Education Roundtable Today we kick off a new, month-long series on education. While public school may be free, the price of making sure kids are equipped to learn is out of reach for some parents.

Education Roundtable

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

This is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

Today, we kickoff a new month-long series on education. Many kids across the country will start a new school year tomorrow. School supplies, field trips and, sometimes, uniforms are part of the bill that parents have to foot. But the cost of education for parents, teachers and government are many and complex.

For more, we've got the superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools and the author of "Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools," Rudy Crew. Also, Janelle Thompson, a third-grade teacher at Kohn Elementary in the Chicago Public Schools District; and Genea, a single mom living in Southern California. Her son Avery(ph) is going into the eighth grade.

Welcome folks.

Mr. RUDY CREW (Superintendent, Miami-Dade County Public Schools; author, "Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools"): Thank you.

GENEA (Resident, Southern California): Thank you.

Mr. JANELLE THOMPSON (Teacher, Kohn Elementary): You're welcome. Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So, Genea, let's start with you. Now, what supplies do you need to send Avery back to school and how challenging is it to come up with the money?

GENEA: Well, he's an eighth grader so, of course, there is the special instrument he needs: a graphic calculator, there's the backpacks, there's the notebooks, there is a binder for each subject matter sometimes, pencils, color pencils, markers, you name it. And that's just the - you have a preliminary. And then when they go to school, there's a whole another list because sometimes teachers will require additional. Like, say, with his math, they want graphic paper instead of regular paper. So it can be quite expensive. You know, you kind of get - have to get create with it, you know? I'm blessed that I do have family that are able to kind of rally together to help each other out and kind of help me out. But it does come costly, especially each year.

CHIDEYA: Do you have to save up over the summer to make all these purchases?

GENEA: Pretty much. You got to know exactly what's your budget. You got basic kind of budget in mind. You have to sit there and say, this is going to cost -(unintelligible) and do a pre-shop to find out who's having the best sales, where are the best deals our there. And then try to hit them before everybody else gets them because everybody else is trying to do the same thing. So - and that's basically what you have to do.

CHIDEYA: Now, Rudy, you are someone who has a deep understand of the workings of education. But you also have a deep understanding of kids, including your own. And in your book, you talk about a trip that you took with your 10-year-old daughter to go on what you turned a I need to have field trip to the store to try to get some shoes.

Mr. CREW: Correct. Yeah.

CHIDEYA: Tell us about what happened there.

Mr. CREW: Well, as most parents do with at this time of year, I took my daughter to a store where I thought, by virtue of the sale, she might get, really, two pair of sneakers, at that time, for 20, $25. She had another notion and really wanted it to be particular brand. Something that she had seen Janet Jackson wear on a video and, lo and behold, I found myself looking at what I thought to be the warehouse number on the box. In fact, it was the price.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CREW: And I've never forgotten it since, nor have I let her forget it, because, I think, ultimately, it bespeaks the whole issue of this enormous cost that parents pay, really. Particularly when it comes to school clothes, which makes me an advocate of uniforms because I really think that, at some level, it almost gets out of hand.

CHIDEYA: Now, do you think that this affects learning? You know, this is an issue between parents and kids. But do you think it's an issue between kids and how they view their ability to get along with each other in the school, as well as their future?

Mr. CREW: Yeah. I do. I think that it begins to set in place this notion of what is worth. And worth is something you wear or worth is something that is if you were less intrinsic and more commercial.

And I think we have to get to a point where we are saying and messaging to young people that learning is worth something, even though it is not particularly always a material benefit. It's wonderful to be able to read a book and take a journey with the author without having to have done anything materially at all other than read. That there is real joy in experiencing the gain and the wonderment of having achieved something that was extraordinarily difficult from the beginnings but you really overcame it.

Again, that's intrinsic takeaway from what happens in the school. And I just believe very strongly that young people need much more of that. They need much more of it to be connected to their day-to-day lives. They need to be able to see it in both in school and in their neighborhood and in their homes.

And we need to start creating the opportunities much more, where they see the relevance of what they're doing but they also see that it comes with work and effort and much of - and sacrifice, both on their part and on their parents' part. And that there is a thing called humility that they actually could feel by virtue of having accomplished it and maybe even help someone else do the same.

