Baltimore County effort seeks to equip young students with much-needed school supplies

When Arianna Sanchez started as a first-grade teacher at Padonia International Elementary School last school year, she planned to buy extra school supplies to help out students who might be short on pencils and paper.

As a first-year teacher, Sanchez said she expected to spend some money on supplies and decorating her classroom, but on her first day some students arrived with much less than she expected.

"I had kids come in with one pencil and a backpack," Sanchez said. "I wasn't expecting them to come in with so little. Luckily, there's great support systems for Baltimore County when that happens, but it's mind boggling to think some students don't have those basic needs."

Sanchez was one of about 400 teachers who took part in a free back-to-school shopping event for Baltimore County Public School teachers at the White Marsh Mall last year. The annual event, hosted by Baltimore County Public Schools and the Education Foundation of BCPS, provides free school supplies for teachers to pass on to students whose families cannot afford to pay for them.

The foundation, a nonprofit that solicits and directs public donations to county schools, is set to put on its third annual event for pre-registered Baltimore County Public Schools teachers Aug. 26.

The free school supply giveaway will be part of a back-to-school festival for teachers inside of an empty storefront at the White Marsh Mall. Volunteers will sort donated supplies and arrange them into a makeshift store where teachers will choose what they need from dozens of tables.

To put on the event, school supplies are being collected through Aug. 13 at more than 95 sites in Baltimore County, including all 19 county libraries, hotels, fitness centers, stores, banks, hair salons and restaurants. A fill list is available on the BCPS website.

"Every teacher in Baltimore County spends money out of their pockets to make sure their students are prepared for school," said Deborah Phelps, the foundation's executive director since 2012, and the former principal of Windsor Mill Middle School.

Towson's Open Door has donated $10,000 to the foundation to be used to buy school supplies for teachers. The daycare center has been the cornerstone sponsor for the event the past two years, according to county school officials.

Chick-fil-A restaurants in Towson Town Center, Eastpoint, Hunt Valley Towne Centre, Parkville, Middle River and Perry Hall are collecting school supplies for the drive. Anyone who drops off at least $10 in newly purchased supplies, along with a store receipt, will receive a gift card for a chicken sandwich.

All types of supplies are needed, with a high demand for folders, composition notebooks, pencils, crayons, highlighters, markers, glue sticks, scissors, binders, pens, Post-it Notes, primary journals and backpacks.

The need for school supplies for students is not new or exclusive to Baltimore County, Phelps said, but the drive helps both students and teachers of a school population that many do not realize is in need.

"What we have is never enough," Phelps said. "We want expansion and we want more people to realize the need. People don't necessarily see the need in Baltimore County."

More than 45 percent of the county public schools' approximately 112,000 students qualify for free or reduced meals, while more than 3,600 students were identified as homeless during the 2016-17 school year, BCPS spokeswoman Diana Spencer said.

Offsetting costs

Padonia Elementary principal Melissa DiDonato said she is able to use some of the school's general budget to stock a supply closet in the school office, but the supplies do not stretch to cover all of the students who need them.

The shopping event helps her teachers to help their students, she said.

"There are times when the breadth of supplies families need is challenging, especially if they have multiple kids," DiDonato said. "The school tries really hard to offset that cost because otherwise teachers try to offset that themselves."

Pleasant Plains Elementary School teacher Lisa Norton took advantage of last year's event to offset the cost of restocking her classroom. The reading specialist has about 50 students each school year and spends $300-$500 annually on school supplies.

"I've worked in schools in the past where they didn't have as much of a community connection or donations to the schools," Norton said. "It was a struggle purchasing what my students needed."

The struggle to come up with the money in the budget for school supplies is difficult for parents, but also for teachers who try to supplement the budgets of multiple families, said Abby Beytin, president of the Teachers Association of Baltimore County, the county teachers' union.

"Anytime people can do things to help the teachers it's fabulous," Beytin said. "We're thrilled they've been doing that at BCPS."

Teachers can register for the event starting Aug. 7.

Boscov's of White Marsh Mall, a longtime partner of BCPS, began its supply drive early and will continue it through Aug. 26. In addition to collecting supplies, the store is accepting donations of new socks and underwear for homeless students.

In addition, a community drop-off event is scheduled for Aug. 12, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at First Financial Federal Credit Union, in Lutherville.

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