Needed: Pencils, Pens and Cameras?

M.J. Bruneman, 9, scours the aisles of Office Depot in search of items on the growing list of school supplies.
M.J. Bruneman, 9, scours the aisles of Office Depot in search of items on the growing list of school supplies. (Photos By Michael Robinson Chavez -- The Washington Post)
By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 28, 2006

Sandee Bruneman herded her kids into an Annapolis mall last week to scour the aisles for the last two items on her list. Already, the trunk of her Ford Taurus Wagon was filled with boxes of tissue, bottles of hand sanitizer, all manner of paper products and a preternaturally blue camouflage backpack.

"Are you sure you have one of those for me?" asked M.J., Bruneman's 9-year-old son, eyeing a three-ring binder inside Office Depot at Annapolis Harbour Center.

"M.J., trust me," Bruneman said. "I'll show you the box in the back of the car."

Classes started today in the District and many of its Maryland suburbs, including Montgomery, Howard, Anne Arundel, Frederick and Charles counties. By the time students passed through the school doors, their parents will have spent more time and money than ever on a perennial scavenger hunt for items on the "supply list" -- a document, typically posted on school Web sites, that sends parents in search of everything from glue sticks and erasers to disposable cameras and three-pronged folders.

Schoolchildren have always been expected to show up with a loose-leaf binder and requisite number of sharpened pencils. But in recent years, parents say, the list has been growing.

Bruneman, who has four children at two Annapolis schools, created a spreadsheet for the 109 items, which included 17 folders, six glue sticks and one black Sharpie. She is recycling backpacks and lunch boxes and bought just one of each for her oldest child. For the rest, she spent $159.54 at four different stores -- a choreographed triumph of thrift.

A recent survey by the Center for a New American Dream, an environmental nonprofit group, found that parents planned to spend an average of $574 this year on back-to-school supplies, including clothes, and three in five said they likely would spend more than last year.

Huntington National bank, based in Columbus, Ohio, introduced last month what it called a Backpack Index, and projected that parents would need $307 to supply an elementary-age student for school. The Backpack Index excluded clothing but factored in more than $200 in fees for various activities, such as renting a musical instrument.

Supply lists vary from school to school. Clarksville Elementary in Howard County asked kindergarteners to bring two packs of "reward stickers." Fifth-graders at Travilah Elementary in Potomac must have 100 3-by-3 Post-it notes and separate packages of thick and thin markers. The District's James F. Oyster Bilingual School asked sixth-graders to bring 10 floppy disks and a book called "501 Spanish Verbs."

"They're consumables. They're things that don't last," said Christopher Wooleyhand, principal of Hillsmere Elementary in Annapolis. "The school system tends to invest in textbooks and desks and things that can be used year-in and year-out. We try not to burden [parents] with too much. But there's some things we just can't provide."

Days before the start of school, Bruneman and her kids were at the Annapolis center to find a Spanish-English dictionary for Anthony, 11, who is taking a world languages class at Annapolis Middle School. The store was sold out. Bruneman consulted her list, which told her a French-English dictionary would do.

Some items -- the plastic ruler, No. 2 pencil and marble composition book -- are as old as the inkwell. Others, such as sticky notes, resealable plastic baggies and glue sticks, are more recent additions. And there is a new category of school supply, virtually unknown in previous generations, to reflect modern sensibilities about hygiene and fears of a flu pandemic: hand sanitizer, anti-bacterial wipes and the like.

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