Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites


A black hole of school supplies

Share

Parents wonder why they have to keep buying pencils and scissors for their students, and if we can save money, resources


PHOTO COURTESY: LIZ ERICKSON - Recovered school supplies line the hallway at Alameda Elementary School in Northeast Portland, waiting to be reused.If there's one time of year public school parents either love or hate, it's school supply shopping season.

Some cherish the ritual of taking their list down the aisle and hunting for bargains on pencils and dry-erase markers and notebooks.

Others despise it.

A group of Portland Public School parents have thought even more deeply about the school supply tradition, asking questions through a sustainability lens.

"Why do I buy scissors every year?" wonders Lori Kovacevic, parent of a freshman son at Franklin High School. "Where do they go? They don't get returned."

Celeste Lewis, parent of a sophomore at Lincoln High School, recalls seeing a large stash of excess chalk, crayons and other parent-purchased materials in a community supply room at Ainsworth School when her daughter was there several years ago.

"I was thinking, what are we doing asking for supplies?" she says.

Both Lewis and Kovacevic — along with two other parents who are certified "Agents of Change" by the nonprofit Portland Eco-School Network — thought other parents and teachers might share their concerns.

So they conducted an online survey to district parents and teachers, asking questions like: "How can schools reduce waste of supplies without compromising education?" and "Do you run out of supplies or have extra?"

They asked if schools had space to store surplus supplies, and for ideas teachers had to pool resources with one another.

They found a range of responses, which they are now culling for best practices. They have shared those with their fellow Eco-School Network members and are talking with leaders at the district and city Bureau of Planning and Sustainability.

The parents plan to do a follow-up survey this winter.

They're not trying to shake things up in one fell swoop. They just want to green up a system that has followed the status quo for a long time.

PHOTO COURTESY: LIZ ERICKSON - Tubs of recovered crayons wait to be reused."We don't want to create extra work for any teachers; we want to help," says Liz Erickson, an Eco-School Network member, parent at Alameda Elementary School and one of three certified Master Recyclers on the school supply team.

"There's probably a lot of duplication and waste in (the lists) because this isn't (teachers') primary job," adds Lewis, an architect who specializes in green design and a former Green Team leader who helped reduce waste at Ainsworth.

About a quarter of PPS schools weighed in on the survey — half parents, half teachers.

The school supply committee hopes to get responses from more schools next time. So far, they've gotten a good sense of the challenges, and want to seek more solutions.

"It's not a uniform problem, so it shouldn't be a uniform solution" for all schools, Erickson says.

PPS schools over the years have adopted all sorts of school supply purchasing practices.

Some have teachers buy supplies in bulk and divvy it up in the fall, with parents opting in to pay their share.

Typical costs for one child can be as low as $50 but can add up to $200 or $300 in high school and focus schools, with special supplies for subjects like Spanish immersion, art and science.

Being asked to pay $25 for science supplies at registration is a barrier to equity, Lewis says: "If my class can afford to pay for it but if they can't afford to pay for it at Roosevelt, what are they doing in their labs?"

At Franklin, Kovacavic says, she wasn't asked to pay any class-specific registration fees beyond sports.

Fifteen local schools — from PPS, the Beaverton School District and some private schools — participate in online ordering from nonprofit Schoolhouse Supplies, which matches teachers' lists and delivers the supplies to students' classrooms.

The Eco-School Network parents say this is just the start of what they hope will be a conscience-raising effort about buying and consumption habits. "It's just so much easier to buy new," Lewis says. "We have to think how we're going to reuse things. ... Use up what you have, and buy only what you need."

Erickson agrees the education needs to happen now. "Teachers tell me kids break their pencils because it's fun, and because they can," she says. "For those that are coming from a place of abundance, it's the culture and the value that you don't have to take care of it because there's always going to be more. The system is not empasizing taking care of what you have."