The weeks leading up to the start of school often set off a scramble in kids and parents as they calculate how to get the most out of their waning summer days and spend as little as possible on school supplies.
Parents like Les Hardy used to pour about $300 throughout the school year into supplies for his older son, now in 11th grade at Sierra High School in Colorado Springs, much of it on necessities like pencils, composition notebooks and backpacks in the fall. He said the long list of supplies he had to round up was “a burden” for his family as he had to race from store to store to find all the materials his son needed and also budget for them.
But the frantic season of plowing a shopping cart through crowded aisles in search of new sets of colorful folders and dry erase markers no longer strains the time or budget of Hardy and thousands of other parents in Colorado Springs, where two districts cover the ever-rising costs of back-to-school shopping. Harrison School District 2 allocates between $6,000 and $10,000 every year primarily with Title I funding — designated for schools that serve a significant number of students living in poverty — to each of its 20 schools for school supplies. All students receive free school supplies, though some high school students occasionally need to purchase materials for a specific class.
About 6 miles away, Colorado Springs School District 11 also fronts the cost of school supplies for about 20,000 students in grades K-8, with $175,000 earmarked annually in the district’s general fund.
The two districts have prioritized footing the bill for school supplies at a time many families across the country, overwhelmed by inflation, continue to reach deeper into their pockets to prepare their kids for another school year. But experts disagree on whether families are spending more this school year, USA Today reported. Consulting firm Deloitte estimated that families are spending an average of $597 per child this school year, compared to $661 last year, while the National Retail Federation anticipated that families with kids in elementary through high school would spend a total of $25 more than last year, doling out a record average of $890.07 on back-to-school shopping lists.
“Our parents and our families have a lot of challenges financially, and so what can we do as a district to take that burden off?” Harrison School District 2 Superintendent Wendy Birhanzel said. “We know they care so much about their education, and so we want to provide the supplies so all of our students have what they need to access quality learning.”
Birhanzel has spent between $200 and $300 on each of her own kids in a single school year, and with all of the schools in Harrison School District 2 catering to kids from low-income families, she wants to equip them with everything they need to excel in classes.
“If my own kids have it, then I think all of our students should have it, too,” Birhanzel said. “And I know that everyone wants our kids to do the best they can, and if this helps them access learning and feel like they’re part of a class, an important voice in our classroom, then we’re going to do whatever we can to make them feel successful.”
The district, which educates close to 8,900 students across its district-managed schools, has shouldered the costs of school supplies for at least five years, gifting students everything from headphones and earbuds to plug into laptops, pencils, crayons, binders, flash drives and even backpacks for kids who need one. Additionally, every student gets a laptop or device to use in their classes.
Families can focus on taking care of their children and helping them learn rather than worrying about how they’re going to afford school supplies or manage their living expenses, said Birhanzel. More than half the families in her district qualify for free and reduced price lunches, a federal indicator of poverty.
Colorado Springs School District 11 began paying for school supplies for students in 2017, when the percentage of kids qualifying for free and reduced lunch nearly doubled to about 60% from 35% a decade before, district spokesperson Devra Ashby said. Last year, more than 56% of students in the district were eligible for free and reduced lunch, according to state data.
Every student in kindergarten through eighth grade gets a school supply kit, including pencils, erasers, spiral and composition notebooks, washable markers, crayons, highlighters, glue sticks and index cards. Families may have to purchase extra supplies, such as zip-lock bags and boxes of tissue, but the majority of supplies come from the district, which also provides all students a device.
“If kids can come and all be on the same leveled field, they have an advantage so that they can be successful long term,” Ashby said. “And if kids are coming to school from higher, more affluent families with everything that they can have at their fingertips whereas some students are coming to school with barely shoes on their feet, that’s an unfair advantage. So any way that we can level the playing field and make more equitable education happen for our students, it’s going to benefit our students in the long run.”
Lois Poulson-Fowler, who teaches third graders and gifted students at Wildflower Elementary School in Harrison School District 2, said beyond saving families money and stress, free school supplies in her classes have created a sense of inclusion among students.
“It takes the stress away of the students in feeling like they have to have the same thing as everyone else,” Poulson-Fowler said. “Oftentimes when parents can’t get the same things, then sometimes it makes other students feel inferior.”
And students in her class and Ann Merwede’s class at Centennial Elementary School are better able to focus on their work, not distracted by whether they have what they need for class.
“There’s no longer an excuse (that) you don’t have the resources you need to be successful,” said Merwede, who teaches science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.
Merwede and her students have used supplies from the district to learn and stretch their creativity. Her third graders, for instance, have built spinning tops and attempted to keep them in motion for 15 seconds.
Hardy, the father of two boys, now eases into a new school year without having to rush around to check off a new list of school supplies.
“For the most part,” he said, “it takes a lot of stress off of me as a dad.”
Hardy, who is a youth minister, has felt the pinch of inflation. Saving hundreds of dollars on school supplies has allowed him to divert that money toward critical bills, he said.
“No matter how much money you make as a parent,” Hardy said, “nothing can substitute for your children being able to get free school supplies.”