- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 18, 2005

The beautiful altar at the historic St. Luke’s Episcopal Church was dressed with its standard religious accouterments Sunday, including the floral arrangements, the silver chalices, the crosses and the candles. But sitting at the back of the cavernous chapel, it was a little hard to discern what constituted the unusual piles of primary-colored items lining the altar rails.

It was not until the church rector, the Rev. Virginia A. Brown-Nolan, called for a special prayer to bless the items and the children who would use them, that I realized that the altar offerings were back-to-school supplies. (I really do have to stop wearing my CVS “cheaters” so my aging eyes can get a better glimpse of what’s actually in front of me.) There were multicolored backpacks, boxes of crayons, rulers, pencils, scissors, stacks of blue-lined paper and a rainbow of markers awaiting delivery to a nearby community center in Northwest.

Like me, you’ve probably walked right past rows of school supplies in stores in recent days. Because I have no school-age children in my household, it did not dawn on me to purchase a single item.

Prince George’s County students must answer the school bells as early as Monday morning. D.C. and Montgomery County students report Aug. 29. State law allows Virginia students a reprieve until after Labor Day.

“We want teaching and learning to begin the first day of school,” D.C. Superintendent Clifford B. Janey said during a television interview yesterday. “There’s a premium on time, and we can’t afford to lose any time.” No, not with the herculean task he has at hand to improve academic achievement.

Further, the staid Mr. Janey firmly put D.C. parents and students on notice: “Here are the standards, here are the supports, and if you don’t avail yourself of those supports, there will be consequences,” he said. Parent or not, we all have a stake in student achievement, and we all must play a role in providing students with the necessary tools to support that achievement.

So, pull out the checkbook, the debit card, the credit card. It’s not cheap to send one child to school, let alone two or three. And, to attend classes with skyrocketing tuition costs? It matters not the grade. No student, from preschool to doctoral studies, can keep up the ever-demanding curriculum without easy access to a computer today. Price a laptop lately?

I checked online to discover that a student in my Catholic University class will spend a minimum of $67.40 for the textbook, $26.95 for the accompanying workbook, $10.95 for a paperback copy of my reporter’s bible, “The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect” by Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach.

Preparing for my classes, I made so many used-book purchases on Amazon.com and halfprice.com that my bank called to verify the “unusual debit card activity.” Forget what you’ve heard about a free education in America. As Greater Washington Urban League President Maudine Cooper likes to say to potential scholarship donors, “We’ve got to get them through elementary school before we can think about college.” Even in public school, that project isn’t cheap.

During the Sunday church service, it occurred to me that I had walked past a couple of display boxes asking for school supply donations. One was in the lobby of the WRC-TV (Channel 4) studio on Nebraska Avenue Northwest where I tape the weekly “Reporter’s Notebook” public affairs show that airs at an ungodly sunrise hour on Sunday morning.

At church Sunday, I wrote a check to cover the cost of a backpack filled with supplies — $40. Not much, and a real bargain for the hoped-for benefit.

Very often we feel totally helpless in doing our part to fix a crazy, complex world. Then we are presented with an opportunity to help someone in need in a small but very important way. Try not to overlook those grateful giving moments.

Which brings me to my shameless purpose for today: On Monday, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Washington — lead by Kwame Jackson, the local star of NBC’s “The Apprentice” who is a product of D.C. schools — kicked off a two-week drive called “Help Kwame Stuff the Bus” with school supplies, hoping to help poor parents avoid the costly purchases and “begin the new year right.”

The organization notes that half of the city’s 70,000 public school students “won’t have enough, or any, school supplies to begin the new year right.” Collection barrels are located at 13 Boys & Girls Clubs across the metropolitan area until Aug. 27, when there will be a “Stuff the Bus” back-to-school fair at Clubhouse No. 10 at 2500 14th St. NW for 1,000 schoolchildren and their families.

“The first day of school is not the day to be embarrassed, ashamed or have to struggle to complete class and homework,” the project flier rightly reads.

Let’s do more than offer a prayer at the altar that area students return to school safely and fully prepared to learn.

For more information, log onto www.bgcgw.org or www.kwamejackson.com.

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