By Michaela Gibson Morris
Even though families don’t have to cough up tuition for public schools, educating children remains an expensive proposition.
Taxpayers cover teacher salaries and buses and subsidize school meals. School supplies, which fall to families, run about $50 a child. Then there are field trips, science fair projects, a home computer with Internet access and books for a home library. Even the basics can add up quickly beyond the means of a family in poverty.
“Every year, kids show up with nothing,” said Robin Matkin, who coordinates the United Way of Northeast Mississippi Back 2 School Resource Fair, which began three years ago.
This year the United Way raised $42,000 to assemble more than 3,300 backpacks for loading with supplies to cover kindergarten through sixth-grade students in seven counties.
“We’re really trying to get quality supplies,” like a sturdy backpack and name-brand crayons that won’t break, said Michelle Richardson, communications director with the United Way.
About 90 percent of the families who participated in the fairs qualify for free or reduced lunches, based on information collected by volunteers.
“This made all the difference,” one mom told Matkin. “This year I couldn’t have done it without you.”
It doesn’t cover everything, but the support of the United Way, along with Junior Auxiliary and other community organizations fills a huge need for students, said Parkway Elementary Principal Mitzi Moore and school-home coordinator Tammi Coggins.
“I think Tupelo is very fortunate,” Coggins said.
United Way has dropped off extra backpacks to schools across the region. The Junior Auxiliary has worked with schools around Lee County to assist with clothing, coats, eyeglasses and hearing screenings.
The Junior Auxiliary Clothing Closet helped 430 students from around Lee County.
“We’ve already seen 140 students this year,” said Mignonne Williams, chairwoman for the JA Clothing Closet.
With school supplies, teachers have traditionally filled much of the gap from their own pockets.
“Easily a teacher could spend $25 a month, and that’s probably conservative,” Moore said. “The $250 tax write-off you get as a teacher doesn’t touch what you spend.”
But the basic needs go beyond school supplies and clothing, Moore said. The two biggest issues Moore sees are children coming to school without enough nutrition to feed their bodies and exposure to the written word to prepare them for reading.
Many of the kids will ask for seconds at breakfast or ask for a snack.
“We make sure they get something,” Coggins said. Even if they are late, students are offered a grab-and-go breakfast. “Children can’t learn if they are sitting there hungry.”
To address the access to books, the school collects donated books and gets them to children in need. Media centers across the Tupelo district also opened during the summer to improve access for families.
About 70 percent of Parkway students qualify for free and reduced lunches.
“I see more and more working parents who are still very low income,” Moore said. “Single parents, parents in poverty aren’t inadequate parents, but their biggest challenge is time.”