate increase by 37.2 percent during that same period. Vancouver Public Schools' poverty rate increased 21.8 percent.

Growing need

Vancouver's event was produced with the help of the Foundation for Vancouver Public Schools and many donors.

"They were willing to stand there for two to three hours at a time. That tells you what the need is," Roe said.

It was the fourth-annual Stuff the Bus school supply drive for Evergreen Public Schools. Over two distribution days, 320 backpacks with school supplies were given to students in need. The foundation also puts together backpacks of school supplies and delivers them to school counselors, said Rebecca Basuf, executive assistant of the foundation.

"We're probably double of what the need was last year," Basuf said by phone from an office supply store where she was purchasing another $1,300 in school supplies. "We ran out and needed to replenish before school starts."

Overwhelming support

Seven years ago, as the nation headed into a recession, an increasing number of families began asking for help in purchasing school supplies, said Lydia Sanders, homeless intervention coordinator at Battle Ground Public Schools. Sanders worked with the North County Community Food Bank and Adventist Community Services Food Bank to create an event to distribute free school supplies to families before school started.

That event has grown to include free immunizations and gently used clothing. This year, the event expanded to invite low-income students from neighboring districts. Families preregister so that organizers can plan. This year's North County School Readiness Day at Battle Ground High School served 1,020 students. In addition to backpacks bulging with school supplies, organizers gave away 825 pieces of clothing and 184 pairs of shoes, and 24 students received free immunizations.

"We didn't have to turn anybody away," Sanders said. "The support in the community is overwhelming."

Thursday morning a business donated bags of new school supplies.

"It's always so exciting to see the kids' smiles on their faces when they walk out with new shoes or a new backpack," Roe, of Vancouver Public Schools, said.