Q: Our local service club is assembling backpacks with school supplies for students in our community's poorest schools. We've purchased generic supplies only to learn that many teachers compile specific lists with brand-name items. Isn't it better for a child to have a "no-name" notebook rather than no notebook at all? Why does a child need a certain brand of glue stick?
A: Kudos to your club for undertaking this wonderful effort. Every child deserves to start school with a backpack full of fresh supplies that support the work of the year ahead.
Is it important to follow teacher lists to the letter? It's not critical, but try if you can. If you're filling a pack for a specific student identified by the school counselor, you'll know the child's grade and teacher and can match the backpack to that child's needs. If not, look for general grade-level guidance from the schools you're serving. (For typical lists or to search for individual teachers' lists, go TeacherLists.com.)
Teacher-approved lists may seem picky, but they serve a purpose, says Tim Sullivan, the founder and president of PTOToday.com.
"By sticking to the list, you won't end up with things a child doesn't need," he explains. "When it comes to brands, teachers often have good reasons. For example, one type of notebook with sections and pockets might better suit the way a teacher organizes workflow. Or teachers might put supplies in a shared bucket for all the kids, so having one brand eliminates dustups between the kids over who gets what."
Forgo notebooks, pencils and backpacks with television, video game or movie characters. Many schools discourage them, plus kids outgrow themed supplies. That "Minions" backpack may not be so trendy come springtime.
Class supply lists, once limited to pencils, erasers and the like, now include hygiene items such as disinfecting wipes and hand sanitizer.
"Tissues and paper towels are among the top five most requested back-to-school items," says Sullivan.
Activity fees are another school expense that has increased over the years. Since the Great Recession, many schools have asked parents to pony up for sports, field trips, after-school clubs -- even science lab courses and Advanced Placement tests. Approximately two-thirds of middle and high school students pay a fee to participate in school sports, according to a University of Michigan study.
The National Retail Federation projects that the average family with kids in grades K-12 will spend roughly $220 on new clothes, more than $100 on new shoes and just under $100 on school supplies during the back-to-school shopping season. If electronic devices are required, parents will shell out another $200.
For poor families, back-to-school shopping can present a real hardship, says Sullivan, which is why your club's project is so laudable.
"Not only will parents and kids appreciate your donations, teachers will too," he says. "Each year, teachers spend an average of $500 of their own money on their class. The less they spend buying notebooks, the more they can devote to children's books, games and art supplies that increase engagement and motivation."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)