Op-ed | School supplies are vital to a student’s academic readiness

Many colorful school supplies and backpack arranged on blue background
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As New York City students begin to enjoy their summer vacations, their parents and educators may already be worried about what the next academic year will bring.

For the tens of thousands of parents raising children in homeless and domestic violence shelters, the cost of school supplies is surely weighing heavily on their minds. Last year, approximately one in 10 students in New York City were experiencing homelessness — a figure that is poised to jump dramatically due to the influx of asylum-seeking families with children who have already entered the school system, or soon will.

With family homelessness reaching levels not seen in New York City since the Great Depression, more families than ever will soon face the daunting expense of school supplies — an expense that many simply cannot afford.

Having a backpack full of school supplies like pencils and notebooks on the first day of school may seem routine to many of us, but the unfortunate reality is that it can be a major hurdle for low-income families. Even as inflation has cooled moderately, the price of school supplies has risen dramatically in recent years. For students and their families living in homeless shelters, these costs often mean they can’t afford to be prepared for school.

Arriving for the first day of school with the necessary supplies, and a backpack to carry them in, lays the foundation for a successful academic year. Having grade-specific supplies is vital to a student’s academic readiness and can mitigate the devastating consequences of family homelessness by playing a critical role in achieving higher rates of homework completion, class participation, and, ultimately, graduation.

It also reduces stigma by leveling the playing field for all students, regardless of their economic status, and helps children experiencing homelessness feel a sense of normalcy among their peers.

To be clear, this is not a new challenge. Over the past few years, we’ve seen the number of children living in the New York City shelter system steadily increasing, in part due to the end of the pandemic eviction moratorium, along with skyrocketing rent and cost of living. The 2023-24 school year, though, is expected to be even more challenging for educators, parents, and students.

Educators are already working around the clock to ensure that all students, including those from asylum-seeking families, receive the resources they need and are not falling through the cracks in a new country and new city. It is a monumental challenge, even for educators up for the task.

We’ve all heard stories of the many educators who go above and beyond, paying for school supplies for their students out of their own pockets. They cannot be expected to solve this challenge alone. For more than 20 years, my organization, Volunteers of America-Greater New York, has worked with the NYC Department of Education and the private sector to ensure every student living in a New York City homeless shelter has a backpack and the grade-specific school supplies they need. Known as Operation Backpack, the initiative helps tens of thousands of students each year.

We project that at least 23,000 students will need supplies in 2023 — 53 percent more than last year. Civic-minded New Yorkers across the public and private sectors should step up to the plate and help some of their most vulnerable neighbors – children who are trying to focus on their education so they do not get caught in the cycle of intergenerational poverty and homelessness.

New Yorkers have always gone the extra mile to lift each other up, and we’ve seen incredible support for Operation Backpack over the years. Right now, though, we are in crisis. This record level of need requires a record level of generosity. After all, we all owe it to the future of our city to ensure that every child can make the most out of their education.

Leslie Armstrong is the Assistant Vice President, NYC Emergency Housing & Shelter Services, at Volunteers of America-Greater New York.