Metro Detroit pitches in for school supplies

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

It takes a village to provide school supplies in many Michigan districts.

School supply drives, private donations, teachers and parents are all pitching in to provide basic classroom necessities for Michigan’s 1.5 million students when they return to school in coming weeks.

While parents and more often teachers are the first in line to purchase the bulk of items needed, school supply drives have become more common in Detroit, Pontiac and Flint, where many children live in poverty and parents cannot afford the long list of needs for to school.

Churches, colleges and retiring teachers are pitching in to help the Pontiac School District, which struggles with student poverty and tight budgets.

The district partnered with nearby Rochester Schools where teachers this summer donated gently used and unused classroom materials to Pontiac teachers for the upcoming school year. Some retiring Rochester teachers donated books from their own classroom libraries, said Aimee McKeever, a teacher in Pontiac.

The faculty at Oakland Community College organized a collection of supplies for the Pontiac district that included hand sanitizer, wipes and tissues, which are just as common on school lists as pencils and notebooks. Kensington Church also donated cash and school supplies this year to the Oakland County district.

Then there is McKeever, who like other teachers in her district, spends an average of $200 to $250 to have the materials she needs on hand to do her job.

“Oh, yes. I have purchased spiral notebooks, glue, pencils, especially when I see them on sale. We try to hit the sales and take our family members in with us to buy for us,” McKeever said. “You are continually asking parents to send kids in with anything they can contribute, but in low-income areas there is a limit to what they can contribute.”

‘Shortage of funding’

The Michigan Education Association does not keep statistics on what teachers spend every year for their classrooms, but with cash-strapped school districts the need is acute, said David Crim, MEA spokesman.

“Each year teachers are dipping more and more into their pockets because of shortage of funding in districts,” Crim said.

For the first time this year, teachers in Detroit are getting “Teacher Totes” filled with basic supplies for their classrooms from a local law firm.

The Mike Morse Law Firm has sent thousands of backpacks to students at Detroit Public Schools Community District the last four years. Supplies for 3,000 teachers and “starter kits” with pencils, glue sticks, rulers, folders, crayons and markers for 6,000 preschool students were added.

Attorney Mike Morse said he has heard from families who say the supplies for kids add excitement, give an extra boost of confidence and help improve grades.

“Many teachers pay out of their own pockets to provide paper, pencils and other items. We set out to change that,” Morse said of the donations.

Shifting supply needs

While “suggestions” vary by school district and grade, school supply lists seem to grow every year. While glue sticks, crayons and composition books are standard in elementary school, kids in middle school are being asked to carry in USB drives, combination locks and scientific calculators.

This school year, the National Retail Federation expects parents to spend more than last year on school supplies, clothes and electronics. Some are ordering online and having the items delivered to school, skipping the traditional trip to retail stores.

“I did and it was the best thing ever,” said parent Amy Fetterhoff, whose two children attend Berkley Schools. “I didn’t have to worry about anything,”

The school supplies were ordered online and delivered right to school so her elementary-age son had them on the first day of class.

“The kids were bummed because it was mostly generic brand items but too bad. It makes it so much easier,” she said.

According to an annual survey by the National Retail Federation, families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average $687.72 each, for a total of $29.5 billion, an 8 percent increase from last year’s $27.3 billion.

That’s up $15 per family from last year, according to NRF’s annual Back-to-School and Back-to-College survey.

“Families are now in a state of mind where they feel a lot more confident about the economy,” NRF President/CEO Matthew Shay said. “With stronger employment levels and a continued increase in wages, consumers are spending more and we are optimistic that they will continue to do so throughout the rest of the year.”

According to the survey, parents say they will spend an average of $238.89 on clothing, $204.33 on electronics, $130.38 on shoes and $114.12 on school supplies.

For the first time, the survey asked consumers what types of electronics they plan to purchase. Among electronics shoppers, 45 percent said they would buy a laptop computer while more than a third plan to purchase a tablet (35 percent) or a calculator (35 percent).

Some retailers are trying to turn a family tradition on its head by offering online ordering of back-to-school supplies. Wal-Mart launched a dedicated back-to-school online destination at its website that allows customers to search by ZIP code to find school supply lists from local schools and order them online for pickup in the store.

But the annual lure of strolling store aisles with her children is too strong for Grosse Ile parent Mandy Mercer, who shopped for school supplies at the Walmart in Woodhaven in early August.

The mother of two elementary-aged children said she still enjoys making the trip with her children to hand pick their favorite colors of supplies. Mercer said she spends about $100 per child and doesn’t mind buying extra if the school asks.

“I feel like they ask for a lot. but I don’t mind. We don’t mind donating and spending on this,” she said.