Helen Hunt Elementary

Colorado Springs School District 11 is picking up the tab for basic school supplies and will provide each child with free pencils, crayons, markers, glue, folders, paper and other most-needed items.(Gazette File Photo, Bryan Oller)

Colorado Springs’ largest public school district, D-11, has a Christmas-in-August present for all 18,100 elementary and middle school students.

The district is picking up the tab for basic school supplies and will provide each child with free pencils, crayons, markers, glue, folders, paper and other most-needed items.

“We realized if we eliminated or minimized the cost significantly, it would be a big win for the parents, the kids and the schools,” said Dan Hoff. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Hoff is executive director of alternative and nontraditional schools in D-11, where the idea originated just a few months ago and spread to include all 12,500 kindergarten through fifth-grade students and 5,600 middle school students.

The $150,000 expense was a late budget addition for the 2018-19 academic year.

“It’s a nice way to thank the community for passing the mill levy override last November,” Chief Financial Officer Glenn Gustafson said. “We shouldn’t have to nickel and dime parents for all these school supplies.”

D-11 voters approved a $42 million annual property tax increase last year to cover a host of improvements, including boosting employees’ salaries, reducing class sizes, hiring more counselors, beefing up security and addressing some building repairs.

The district received a bulk-rate for the materials from a Colorado Springs company, EduKit, which has been providing customized supply kits for schools around the nation since 1993.

To select the supplies, Hoff’s team pulled previous supply lists from all the schools, determined the most requested by grade level, then consulted with principals and teachers about what to add or subtract.

Each kit has eight to 12 items, and supplies will be delivered to schools Aug. 1-3, so they’re ready for when school starts on Aug. 15.

With the rising cost of school supplies and more D-11 students living in low-income households, Hoff said the new program will level the academic field.

“Our free and reduced lunch rate is 60 percent,” Hoff said, which is double the amount it was a decade ago. “So there’s equity in each child having basic supplies provided,” he said.

Missy Hollenbeck, principal at Carver Elementary School, said with nearly three-fourths of her school’s 325 students qualifying for the federal government’s free and reduced meals program, indicating poverty, the concept of free supplies is exciting.

“I’m absolutely thrilled about it,” she said. “Many families struggle each year to supply school supplies. Many parents ask us for help, and we do get donated supplies, but it puts them in an awkward situation to have to ask. There’s no need to have that conversation now.”

Hoff said parents’ and students’ initial response to the proposal was what solidified district officials’ decision to enact it.

“We started hearing that the money spent on supplies really adds up for families and can sometimes be part of the choice between food or rent and school supplies,” he said.

The program also will reduce the amount of out-of-pocket money teachers spend on their classrooms, Hoff said, and enable schools to use money they may have used on supplies in the past on other classroom needs.

“I know every teacher spends their own money on their classroom — it’s part of the heart of a teacher — but that shouldn’t be necessary,” Hollenbeck said.

D-11 schools will still accept donated supplies from drives, businesses and individuals, Hoff said.

The district’s free kits won’t include items such as backpacks, tissues, hand wipes and other personal and communal needs, he said. And the provided supplies likely will not last the entire school year.

Also, low-income high school students, who don’t receive supply lists but must provide class-specific materials, will need assistance.

“We’ve talked with community partners and nonprofits about this, and it opens up new opportunities for them to help,” Hoff said. “There’s always going to be a need.”

Another local district, Academy School District 20, also has deviated from the traditional back-to-school supply list.

D-20 charges elementary school parents a flat fee of $35 to provide all students with “a full pack of materials that covers all student needs for the year,” spokeswoman Allison Cortez said.

Schools help parents who can’t afford the fee, she added.

Schools also allow children to supplement their provided supplies, Cortez said, such as if they want a different color or style of folder.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

Contact the writer: 719-476-1656.

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