Essentials for Kids can help tackle unmet student needs

Any public school teacher can point you to kids in their classrooms who lack the essentials of life, everything from coats and socks to chapter books and spiral notebooks. It's a widespread problem, made even broader by the fact that 35 states have yet to restore recession-era cuts in education. It's also a deep problem, too deep to be filled just from the pockets of teachers—although they try mightily, laying out an average of $600 per teacher annually to help keep their kids warm, fed, clean and learning. And it's an escalating problem, now that tens of thousands of Texas families are struggling along the Gulf Coast to rebuild storm-tossed lives and get their kids ready for a new school year.

Today, with the Sept. 6 debut of the Essentials for Kids Fund, there's a new tool in the fight.

The AFT, First Book and the Barbara Bush Houston Literacy Foundation launched the effort—an aggressive response to chronic underfunding of public education nationwide, combined with bold measures tailored to the catastrophic effects of Hurricane Harvey on Texas Gulf Coast schools. The fund is designed to provide educators and their students in need with high-quality books, classroom materials and the basics teachers will tell you are in constant demand in daily classroom life, everything from hats to hand sanitizer.

Weingarten with teachers in Cleveland Heights, Ohio

"A union is a family, and we are doing what we can to help educators and students deal with the impact of Hurricane Harvey," says AFT President Randi Weingarten, pictured above with supplies with members in Cleveland Heights, Ohio. "We're also stepping up to help educators across the country who dig into their own wallets to make sure their classrooms are stocked with basics and their students have a warm jacket, school supplies, food or even basic hygiene products like shampoo."

That's music to the ears of educators like Valerie Powell, who teaches grades 4-6 in Toledo, Ohio, public schools. She can instantly tick off the back-to-school sales running locally. And she can tell you which kids are showing up to school "with no shoestrings and no socks or hat, even when it's 28 degrees" and "which kids are hungry and need snacks" before the close of the school day.

"These kids are like my family, and I just can't stand to see them go without," says Powell, a member of the Toledo Federation of Teachers.

These are not concerns limited to city life, educators are quick to stress.

Lori Griffin, a high school English teacher in the Copenhagen Central School District in rural upstate New York, says that 62 percent of students in her school are eligible for free and reduced-price lunch assistance, but the number could just as easily be 75 percent. "We're talking about people who are very proud, and it can be difficult for them to ask for things" they need, explains Griffin, a 27-year classroom veteran and a leader of the Copenhagen Teachers Association.

"As a teacher, you really don't make that much," she adds, "but when you see the kids, you aren't going to say, 'I can't'" when kids show up needing pencils, socks or just a granola bar to get through a long school day."

Essentials for Kids is powered by a $200,000 startup investment, with major contributions from the union, corporate and nonprofit partners, and individual donors. These funds will allow AFT members to apply on a first-come, first-served basis for grants of up to $150 in credits ($100 for nonmembers and $200 for those in hard-hit areas of Texas following Hurricane Harvey). These credits will pay for books, school supplies and the basics—all available through the First Book Marketplace, where items run 50 to 90 percent below retail prices.

Essentials for Kids also is designed for sustainability, because it draws on proven generosity at every level of the union and in communities nationwide. The fund actively accepts donations and features an option for tailored crowdfunding campaigns as well as national outreach. Already, AFT affiliates in Baltimore; Toledo, Ohio; and Socorro, Texas are in the vanguard of crowdsourced efforts, with more affiliates sure to follow.

All educators are eligible to receive funds if 70 percent or more of the kids they serve are from low-income communities or if they are affected by Hurricane Harvey. If not already members of the First Book network, educators must complete the free registration.

Donations to the fund and additional crowdsourced campaigns are being accepted at this site for Hurricane-affected communities and this site for the national effort.

"We can't allow our teachers to have to beg for handouts or permit the staggering loss of potential that results when students don't have what they need for learning," says Kyle Zimmer, First Book president, CEO and co-founder. "This fund will provide critical funding support for schools."

[Staff reports]