Help pack the bus
by Kellen Short
With enough support from the community, more of them will do so confidently and well-prepared for the year ahead.
A coalition of community groups has teamed up for a Back-to-School Festival on Aug. 10 that will provide school supplies, clothes, food and haircuts to families who would otherwise struggle to provide. They are now seeking help to "Pack the Bus" and donate in other ways to local students.
School leaders say the need is great across the school system, which has nearly 40 percent of students qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches.
"We at the schools are very appreciative of the support of private donors, faith-based organizations, community groups that recognize that many of our students struggle in many areas," said interim Superintendent David Fonseca.
As of May, 38.9 percent of Watauga County Schools students qualified for free or reduced-price lunches. Families qualify for free meals if they make less than 130 percent of the federal poverty rate and for reduced-price meals if they make less than 185 percent of the federal poverty rate.
Last school year, that meant $29,965 in annual income for a family of four for free meals or $42,643 for reduced-price meals, according to the USDA.
"The numbers are growing similar to the nation, just simply because of the economy," Fonseca said. "We're not growing faster than the rest of the state, which is a good thing, but they are growing."
The percentage of students receiving free or reduced lunches varies across the school system, from 22 percent at Blowing Rock School to 62 percent at Bethel School, according to school system data from May.
In fact, Hardin Park School will qualify for the first time this year for Title I funding, supplemental federal dollars designed to target schools serving high percentages of low-income families.
Watauga County Schools has chosen to allocate the Title I money to schools where more than 40 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, Fonseca said. Others qualifiers are Bethel, Cove Creek, Green Valley and Mabel.
As a result, an estimated $832,000 will be split among those schools and the central office this coming school year for additional personnel, training, materials and parent involvement activities.
Hardin Park Principal Mary Smalling said she plans to use the money this year to fund two and a half positions, including a fifth kindergarten teacher to keep classes smaller. She said most schools use it primarily to target reading.
"I can't say it'll be a huge change, but we are looking forward to having some people that are trained specifically to give us more reading support," she said.
Back to school festival
While the need is great, so is the number of groups interested in helping those students in need.
Amber Bateman, founder of the Quiet Givers organization, said several of those groups began brainstorming this year on how to unify their efforts.
They decided on the inaugural Back to School Festival on Aug. 10 as a way to tackle students' needs and boost excitement before the school year begins. The event will be held from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the National Guard Armory.
"When they start school with their backpack filled with everything they need, that is going to offer them another chance for success because they feel confident," Bateman said.
The group sent invitations to many families at the end of last school year, and more than 100 kids are registered to attend, Bateman said. The group is working to target those who have the greatest needs. Anyone who has not registered but needs assistance may call The Children's Council at (828) 262-5424.
Pack the bus
But before the organizations can give away donations, they have to collect them. They have now embarked on a "Pack the Bus" effort to gather new or nearly new school supplies now through Aug.
A Mountain Alliance bus will be parked at Yadkin Bank on Blowing Rock Road to accept school supplies that include: pencils, pencil sharpeners, pencil pouches, pens, crayons, colored pencils, glue sticks, blunt scissors, two-pocket folders with brackets, erasers, highlighters, Post-It notes, wide ruled notebook paper, three-ring binders, dividers and tabs, spiral notebooks, composition books, index cards, graph paper compasses and calculators.
Donors may leave their items on the bus, which will be closely watched.
"School counselors mention a lot that a lot of times with donations, people get the cheapest of the cheap," Bateman said. "When you're giving, think about the quality, because if we're going to give it to the kids, we want it to last for the long haul."
The Watauga County Library Giving Tree also will be accepting new or gently used jeans (sizes 4T-juniors), along with shoes and new school supplies during normal business hours through Aug. 5.
The Aeropostale store at Tanger Shoppes on the Parkway will provide more than 1,000 pairs of gently used jeans collected as part of its "Jeans for Teens" campaign, Bateman said.
Carter's childrens clothing store also will give pajamas and books for the festival as part of its efforts to ensure kids have a "positive bedtime experience," she said.
The group also has worked out a plan with Goodwill to help with students' clothing needs. The thrift store will provide gift cards to the festival in exchange for any donors who take their items to the store and ask that they benefit the Back-to-School festival.
The Appalachian Women's Fund also is lining up stylists to donate their services to provide free haircuts at the festival.
Several churches are providing harder-to-fill requests such as expensive graphing calculators, which will be loaned to students in need, Bateman said.
If any money is left over, the groups hope to negotiate a deal to help purchase kids' shoes. Any unclaimed school supplies will be provided to the schools to use later in the year.
Bateman said unlike some other donation stations that claim to benefit "local children," this one will directly impact Watauga County Schools students.
Any businesses or individuals interested in sponsoring - or any stylists willing to donate their time - may email (email@example.com)
Fonseca said help from local people has been critical in past years and is sincerely appreciated.
"Not only do they recognize the need now, but they stay with us throughout the year," Fonseca said.
"The needs are not just at the beginning of the year, but for many families, the needs are ongoing."
For more information, visit quietgivers.org or facebook.com/B2SF2013.