CHIDEYA: Now, Janelle, I want to turn to you. I do want to talk about your kids. But first, I want to talk about you. In terms of money, there are studies that show that teachers have to put out, on average, hundreds of dollars each year just to do their jobs, out of their own pockets. Are you one of those teachers?

Ms. THOMPSON: I am definitely one those teachers. I'm going into my third year of teaching and I can recall my first year, when you're getting started and you don't have anything. And I really just wanted my room to look good. I wanted my students to have certain resources. And before school even started, I must have spent at least $800. That was before school started.

During the course of the school year, when you buy more supplies - and I'm talking some of the basic needs of students such as pencils and folders and notebooks, not to mention, because I am at a school that made - is on the far south side and sometimes we don't get adequate resources - at least we didn't my first year - I was buying copy paper. I was spending money at Kinko's. I was, you know, just spending money left and right for some of those office supplies and just some of the needs just, not only to get my classroom together, but even in (unintelligible) throughout the school year. I have since decreased the amount I've spent at the beginning of each school year. But teachers still spend an enormous amount of money.

One of the benefits that I have is I'm actually in an alternative teacher certification program. And so because of ICTC, I was able to use their resource center to make some of the copies and to also do something for just, not being able to purchase letters for bulletin boards, but to be able to cut letters out. And so that helped a great deal. But there's still other resources that students also need such as manipulative, that, at the time of my first year and even last year, my school was not able to provide. But fortunately, through the hard work of my principal, we have been able to get a lot of resources that we need this year.

CHIDEYA: So, when you say the far south side of Chicago, tell us about what the student population is like.

Ms. THOMPSON: Well, the community I work in - Kohn is located in the Roslyn community, which is a very high poverty, high crime rate area. You know, unfortunately, just last week, we had a shooting that was a couple of blocks from my school, with someone - a girl was killed.

And, you know, our students come with a lot of baggage from home. There are things that my students have been exposed to that I cannot even fathom. They also have - a lot of our students are low academically. They are below grade level. It's not to say that we don't have some that exceed grade level because we do. But a lot of your students are below state standards in terms of their academics. And they have a lot of behavior problems. A lot of those behavior problems are due to the fact that they are coming from, you know, poverty-stricken homes, broken homes, homes where there may be multiple children, so they don't get a lot of attention. And they really just need someone to kind of care for them and to know that they are valued. So it's definitely a tough school. We have behavior problems. But the teachers that are in those schools, you know - we're there because we care.

CHIDEYA: Genea, when you think about the challenges that your child faces in school, how do they relate to money? For example, lunches. Do you go ahead and get a school lunch or do you send your child with lunch? And how does that play into the whole money factor?

GENEA: Well, recently, you know, being healthy is really big in my family, especially we have several people in my family who's diabetic. So that's changed a lot of things as far as depending on the school system to provide nutritious lunch because they don't. A lot of stuff is processed, and not a -high sodium and things like that. A lot of sugar and artificial extra junk that children do not really need. So we do send him with a lunch. And I've - my son is an eighth grader. He's 5'8" and he weighs 190, so you do the math, that's a lot of food.

I shop at different places, like I said, the sale, I'm opening the paper, coupon clippings is what we do. Of course, the bigger items, the - some things we buy in bulk. We head up, you know, the big warehouses to make sure we have enough to supply. I have to stock as often.

So, it is expensive because you try to make sure your child is getting the proper nutrition that they need to help to succeed because the food - also it feeds the brain. So we want him to be sharp and alert and not so hyper. So a lot of things now are so high in cholesterol, high in artificial flavor, high in sugar that kids are more hyper now than they ever been. So, that's my goal and it does kind of expensive, anywhere from - I could say anywhere from $100 a week is my budget just to make sure he has food every week.

CHIDEYA: Now, Rudy, I want to take this out to a larger level. How do schools deal not only with the cost that they face, you know, whether it is petitioning school districts for money because they have an unexpectedly high number of students, or for more materials, or for books, or any of these things, but also the economic anxiety that can go with the fact that folks don't have unlimited money? How - are schools equip to deal with things like that?

