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Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch Debbie Webb, left, helps Wolf Mueller, 8, select a backpack during Community of Grace United Methodist Church's Back to School Bash on Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, in Huntington.

HUNTINGTON — The cost of school supplies is rising, and with an increase in technology in the classroom, more students are required to submit assignments from home, according to the Huntington Backpack Index, an annual barometer for household spending on school supplies and related fees in the nation.

According to the index, released by Huntington Bank, the average national cost of school supplies, extracurricular fees and technology for the 2019 school year is $1,017 for elementary, $1,277 for middle and $1,668 for high school students. This includes the cost of a basic laptop and home internet access.

To combat this, parents in Cabell County who may not be able to afford school supplies are offered support thanks to an excess levy, said Jedd Flowers, director of communications for Cabell County Schools.

Through the excess levy, as well as community drives and donations, students in Cabell County are not required to purchase their own school supplies, including backpacks. Cabell County has 13,000 students spread across 26 schools.

"Several years back, a lot of families were coming to us and telling us, 'Hey, we're making decisions between buying school supplies and feeding our families,'" Flowers said. "And we thought that wasn't a decision they should have to make, especially since the voters here support an excess levy that allows us some extra funds to provide supplies to the schools."

Flowers said many community organizations have supply drives for local schools in the county. Most recently, Todd Judy Ford hosted a supply drive to benefit local teachers, and The Salvation Army teamed up with local Walmart stores to "Stuff the Bus," a donation drive that took place at multiple Walmarts in the area, including in Cabell, Wayne, Lincoln and Mason counties.

"There are thousands of kids heading back to school this year, and over half of them will need assistance to start the school year off right," said Heather Bourne, youth evangelism and outreach director from The Salvation Army, in a news release. "By donating school supplies for a child in need, you're easing the burden parents experience at the start of the school year and helping set the right tone for these kids as they head back to school. It's the boost of confidence they need to have a successful year."

Many local churches also provide free school supplies and support to students in the area. The Community of Grace United Methodist Church in Huntington hosted a Back to School Bash recently, providing free haircuts, eye exams, food and 300 backpacks filled with school supplies to students in attendance. Backpacks were purchased by the church, and they were filled by donations from community members.

Pastor Donna S. Hinkle said it is important to gather as a community and assist the community.

"By giving out the backpacks and the school supplies and doing haircuts and eye exams, we're hoping that it gets kids excited about what lies ahead for them in the new school year," Hinkle said. "(We hope) they start the school year feeling confident, have everything they need and look as good as they can and see as good as they can. And they're ready to begin the new year on a clean slate."

The Community of Grace Church has organized the Back to School Bash for the past six years, and Hinkle said they are already booked for next year.

"It's a great church with a lot of heart for the community," she said.

The Children's Home Society of West Virginia Huntington/Ona site is also collecting supplies to benefit students in Cabell County. Supplies accepted include crayons, pencils, notecards, pens, folders, binders, hand sanitizers and college-ruled loose paper and notebooks. Backpacks are also accepted. Those interested in donating may drop off items at 203 6th Ave. in Huntington or call the Children's Home Society office at 681-378-2530.

Cabell County schools also provide free lunches to their students during the school year, with support from the excess levy as well as the Community Eligibility Provision under the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

"Because we are in an area that's food insecure, we know that a great deal of nutrition comes from our school food service program," Flowers said. "That's very, very important. We feed kids all summer, and then during the school year we do universal free meals.

"The board wanted us to move that way a few years ago because we could see our poverty rate had increased and so many kids were struggling. And under the Community Eligibility Provision, we were able to qualify the kids based on assistance applications, like for SNAP. We were able to qualify the entire school district without kids filling out individual forms, and that's been really fantastic."

With an increase in technology in schools, Cabell County has partnered with Apple to update computer labs, by turning them into mobile laptop labs. They also provide tablets to students to use in the classroom. Flowers said they developed a comprehensive Student Technology Empowerment Plan (STEP) to look at the technology comprehensively.

Other counties in the area may be unable to provide free school supplies to students. In nearby Kanawha County, volunteers organized an "Adopt a Teacher" program in which community members "adopt" a teacher and provide supplies for their classrooms. Information on how to help is found on the Adopt a Teacher Facebook page.

Flowers said Cabell County is blessed to have the excess levy and wishes other counties could, too.

"We eliminated the teachers making lists in Cabell because we just said, 'Come to school with a good attitude. You don't need anything else, just a good attitude and be ready to learn,'" Flowers said. "But we've stayed committed to it, and I'm very proud of the district for that. I think when you help those who are in need, you're doing the kind of work that you need to do."

Any brand school supplies are accepted in Cabell County through drives and donations, Flowers said. Parents may purchase their own school supplies if they want to do so. It is not a requirement that students come to school without anything, but it is an option for those in need. Flowers said some parents buy extra supplies to give to teachers so they can have them on hand.

"Learning isn't about the supplies. Learning is about what takes place in that classroom," he said. "We'll make sure that they have what they need. It doesn't prohibit them from bringing anything. They can bring anything they want. That's fine. Some parents will send some to share with the class. And we've tried to make adjustments to instruction so that we don't have to be so demanding about what (is specifically needed)."

Flowers said he thanks the community for their continued support through the years, as their support has helped make school supplies available to students in Cabell County.

"I want to express our appreciation to the community for continually showing the support of students," he said. "We've had times when we were out of school that they provide lunches; they host our sites in the summer. This is a community that cares about its kids, and we eternally thank them for that."

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