Students, staff brace for first day

Disparity of wealth may be a little less visible and educational opportunity may be a little more equal across the rows of children seated in area classrooms thanks to charitable efforts.

Blair County’s United Way has led a communitywide school supply collection to meet an increasing need among parents struggling to equip their children for the first day of school.

“Each year we’ve really grown, because the need has grown. But the nice part of it is that the community has responded to that need,” United Way of Blair County project coordinator Denise Adams said.

Those turning to the charity has steadily grown over past years. In 2011, 434 children in the county were supplied; last year’s effort helped 600 children; and this year 747 students will begin school with supplies provided by the communitywide effort.

Need for school supplies has grown possibly because funding losses may have resulted in school districts providing fewer supplies to teachers and students.

“‘Last year they [the school district] provided all this stuff,’ one mother told me. She was a little scared about her child not having the supplies to start school this year,” Adams said.

Lucy Harlow, Pennsylvania State Education Association spokeswoman, said it’s not uncommon to see teachers from the central Pennsylvania region in stores purchasing, with their own money, materials for students that had previously been provided by their districts.

When she considers the state’s loss of almost almost a billion dollars of education funding in 2011, she’s not surprised by parents’ and teachers’ need to reach into their pockets for school supplies.

This year marks a third difficult financial year for schools since the 2011 loss of federal stimulus funds that had cushioned education in Pennsylvania for years. State budgets following that loss have come up short, in the opinion of some groups including the PSEA.

“I’ve been hearing it all over place in Central Pennsylvania. In some cases teachers are purchasing supplies themselves or sending letters home asking parents to help. You can only squeeze so much out of school district budgets,” she said.

Teachers nationwide reported spending about $149 of their own money on school supplies and $198 on instructional materials last school year, states a 2013 retail awareness study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association. Teachers’ spending in those areas increased by 10 percent compared with the association’s 2009-10 study.

Some parents are referred to the United Way’s trove of school supplies through the agency’s social services, but many parents have also called the United Way to be interviewed to get supplies for their children.

Paper, pencils, pencil boxes, notebooks and backpacks – about $15 in supplies is distributed per student, Adams said.

A majority of the students helped this year are from Altoona Area, she said, but students from all over the county received supplies from the effort.

“We have at least one student from every school district in the county. We have a lot from Hollidaysburg and the Cove area,” she said.

Area businesses, agencies and clubs began collecting supplies for the United Way at the start of July. Distribution ended within the first two weeks of August. Only a few notebooks remain to be distributed to children, Adams said.

Two contributors to the charity work all year to collect supplies.

Each payday, CONTACT Altoona Helpline Coordinator Thelma “TKay” Gressley and her sister, Melissa Daugherty, can be found at Five Below in the Logan Town Centre, picking out a few durable and stylish $5 backpacks. CONTACT Altoona employees purchased more than 100 backpacks for the United Way this year.

“We all fall on hard times. It’s nice to help children go to school with a new backpack. And they can take a sense of pride that it’s new. It’s not ripped. It’s not used from the neighbor next-door,” Gressley said. “That’s the whole point of why I do it. “