Teaching a Lesson in Supply-Side Economics

My kids are heading into their fourth week of school. And I'm still standing in line at my neighborhood school supply store.

A three-hole punch, another stick of glue, a box of colored pencils for the art assignments that keep coming home . . . even with school well underway, the list of what they need seems endless.

I grumble at the inconvenience and expense of it all--never realizing what a luxury the items in my cart would be to children in other parts of town.


Across town the next day, the setting actually looks much the same. There are markers, memo pads and pens, index cards, pencil cases and teddy bear stickers, all stacked on shelves.

And what catches the eyes of the children is the same thing my children would crave--the display of brightly colored mechanical pencils. I watch as a girl picks one up and clicks it. Her friends giggle as she pretends to write. And I smile at the notion that something so simple as a 99-cent mechanical pencil can bring such joy.

The difference is that my kids can afford these pencils and these kids can't. These are kids from a part of town where shopping sprees for school supplies are out of reach, where even a box of crayons and a single yellow pencil are more than some families can provide.

I'm at Kids 'N Need, a warehouse in Inglewood. It's stocked with donated school supplies, the result of a collaboration between the School and Home Office Products Assn. and the Vision Los Angeles program of World Vision. The trade group has contributed $300,000 in supplies; the charity has agreed to distribute them to classrooms in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

There's everything in here from pencils to special items that teachers and schools are especially hard-pressed to afford: computer disks, electric pencil sharpeners, heavy-duty posters for bulletin board displays. . . .

"We want to help not just with the basics but the extra things that help teachers teach better and children feel good about themselves," says World Vision director Phyllis Freeman.

So far, 25 schools--in Watts, East Los Angeles, Inglewood and Hollywood--are participating. Each will have a shopping day and a budget, and teachers will be allowed to select what they need.

"Most teachers at our school don't even ask the children to bring supplies, because we know they can't afford it," said Jessie Freeman, a counselor at 68th Street Elementary, who accompanied a handful of students and teachers to the center's ribbon-cutting last week.

She watched as the girls "ooh'd" over the thin, smooth lines the mechanical pencils made. And with a smile that mirrored their delight, she reached into the bowl and counted out one pencil for each of them.

"I hope this will last all year," one girl said, carefully tucking the pencil inside her new binder. "Never," her friend said, shaking her head. "Mrs. Douglas makes us write wa-a-ay too much."


It was a revelation when I sent my first child off to school . . . how little campuses had and how very great their needs were. In my daughter's kindergarten class, there was little more than a tin of old broken crayons, a few jars of crumbly paste and a few pairs of scissors that had seen better days.

Supply shortages have been a staple in public schools since budget cuts a decade ago slashed campus spending. In some neighborhoods, parents and businesses stepped in to fill the gap. Our teachers posted "wish lists" each year, and we raised enough money not only for crayons but for things like paper cutters and laminating machines.

But at most schools, it's up to teachers to bridge the divide, to dig deep into their own pockets not just for extras, but for the basics they feel their students will need. Surveys show that the average teacher spends between $500 and $1,000 a year, buying everything from stickers to bulletin board displays.

Counselor Freeman from 68th Street said teachers at her school have wish lists too. "There's a long list of supplies they request each year that just aren't available."

And until now, there's been nobody to make their wishes come true.

* Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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