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Teachers Spend Big to Supply What Schools Don't

Samantha Smith, a teacher at Hardy Middle School in the District, decorates her classroom for the start of classes, reusing items from previous years.
Samantha Smith, a teacher at Hardy Middle School in the District, decorates her classroom for the start of classes, reusing items from previous years. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 14, 2005

If six years in the classroom have taught Samantha Smith anything, it is how to be frugal.

Take the "homework log" that she created for her seventh-grade students at Hardy Middle School in Northwest Washington. It is little more than a few plastic dividers and some loose-leaf paper clipped inside a three-ring binder salvaged from the Environmental Protection Agency by a sympathetic parent. The word "pathology" is still visible on the side.

"I keep everything," she said.

It is a habit born of necessity. When she began teaching, Smith said, she spent several hundred dollars at the beginning of each school year on supplies. Other teachers reported spending more than $1,000. From $2.09 for a spiral-bound notebook to $500 for a high-tech Jeopardy! game, teachers dig deep into their own pockets for props that might entice children to learn and basics that some of their students might not be able to afford.

"Teachers who spend the money, who really care enough about their classrooms to spend the money, are going to be more successful because they have more tools to use and resources to pull from," said Amy Mason, who teaches second grade at Running Brook Elementary School in Columbia.

According to a study by the National School Supply and Equipment Association last year, teachers nationwide spent an average of $458 of their own money on school supplies, said Adrienne Watts, vice president of marketing for the trade group. Local educational supply stores said August through early September is their busiest time. Jeff Faw, president of Learning How, said he doubles staffing at the company's seven locations for the back-to-school rush.

At Crown Educational in Centreville on a recent afternoon, Carolyn Frank roamed the aisles in search of flashcards, posters, name tags, pens, pencils, stickers and glue.

"I look for everything," said Frank, a third-grade teacher at Centreville Elementary. "Anything that will add to what the school already gives me."

Teachers said that although schools usually provide basic supplies, they often do not cover such extras as scratch-and-sniff stickers to give to students for a job well done. And teachers also often stock up on supplies for students whose families might not be able to afford to fill their backpacks. The report by the school supply association showed that about 60 percent of teachers' out-of-pocket expenses were for basic school supplies, and that the rest went toward instructional materials.

"Parents sometimes forget that the supplies that they send with [children] at the beginning of the year aren't necessarily going to last until May or June," Mason said.

For Frank, the biggest expense is books, she said. She stocks her classroom library with books on animals, mysteries and the "Arthur" and "Amelia Bedelia" series. Often, they don't last very long.

"As long as you were reading, that's fine with me," she said she tells her kids. "A used book is a good book."

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