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Shopping trips are no vacation

Searching for school supplies is like a scavenger hunt, with families trying hard to find quirky items that teachers put on their list.

September 10, 2007|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Armed with a list and a shopping basket and resigned to the task at hand, Bill Cook stood in the aisle of a Westchester office supply store perusing shelves of blue, red and black pens, triple- and quadruple-sided pencils, one-hole punches and cap erasers when suddenly a smile creased his face: the chisel-tip markers!

It was a moment of triumphant discovery likely shared by thousands of parents enduring the annual back-to-school ritual of shopping for school supplies. While some families get a head start by purchasing supplies in early or mid summer, many, like the Cooks, wait until the first week of classes to get updated lists from new teachers.

All told, back-to-school spending is expected to top $18 billion this year, $3 billion on school supplies such as folders, backpacks and lunch boxes, the National Retail Federation says.

Most families will spend $90 to $100 on supplies -- the national average is $94, but the cost can stretch to hundreds of dollars for those with several school-age children.

If the costs of supplies have crept upward each year, the products themselves are likely to seem surprisingly familiar.

Even in this age of Internet downloads, laptop computers and smart boards, there is just no substitute for some simple tools of the trade -- a No. 2 pencil and a spiral notebook.

And in some ways, they are more important than ever. As standardized tests and exit exams put more pressure on administrators and teachers to boost student achievement, the importance of having the right materials has never been greater.

"We have ratcheted up the accountability in California in requirements for children beginning even at the kindergarten level, and that demands that children have more school supplies than ever before in history," said Pam Brady, president of the California State PTA. "These are literally tools that children use to learn how to organize -- this is your pencil, your pen, this is the folder where you're going to put things. All that organization helps children reach their highest potential."

Although parents may think the lists are a bit arbitrary, they are carefully designed to meet safety and instructional standards, said Bob Huston, principal at Banks Elementary School in Banks, Ore.

Parents at each grade level at the K-6 school are provided detailed lists in the spring and can shop on their own or purchase a ready-made kit from the school's parent teacher organization.

"Different types or markers, colors, crayons, scissors, it's all based on what's developmentally appropriate," Huston said. "Just like a carpenter has a chest of tools and different ones are used for different jobs, from grade level to grade level there are differences in supplies that would be needed."

Huston said that if parents ignore the lists, teachers often are forced to pay for them from their own pockets. "If a teacher sees a child doesn't have something, they are going to go to bat and get something for them, it's just the way they're made."

For retailers, the back-to-school shopping rush is equivalent to Christmas as the period of highest sales. The Staples store in Westchester extended its hours and hired additional workers to help with demand, Devin Lee, the assistant store manager, said. As he spoke one evening last week, parents and children with overflowing baskets stood in a check-out line that snaked past the desk organizers.

Robin Yadach said she and her daughter Gianna, 11, had learned to wait until the first day of school before starting their quest.

"Some teachers want binder notebook paper, some want spiral bound and not all the teachers give you everything at once so it involves several trips," said Yadach, as she read from a list suppled by Gianna's art teacher at Orville Wright Middle School in Westchester.

What was the hardest thing to find? "Maybe this vinyl eraser," she said, looking over the sheet.

Although supply lists are fairly standard, some schools and teachers can be quirky, and for parents, the quest for low odor markers, washable glues and specially ruled handwriting paper can be akin to a scavenger hunt. Some examples from some public and private school lists include:

* Four dozen No. 2 Ticonderoga pencils -- "no other brand please"

* 1 package, paper plates (50+) ("NOT plastic or foam")

* "PLASTIC PENCIL SHARPENERS FOR THE MAP COLORS!! And NO TRAPPER-KEEPERS PLEASE!"

All Saints School in Puyallup, Wash., requires earthquake kits for each student, to be stored in the classroom. The outdoor-oriented Colorado Rocky Mountain School in Carbondale, Colo., requires students to bring leather work gloves, water purification tablets and a whistle with neck lanyard, and gaiters -- to keep debris out of boots -- are highly recommended.

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