Close-up: Back to School

If you’ve had a busy summer, the trilling of the school bell might just be music to your ears.

Clint and Liza Ponte of West Kelowna and their kids

If you’ve had a busy summer, the trilling of the school bell might just be music to your ears. Many parents will miss the fun of summer with their kids, but rare is the parent who isn’t at least a little relieved to think about the routine of the school year launching again.

Getting ready for the first Tuesday after Labour Day is a process fraught with expectation.  Some of it is simple consumerism—the right backpack needs to be found, etc. Other issues are far more important, like how to find the best and right after school care.

The litany of items to be checked off the list is daunting, school supplies (or a cheque to the school), extra-curricular activities and the attendant scheduling, plus making certain your child is mentally and emotionally ready to go back to the daily grind. It all adds up to the last few days of summer being anything but carefree for mom and dad.

There are some tips and tricks to make back to school better and community organizations which go the extra mile to step into the breach when writing another cheque is simply not an option.

For many kids back to school is a source of anticipatory joy. That is just how Grade 2 teacher Deb Winsby likes them. Winsby has taught at Helen Gorman Elementary in West Kelowna since 1993, most of that has been teaching the primary grades. “I like them to walk in with some confidence, excitement. In Grade 2 that is easy, kids have been through Grade 1, they get it. So in Grade 2 there is some optimism.”

Winsby has the experience to realize that a parent knows their child best and one of the top ways to prepare a nervous little one is to encourage them to think about school in a positive way. “If you have a nervous child, try to get at the reason why they are not excited about school and listen to them. Then talk about and encourage the positive things they do like.”

If back to school is emotional for your child despite your best efforts, then Winsby recommends a quick visit to the teacher. “I like a parent to come in and see me so I’m prepared. We aren’t mind readers and with 23 little bodies and people to get to know it helps to understand when maybe a little extra attention is needed.”

Strong communication between the parent and teacher combined with a steady routine at school can usually overcome initial jitters. When it comes to the routine of homework Winsby hopes parents remember that a five-hour day is a long time for younger children and the homework rule of thumb is about 10 minutes per day per grade. “My personal philosophy in the younger grades is to have a routine where you read every day and do a little math and you should be fine.”

One school-related item that can be difficult to deal with is the back to school fee sheet that comes home the first day or two of school. The fees cover cultural events and a school supply bill. At many elementary schools there are standardized lists of school supplies bought in bulk by the district and then parents have the option of purchasing the complete kit from the school. At middle school and high school, there is a text book caution fee and the field trips certainly do not cost less than elementary school.

“The downloading of fees onto parents is happening because the schools are being starved of funds,” says Alice Rees, president of the Central Okanagan Teachers Association.

The direct fees hit people at the economic margins the hardest, says Rees. Usually it is single parents, mostly mothers who find the fees unmanageable. Rees estimates that about one in 30 children in the school system will have a parent who cannot make the fees.

Usually the school will find supplies somewhere or the teacher will step in to fill in the gap with the general classroom supplies many teachers fund themselves. Rees says it is a well known fact that teachers spend an average of $1,000 to $1,500 per year from their own pocket on assorted items for the classroom. It has not been a welcome trend in the profession but a move of desperation.  That need should be met with government funding declares Rees: “The costs of public education are being downloaded to the parent.”

“We are recognizing the greater losses of services and programming in our schools,” she says, “yet our democracy rests on the education of our students.”

You can help with lightening the load on teachers and parents who need a little extra this fall.  Staples, at the Dilworth Shopping Centre fundraises with their customers to supply students in need. The store takes donations at the till and puts them towards in-house gift certificates which are distributed through local teachers. It is done so that teachers can assess students in the greatest need and make sure there are new supplies for students who might otherwise go without or feel stigmatized for not having the latest equipment.

One of the most visible signs of back to school is the backpack. Each year hundreds of Kelowna families participate in the Victory Life Fellowship Back to School Bash. Last week, 675 people attended the event and 500 backpacks were handed out, while 180 free haircuts were done to help get ready for the big first day at school.

“There are people who really do need it,” says Diana Tripke, the event’s organizer.

“This is a fun event and it is about our generous community giving back. The events keep increasing in size,” says Tripke.

Getting your child to the opening bell requires different planning for working parents than the bell at the end of the school day. After school care for children of working parents is always a primary concern.

Alison Graf, the general manager of community and strategic initiatives for the YM-YWCA recommends that parents look for a licensed program, ideally close to their own school or neighborhood to build familiarity and a healthy staff/student ratio.

“Be confident that the program you choose supports your family values,” says Graf. “Remember school is a big day and kids need to relax too.”

For parents whose children participate or want to participate in after school activities the scheduling can be a logistical puzzle worthy of military precision. The new expansion at the Rutland YM-YWCA has a huge new slate of programming for fall for all ages to take advantage of the new gym and play spaces.

For extracurricular sports with intensity Graf urges parents to remember, “Not ever sport is going to fly with your child.  Create a balance and go with what resonates in your child.”

There comes an age when parents role in picking and choosing evolves.  At some point in the early teen years the environment changes and the priorities veer to social cues.  For retailers, the “tween” and early teen cohort are big business.

You can see the tribes stalking the racks at Orchard Park mall. Mothers and daughters go through hanger after hanger in search of the perfect outfit with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The population of fathers and sons shopping for back to school is visibly sparse.

Trisha Jeffery has four children between the ages of five and 14. The only mitigating factor in her kids’ tastes in clothes getting more expensive as they age was her oldest daughter’s part-time job. “I try not to get sick to my stomach when I look at everything I’ve bought since the beginning of August, from school bags to shoes,” laughs Jeffery. “The oldest one had a summer job, so she bought more of what she liked this year. The younger ones have some hand-me-downs.”

One mom of three girls visiting Kelowna from Chilliwack was equally blunt. “One brand new outfit only. Everything else gets spread out into fall until the weather gets cooler. It is just too much all at once. While it is still warm in the fall they can wear their summer clothes.”

But the back to school budget somehow gets managed, and every year is a big year for a child. A positive start is not necessarily the perfect pair of jeans, but embracing the bountiful opportunities ahead.


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