- The Washington Times - Monday, August 14, 2006

Whew. We finally got my goddaughter, Jasmine Offutt, off to college this weekend. Amid the stacks of jeans and sneakers and the bed-in-a-bag linens that easily filled her crowded dormitory room at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., were expensive electronic items that are no longer a luxury for students.

Gone are the days when paper, pens, calculators and spiral notebooks sufficed for the first day of school. Now the notebook is a laptop computer that can set you back hundreds of bucks.

I nearly laughed out loud when I came across a story in The Washington Times last week titled “Gearing Up: Laptop, cell phone, IPod and a backpack wired for sound.” Indeed, these “latest learning software” essentials had been checked off the top of Jasmine’s list of college “must haves.” The cell phone was a present I gave her during a semester break for maintaining a good grade-point average. The IPod she earned for high school graduation. I’m certain that I nearly drove her mother, Denise Adams, crazy by repeatedly insisting that “we’ve got to get Jasmine a laptop before she goes to school.” So there we were last week, Denise and I, fumbling around in an electronics store, being led around like two lost kittens, trying to figure out which of the dazzling laptops lining four aisles would best serve our student’s purposes.

Even with the list of specifications he had given me, I finally resorted to calling my personal computer guru, Charles Stanley Jr., and handing over the phone to the sales clerk before making the final purchase — at $749.99.

Getting an education, at any level, is certainly not cheap. Yet, the ultimate investment in what Best Buy slickly markets as the “Elementary Necessities” and the “High School Prerequisites” is worth every penny.

No Child Left Behind? With so many assignments requiring Internet access, parents, grandparents, godparents and mentors must make it their priority to find the funds to equip children with the educational tools they need to learn and succeed today or they will definitely be left behind. Sticker shock? The Times’ back-to-school story mentioned a recent survey that said parents will spend $3.8 billion this year, up from $1.5 billion last year, on electronics for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. That’s a fraction of the total school spending for 2006, expected to reach $17.6 billion, according to the National Retail Federation’s 2006 Back-to-School Consumer Intentions and Actions Survey.

It’s the back-to-school billfold blues season.

Area public school students will be hearing school bells as early as next week. Prince George’s County schools open their doors Monday along with the secondary and high schools in Alexandria. Montgomery County and D.C. schools open Aug. 28, while Arlington and Fairfax students and elementary and middle school students in Alexandria report after Labor Day.

Here, the children’s needs are even more basic.

You don’t have to look far to find a back-to-school box in which to toss a donation. Just remember that students will receive the gifts in whichever jurisdiction you drop off your donation. Last year, I wrote a $40 check at church to purchase a backpack full of school supplies for a D.C. student.

Not to be missed, SunTrust Bank, in conjunction with WUSA-TV (Channel 9), Wal-Mart and the Girls Scouts Council of the Nation’s Capital, began their traditional campaign yesterday, and it will run throughout the region until Sept. 10.

As a SunTrust executive pointed out, nearly 40 percent of the public school students in the Washington area are poor enough to be eligible for free lunches. Parents can spend a fortune buying fancy new frocks as well as stuffing backpacks. Dedicated teachers, too, are digging deep into their pockets to provide all sorts of emergency items for their pupils.

That’s why those fundraising folks who come up with the great ideas to hold school supply and clothing drives for needy students are to be commended and considered.

Aimee Harrison, coordinator of the “Look Cool for School” campaign of the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless (www.aachhomeless.org), is asking volunteers to purchase one outfit of clothing for a student from kindergarten to high school.

A donor can state a preference for apparel to fit a boy or girl in any age group. The estimated cost is $50 per child if shirts, pants, shoes and underwear are purchased at discount stores. Generous volunteers also are asked to make an optional donation of school supplies and backpacks.

“The first day of school is a very exciting time, and a new outfit helps [students’] self-esteem and makes them feel better,” Ms. Harrison said. “This is really the only new outfit they’ll get all year because their parents can’t afford it.” Parent or not, we all have a stake in student achievement.

So it’s time to pull out the checkbook or the credit cards and help a student, a parent or a teacher in need. You don’t have to donate a laptop, an IPod, a personal digital assistant or a cell phone — a backpack, a spiral notebook or a new shirt will suffice.

For more information on the “Look Cool for School” drive, call Ms. Harrison at 703/522-1373, Ext. 27, or drop off clothing purchases at AACH, 3103 Ninth Road N., Arlington, VA, 22201.

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