As a student, there are few things more exciting than the end of a school year. The summer stretches before you with limitless potential. Yearbooks make their rounds and the soft melancholy of impending separation from acquaintances is cut through by close friendships that will carry into the warmer months. With long days of sunshine on the horizon and adventure around every corner, the only question a child should face this time of year is whether or not it's too hot to get the neighborhood kids together for a ball game. But students in the Hurst-Euless-Bedford Independent School District aren’t always so lucky. For some of them, summer break is broken.
Over 54% of students in HEB ISD rely on the free and reduced lunch program for meals every day. For these students, school is an ever-present staple of life, even during the long vacation between grade levels. Multiple campuses in the district offer summer feeding programs, providing breakfast and lunch for any child, age 1 to 18, who comes through their doors. These vital programs kick off in early June and run through the end of July, but even they can only do so much for the hundreds of students whose families struggle to balance their budgets every month.
Per capita income in this area averages right around $30,000 per year; a decent living wage for individuals, but a mark near the poverty line for families with multiple children. In Bedford, the city with the highest per capita income of the three, nearly one in 5 families earns less than that mark per year. One in four children in Hurst come from a household living below the poverty line. For students from these families, the summer months mean a brief and incomplete break from school followed by a harsh reality: school supplies are expensive.
In 2015, the National Retail Federation estimated that the average family was required to spend $630.36 on supplies to start the new year. To put that in perspective: the average apartment in this area rents for something between $600-$700. The anticipated cost of school supplies last year was equivalent to over 86 hours of work at a minimum-wage job in Texas; more than half a month’s pay. Even for a parent earning $15.50/hour — twice the minimum wage — that’s an entire week’s worth of earnings, making a generous assumption of 40 hours worked weekly. Last year, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that the average American worked only 34.5 hours per week.
In short, school supplies require a significant portion of at least one month’s budget for a notable portion of our community. For families who qualify as Working Poor — individuals who spend at least 27 weeks in the labor force but remain under the poverty line — a quarter of monthly earnings would go directly into their children's backpacks every August. When we interviewed Dr. Gene Buinger, former superintendent for the district, a few months ago, he summarized the problem with painful efficiency: “Public education is supposed to be free, but it is anything but.”
Dr. Buinger also pointed out that transience is a common problem in the district, with many students changing addresses constantly. Ellen LoBue, who works Family Support Services for the district, recently told 6 Stones that over 700 students in HEB qualify for support through the McKinney-Vento Education of Homeless Children and Youth Assistance Act: a piece of legislation passed by the state of Texas in 1987. For those students, life in the summer and during the school year is a long journey from couch to couch with the occasional night spent in a car. All told, more than half of the children in our schools come from families that struggle to eat and pay their bills, much less purchase hundreds of dollars’ worth of school supplies each year.
The end of the school year means something very different to a portion of our community. For many of our neighbors, the intervening time between school years is a chance to travel and connect with distant family. But for some, it is a long stretch of anxiety. Where will we find food? How will we provide for next year? What does the future hold?
As the days grow longer and the beach beckons us, our neighbors are praying for miracles and laying out penny-to-penny budgets to keep their lights on, air conditioners functioning and children fed. We can help them. We need to help them. We hope you’ll join us in our efforts to make life just a little more predictable and comfortable for the students and families who need help. Here’s what you can do to make a difference:
- Donate to Operation Back 2 School. OB2S provides backpacks and school supplies for students in HEB ISD who cannot afford to purchase their own. These students are identified by the district itself and register through the 6 Stones website. Our goal for 2016 is to provide 6,000 students with the tools they need to succeed in school. You can adopt a student for $25. Visit 6stones.org/ob2s to learn more about the program and how you can help between now and August.
- Contribute to the New Hope Center. Food Pantries nationwide see a sharp decrease in supplies during the summer months, the primary giving months being centered around school events and major holidays. Poverty isn’t seasonal, but it can be overcome. For more information on the New Hope Center and the food items most needed there, visit 6stones.org/newhope.
- Volunteer. We need extra hands and feet year round, whether in the Community Garden or walking the floor at Operation Back 2 School. If you’d like to be more hands-on in your involvement, visit 6stones.org/get-involved to view a full calendar of events and giving opportunities.
Our most pressing need in the next three months is the same one that will be on hundreds of minds this summer. With your help, we can cut away that worry for 6,000 children. We can begin to fix Summer Break.