Depending on where students attend school, St. Louis area families can spend anywhere from $10 to $110 and more this time of year for back-to-school classroom supplies.
Nationwide, school supplies average about $114, according to a National Retail Foundation survey of shoppers.
An informal review of third-grade school supply lists from St. Louis and St. Louis County public schools shows a significant range in how much schools ask families to buy. Jennings seeks just $8.35 worth of crayons, folders, notebooks, a pencil bag, pencils and paper. The amount can go as high as $106.09, which is the value of items Flynn Park Elementary in University City asks for.
Some of the items requested by St. Louis area schools include party money, Ziploc bags, copier paper, headphones, hand sanitizer, Post-It notes and candy for classroom incentives.
But not all families can afford these items. Some schools may have community nonprofit or PTA funds to help. In many cases, the burden falls on teachers to dip into their own pockets.
In Audrey Peet’s first year as a teacher at Walbridge Elementary in St. Louis, she spent more than $1,000 of her own money on supplies and incentives for her students.
The second-grade teacher said she was given $300 at the beginning of last school year for supplies. But it dried up quickly.
Peet said many of her students’ families can’t afford school supplies, so she ends up buying them for the classroom. She says she can never have enough pencils and paper.
“We don’t even get tissues, so we get toilet paper from the bathroom,” Peet said.
Peet also spent her own money on math books, curtains and decorations for bulletin boards. She spent a lot on incentives such as ice cream and nachos for “Fun Fridays” to encourage students to behave in class and come to school, a common practice in schools that have high rates of student trauma.
“We have to rely on rewards, big time,” she said.
Out of pocket
To a varying degree, teachers pitch in at schools nationwide. A 2015 national poll by nonprofit Communities in Schools found that 91 percent of teachers paid out of their own pocket for school supplies. Another 2013 survey by Horace Mann Market Research found that more than half of teachers spent upward of $200 in a school year on supplies, and just 2 percent spent none of their own money.
If you don’t believe teachers can spend hundreds of their own dollars a month on school supplies, take a visit to KidSmart, a 15-year-old nonprofit organization housed in a Bridgeton warehouse.
KidSmart offers hundreds of thousands of free school supplies to teachers at high-poverty schools, from basic items such as paper, pencils, crayons and glue sticks to bonus items such as toilet paper, lesson books, planners, young adult novels and chocolate candies.
The average teacher who visits KidSmart takes $700 worth of free supplies every month, said Elke Buckland, director of philanthropy for KidSmart. Some teachers take up to $1,000.
Buckland said the high dollar amounts mean teachers are not being equipped with the supplies they need, but they don’t want to ask for supplies from families they know are struggling to pay the bills.
“They know the families are concerned with having a roof over their head,” Buckland said.
Not only are teachers in high-poverty schools more likely to be shouldering their students’ school supply costs, but they are also more likely to struggle to pay for them. The beginning 2016-2017 St. Louis public school teacher’s salary was about $39,000.
Many area public school systems lack policies about how much of a school’s budget should be spent on supplies. Some teachers who use KidSmart report getting a few hundred dollars at the beginning of the school year for supplies. Some get no money at all. Some schools provide pencils and paper, but teachers say it’s never enough.
Maria Medina, a second-grade teacher at Pamoja Preparatory Academy, said her school no longer provides her money for supplies. She spends $300 to $500 of her own money each year on supplies.
She said the school provides about half a dozen pencils for each of her students at the beginning of the school year. A lot of those supplies end up going home with students.
“They don’t have anything at home to do their homework with,” she said.
St. Louis Superintendent Kelvin Adams said the district provides many free supplies for students. Last week, the district held its annual back-to-school festival, where it provided 8,000 free backpacks filled with supplies to students. Adams said schools also have nonprofit partners, such as churches, that provide supplies as well.
“We do have multiple sources of help to students,” Adams said. “I would doubt if there’s any struggle around getting paper and pencils.”
Adams said that how much teachers think they need and what children actually need may not always be the same.
“Teachers always believe they need more supplies,” Adams said.
But nonprofit groups indicate that teacher demand for free supplies is still great.
When KidSmart opened in 2002, the free store served 5,000 students in 14 schools. Teachers could only take a handful of pencils and few pieces of paper. KidSmart now provides supplies to more than 3,000 teachers in 150 schools, reaching about 68,000 students in the metro area.
KidSmart is available only to teachers at schools where at least 70 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, a measure of poverty.
Even though KidSmart expanded its program this year to about 40 more schools, at least 50 more eligible schools are on the waiting list.
“We’re at capacity in space and funding,” Buckland said.
Another source of funding for teachers is DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit crowdfunding website that teachers use to provide supplies, equipment, field trips and more for their students.
About 580 teachers in 211 St. Louis and St. Louis County schools raised more than $587,000 on DonorsChoose last school year, according to the website. Statewide, about 2,400 teachers raised $2.2 million.
Teachers say having supplies donated to them doesn’t just help their students learn.
“It makes us feel appreciated,” said Marie Butler, a teacher at Roosevelt High School.