Janice Dave, left, and Natasha Upshaw hand out backpacks to students at Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2018, in Chattanooga, Tenn. Volunteers The Back to School community outreach collaborative, The Nehemiah Project, and The Bethlehem Center delivered hundreds of backpacks to the elementary school and other Title I schools.

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School supplies

Pencils, crayons, glue sticks, loose-leaf paper, rulers — these are some of the supplies that can help a student have a successful school year. But expensive school supplies are out of reach for some families.

More than 6,500 kids in Hamilton County's highest-needs schools got a boost Tuesday when volunteers from the Nehemiah Project delivered thousands of backpacks to 12 schools, including Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy.


  • Bess T. Shepherd
  • Barger Elementary
  • Calvin Donaldson Environmental Science Academy
  • Clifton Hills Elementary
  • East Lake Elementary
  • Eastside Elementary
  • Hardy Elementary
  • Hillcrest Elementary
  • Hixson Elementary
  • Orchard Knob Elementary
  • Spring Creek Elementary
  • Woodmore Elementary

"We are a community organization that brings school supplies to Title 1 schools in Hamilton County," said Kelley Andrews, the project coordinator. "A lot of the students are low income and do not have the supplies they need."

The back-to-school initiative has been operating for almost two decades. Originally created by the Front Porch Alliance in 1999, it is now sponsored by the Bethlehem Center, a local faith-based nonprofit that runs after-school, leadership and spiritual education programs.

Most of the funding for the backpacks comes from one local benefactor: David Parker, founder, CEO and president of Covenant Transport Group.

Christine Ellison, a fifth-grade teacher at Calvin Donaldson, said many of her students don't come to school with the supplies they need. For her fifth-graders, among the most coveted items are binders, especially full-zip binders.

"A lot of them don't have the means to bring that," she said. "So a lot of teachers end up buying supplies for [their students]."

Nearly all public school teachers across the nation spend their own money on classroom materials and supplies for their students, according to a study by the National Center of Education Statistics released earlier this year.

Teachers in higher-needs schools, such as Title I schools where most students receive free or reduced-price lunches, were more likely to reach into their own pockets, the study found. Elementary school teachers were the most likely to buy supplies for their students — 95 percent nationwide do.

Among teachers who spent any of their own money on classroom supplies without reimbursement, the average amount was nearly $480, the study found.

Hamilton County teachers receive $200 a year to buy supplies, but the rest comes out of their own pockets, Ellison said.

Teachers are also eligible for federal tax deductions up to $250 for supplies, but often they spend more than that.

Paula Knuckles, a fourth-grade teacher at Calvin Donaldson, said that for many teachers the first year is the most expensive.

She has become "more frugal" in her 15 years teaching in what are now Hamilton County's Opportunity Zone schools, she said.

"I ask people to help, to donate," she said.

Asked how much she spends a year, Knuckles laughed and said she was "scared to see."

This year, she said, it was easier on her students because the school had done away with a uniform requirement.

"We went to a no-uniform policy," said Rosalynda Odom, the school's new principal. Odom took over the reins at Calvin Donaldson this school year after stints in Memphis and Las Vegas.

"Families were really struggling to buy uniforms," she said. "We are also probably one of the few schools in Hamilton County that doesn't have a supply fee."

Though Calvin Donaldson's previous supply fee was only $10 per child, that added up for families with multiple children, Odom said. "That could be a light bill," she said.

The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute recently noted that school supply drives often highlight areas of needs. Last year, a study found that 70 percent of Georgia's school districts cited poverty as the largest challenge students faced outside of the classroom.

"School supply drives tend to operate on the principle of equity, or the taking care of needs based on what it will take to help a student succeed," wrote Stephen Owens, a senior policy analyst for the institute, in a blog post. "Poverty can seriously hinder educational success It's likely one of the steepest hurdles to educational attainment."

Calvin Donaldson students in brightly decorated classrooms were surprised by the dozen volunteers Tuesday morning. Odom would poke her head in before letting volunteers hand out backpacks.

Some students were surprised and, digging through their backpacks, even asked if they got to keep the supplies.

The clear backpacks that were handed out cost about $15 each, Andrews said. The organization has donated about 90,000 since its inception, she added. Dozens of local organizations and groups hold school supply drives or pass out freebies during back-to-school season. Some groups note they have leftover supplies even after the first day of school, as needs are ongoing.

The Nehemiah Project also leaves a Bible in every classroom — one for every student.

"We want them to know God is there for them and we are God's hands and feet," Andrews said.

Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.