Mr. CREW: Well, you know, we have multiple ways of being able to ask this question from a standpoint of the state legislature and the dollars that are provided in each of the states for education. And it ranges depending upon the state. Florida may spend $7,500 or $7,000 per kid. New York City and New York State may spend closer to $10,000 and on and on and on. And those amounts translate, at least initially, to the base of core instruction for kids in a school. That's what you spend per child.

But I think the - I think Genea had mentioned something about the hidden costs that a parent pays. And I think Janelle had mentioned, you know, the amount of money that she as a teacher initially, and I think probably still, continues to put out on a monthly basis for materials and supplies that essentially just go to making it work in a classroom.

And I think there is no provision for that. No one is helping anyone to deal with that, with those issues, either for a parent or for a teacher. The philanthropic community, I do think, and I think the business community as well, has stepped in where they see that there's a huge gap in some communities.

I know that in Miami, for example, we have the Latin Builders Association provides everything from bicycles for youngsters at the holiday season to knapsacks for every youngster starting school. We have business interest in Miami that help provide additional backpack and materials and supplies that kids need for the beginning of the year.

But those really constitute this sort of hidden costs that people really, if you don't have - if you don't have the money to be able to do this, to be honest with you, you're starting off behind.

There's nothing worse than a young person sitting in a class, wishing that they could participate or wishing that they had had the, you know, the particular piece of equipment for the day that they just don't have. And moreover, they don't know how to get. They can't see their way through to tomorrow. Frankly, they may not even come to school the next day because they don't have it.

So when you asked earlier about the impact of this, it really these hidden costs are very real. They're getting higher every day. We have, as I say, tremendous support from the business community, from the philanthropic community in helping to fill that gap.

But failing that, many of these youngsters, frankly, just will begin the kind of recede into the background a little bit and it's not until someone begins to help them kind of catch up both financially and, unfortunately, academically as well that they begin to kind of flower.

CHIDEYA: So Genea and Janelle, can you give us some advice about what to do, whether you're a parent, a teacher, someone who cares about schools, in terms of dealing with these financial costs but also with the way that kids expect certain things or want certain things or feel the pressures themselves to fit in? Genea, what about you?

GENEA: My advice is to always keep a line of communication with your children. You let them know, okay, these are the things that we need to get, one necessity that you need for school right now and what are our luxury? You have to sit down and explain to your children. Certain things are luxury, certain things are necessities. Necessity is what you must have. And you sit down because this is what our budget is. That's something my mother did with us, I mean, my brother and sisters. So, and I do it with my son.

CHIDEYA: Janelle, what about you?

Ms. THOMPSON: Well, I would say for someone before they even go into the teaching profession is to their homework and to try to talk to other teachers and other educators to find out what are some of the costs and on average, how much will it cost and then to really say is this the career for me. And so, you are prepared once you get into the classroom, especially for the first couple of years when you are building your classroom. You are going to have to spend a good amount of money.

But I think after that, one of the things is for us to try to keep and teachers are known as, you know, pack rats, just forward everything and just make sure that you make good use of whatever materials that you have. Try to hold on to things. And then, also, learn to be resourceful.

I mean, there are organizations, such as DonorsChoose, that are willing to help teachers with supplies, - and we have to be resourceful in terms of going into our communities looking for businesses or individuals who are willing to donate. There are a lot of grants out there. So I think it's about making sure that we are also resourceful and soliciting for some of those materials that we do need.

CHIDEYA: So we're going to have to end it right there. And I want to thank all of you for joining us.

GENEA: Thank you.

Ms. THOMPSON: Thank you.

Mr. CREW: Thanks so much.

CHIDEYA: So we've been talking to Rudy Crew, superintendent of Miami Dade County Public Schools and the author of "Only Connect: The Way to Save Our Schools." He spoke to us from NPR bureau in New York.

Janelle Thompson is a third grade teacher with the Chicago Public School District, and she talked to us from our NPR bureau in Chicago.

And Genea is a single mom from Southern California whose son is headed to the eighth grade.

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