Back-to-school shopping causes headaches for some parents

IDAHO FALLS, Idaho — Five-year-old Abeni Jones can hardly wait to go back to school.

“[I’m most excited about] learning new stuff and…having new…friends,” Abeni Jones, an incoming first grader at Ammon Elementary School, told KID NewsRadio.

Among her favorite school activities, besides the academics of course, is recess.

“[My favorite part about school is] learning and playing on the playground,” Abeni exclaimed as she jumped up and down in her living room. “I love playing on the playground. You do not how good this feels!”

But, for Abeni’s mom Kristen Jones, going back to school takes on an added layer of emotion. As school supply lists line many local stores and businesses advertise sales on school supplies, Kristen Jones see a growing total price tag to send Abeni back to the classroom.

“For kindergarten, I didn’t feel like it was too bad,” Kristen Jones told KID NewsRadio. “There were some things that were a little extra and there are some things that were very specific, but she used it all. But, now that we’re going into first grade the list is four times what we had to buy for kindergarten, and I mean I was expecting maybe double because she’s there twice as long. But, it’s huge.”

Jones, who has a degree in English education from the University of Utah, said she looks at back-to-school shopping differently than most given her experience both as an educator and now, as a parent. When it comes to teacher’s requests for higher quality and sometimes more costly brands of supplies, Jones said it’s the unknown reasons behind the requests that cause some of her frustration.

“On one hand I can see the teachers perspective of, if you buy quality stuff, it will last a lot longer,” Jones said. “On the other hand, we’ve got to save money. This is a lot of stuff.”

The sentiment is one a local teacher, who wished to remain anonymous, hears from parents often. After over two decades as an educator, she said understands the frustration many parents have when school supply lists come out. But, she added, the lists and sometimes the specific brand requests, have a purpose.

“So, it’s just a different caliber of the product,” she said. “One’s not worse than the other. It’s like the difference in the pencils. If you get the regular, whatever kind of pencil…if they’re cheaply made, they don’t last as long…When [teachers request] glue sticks and you give a brand, there’s a reason.”

Quality matters with supplies like plastic sandwich bags and pencils, especially in providing the best learning experience, she said. Pencils, for example, pose a potential to frustrate students, especially those in younger grades.

“Pencils are a big thing that they’re not all equal,” she said. “The Ticonderoga [brand] are my favorite. They are the ones that will last the longest, but they’re a little more spendy. The cheap ones, the kids get frustrated because the erasers don’t work and the pencil lead breaks and so we go through them actually quicker with a higher frustration rate then if we just had a certain amount or a certain kind.”

Low quality school supplies and the frustration that accompanies that is a situation Jones understands since she’s seen it in the classroom herself. But, Jones also said she thinks it’s important teachers explain how cheaper, less quality brands impacts the student.

“I can understand,” Jones said. “Rose Art crayons are not as good as say, Crayola, they’re just not.It would be hard as a student to have to work twice as hard or have your colors not be as good, just because you’ve got the lesser quality.”

But, Jones also said it’s important teachers explain why they may be requesting high volumes of supplies, especially in situations where students used far fewer supplies in their previous classrooms.

“[Abeni’s] school is requesting five boxes of at least 24, but preferably 48-count crayons,” Jones said. “Why does she need five boxes of crayons? Are we going just be dumping all the crayons into one bucket? Are they going to be doing some sort of crayon art project? I would prefer to have that put out in front of everything.”

Some schools, like Falls Valley Elementary in Bonneville School District 93, can soften the blow to parents overwhelmed by their student’s lists. This year, Falls Valley Elementary chose to purchase commonly used school supplies in bulk for teachers, and asked for parents to donate supplies that normally run out quickly.

Not every school has that option though and for those with lower-income students or parents who refuse to purchase school supplies as a matter of principle, teachers take the brunt of the missing supplies.

“I’ve noticed that there are often times families, for various reasons, can’t,” a local teacher said. “I’ve seen families embarrassed that they can’t do it…or [some parents] simply just say, ‘Nope, this is school and school’s supposed to be free and, so I’m bringing my kid to school and you get to provide everything.’ Last year [I had] probably about four or five that came with no supplies, they were lucky to have a backpack. So, I just provided their stuff.”

While some teachers happily and quietly fill those needs, Jones said it’s not a responsibility teachers should have to take on when there are others who would willingly donate if given the opportunity.

Practicing open communication, Jones said, is one way both parents and teachers could resolve frustration when it comes to the back-to-school bill. By providing parents with better information on why certain amounts or brands of supplies are requested, allows parents who have the means to donate to send their child with some extra supplies for those in need.

As for parents who may worry about their ability to provide every item of their child’s list, Jones said teachers are often very understanding and willing to work with parents who may need to bring in supplies as they can afford them .

“Teachers are not the bad guy, they’re willing to work with you,” Jones said. “Teachers want to know that the parents are willing to support the children and support their efforts educating the children, and teaching them throughout the year while parents want to know that all the stuff they’re buying for their kid is going to be used for their kid or just be told, ‘Hey, I can’t guarantee all this is going to be is for your kid, but will you still donate anyway.’”

One local teacher said she believes teachers have the best interest of their students at heart, even if that message doesn’t come across in the brand-specific glue or the requested amount of No. 2 Ticonderoga pencils.

“I think teachers are always preparing and trying to prepare the best learning environment for the students, all of them,” she said. “If there’s support in that measure, it makes it a whole lot easier to say, ‘Oh, we’ve got this [supply], we can do this project…because we’ve got all the tools that we need to teach and practice the skills.”

As for Jones and her daughter, the potential stress of back-to-school shopping doesn’t overwhelm the excitement both feel as Abeni prepares to enter first grade. In fact, Abeni had a special message for her first grade teacher.

“Hi, teacher,” Abeni said. “I love you. Hugs!”