Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

February 20, 2014

Ashland schools receive donated backpacks

Mike James
The Independent

ASHLAND — All those pockets, zippers and compartments in his brand-new backpack were too much for Skyler Bohr to resist.

The first-grader didn’t waste any time sorting through an assortment of school supplies and sundries and redistributing them in the backpack.

The toothbrush, toothpaste and mini-shampoo bottle went into one outside pocket and the pens, pencils and eraser into another.

The notebook and folder he tucked into the main compartment with a box of crayons.

A selection of colored markers he counted out one by one, placing them carefully in a red plastic storage case, which followed the notebook into the backpack.

Then he slipped his arms through the straps and his teacher, Alexandra Boyd, helped him adjust the pack on his shoulders. Skyler was delighted to notice the orange pack complemented his orange shirt. Then Boyd escorted him back to class at Crabbe Elementary School.

Skyler is a new student at Crabbe; he moved here a week or so ago from Louisville with his mother, a former Ashlander who came back home to help her mother.

They are living with her mother, Skyler’s grandmother, in an apartment, and under the broad definition schools use under the federal McKinney-Vento program, that qualifies Skyler as homeless.

That is why Boyd brought him to the family resource center adjacent to Crabbe and why director Geri Willis presented him with the backpack and its contents.

It was one of 640 backpacks donated to the Ashland district by Feed the Children, a nonprofit relief organization that provides food to children and families.

The organization learned about the Ashland district from a contact in the Kentucky Department of Education and offered the backpacks. “It was out of the blue,” Willis said.

The backpacks, which will be distributed as needed to children in the program and other qualified students, are stuffed with books, school supplies, hygiene supplies and snacks. Program coordinator Patsy Lindsey couldn’t precisely calculate the value of the donation but called it “staggering” and probably worth thousands of dollars.

That is money the program would be hard-pressed to come up with otherwise, Willis said, because it depends on a modest federal grant.

The packs were apportioned among all the Ashland schools, including Verity Middle and Paul Blazer High. The contents for each school included age-appropriate books.

The backpacks serve a key educational role  and also serve needs that are less tangible but just as important.

When teachers send home notices or homework assignments or any sort of important papers, they generally slip them into children’s backpacks. Parents know to check in the packs and retrieve such materials, and in turn to place materials there for teachers.

“They’d never make it home with anything without their backpacks,” Boyd said. “They are essential for us to get anything to and from parents.”

Virtually every student carries a backpack, so when a child like Skyler receives one of his own, it helps him fit in. “We want children to feel they belong here, like part of the school family,” Willis said.

A backpack seems like a minor expense, but to some parents even small financial outlays can be out of reach, she said.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Program stems from federal legislation passed in 1987 to provide assistance to homeless shelter programs. However, schools use a much looser definition of homelessness and include children living with grandparents or other relatives, in motels or hotels, shared housing, campgrounds, awaiting foster placement or other substandard housing accommodations.

The Ashland district has roughly 250 children who fit the definition, although the number is constantly changing. Crabbe generally has the most of any of the Ashland schools, possibly because of its location.

Crabbe’s student population is highly transient and children come and go frequently from Ohio, West Virginia and other parts of Kentucky.

MIKE JAMES can be reached at mjames@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2652.