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Back To School Burden: New Orleans Families Hit Hard By The Cost Of Returning To School

Cheundra Bailey is struggling to find a way to pay for her daughter's high school uniform.
Jess Clark
WWNO - New Orleans Public Radio
Cheundra Bailey (right) is struggling to find a way to pay for her daughter's high school uniform.

In New Orleans, many families are living paycheck to paycheck. So when the start of the school year comes around, the added cost of returning to the classroom can be a major burden. 

Cheundra Bailey lights up when her ninth-grade daughter Keandra opens the door to their small ground-floor apartment in Central City. Keandra just got home from volleyball practice, and she’s still wearing her volleyball shorts. Over them she has on a brand new white oxford shirt - the green Cohen College Prep High School emblem embroidered over the breast pocket. Keandra says she doesn't mind wearing a uniform.

"They straight," she says, before ducking into her bedroom to unwind.

But finding a way to pay for this uniform was a major source of stress for her mother.

"It's a struggle," Bailey says.

Bailey has a catering business, but it's slowed to a standstill. She says she and her partner are applying for jobs daily, but they both have criminal records, and that makes it really hard to find work.

"You just get weary," Bailey says. "You're trying to look for work, and you filling out application after application, and you not getting no call." 

Bailey says she had to turn to family to get a pair of khaki uniform pants for each of her girls, and a pair of black shoes.

"That was a major, major help - just for the start," Bailey says.

"I don't want her to come home and don't have no lights, or don't have no water. That would kill me" - Cheundra Bailey

Cohen College Prep also gives each student one free uniform shirt. But Bailey doesn’t know how she’s going to pay for another one, or for more pants. And Bailey is more worried about the fact that her electric bill is due in a few days.

"I don't want it to get to that point with my child being here - I don't want her to come home and don't have lights or don't have no water. That would kill me," she says.

August is the time of year parents are hit with school supply lists: 12 glue-sticks, two packs of markers, one red folder, one green folder, and so on. Market research shows the average household spends nearly 700 dollars a year on back-to-school shopping, the biggest expense being clothes and uniforms. That’s a huge sum for most families, especially in New Orleans, where rents are on the rise, and the median income for black households is just over $25,000 dollars a year.

In the front office at Akili Academy in the Ninth Ward, Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok is prepping for the start of the school year. Meanwhile, parents are coming in throughout the day to pick up supply lists and buy their $15 uniform polos and $15 sweatshirts from the women who run the front desk. Akili, like nearly all public schools in the city, requires students to wear uniforms.

Mehok says Crescent City Schools' three schools are aware of the pressure uniform costs create for families, and they try to find work-arounds.

"For one, we sell all of our uniforms in-house so that we can sell them at cost," Mehok says. She says if a parent tells staff they can't afford to pay, they refer them to their school social worker who figures out what they need. "If a family needs a shirt, they probably have other needs as well," she explains.

This practice of providing uniform help to parents who ask is pretty common across New Orleans charter schools, including at Cohen College Prep, where Keandra goes to school. Of course, it requires that parents know they can ask for help. Bailey says she had no idea that was even an option.

Mehok also says she thinks uniforms can be affordable for families on a tight budget. Uniform khakis and navy skirts and pants around $10 if you buy them at Walmart or other big box stores. Some school leaders and parents feel it's actually cheaper to have uniforms than not. And Mehok says parents like them.

"That's the feedback we get - because it's easy," Mehok says. "You wake up in the morning, you put your red shirt on, and your khaki pants, and your black shoes, and you come to school."

"Uniforms are a way to make all of our students feel that they are one family, one community. There's not competition among clothes" - Crescent City Schools CEO Kate Mehok

Mehok says it’s also easier for schools because they don’t have to worry about enforcing a dress code.

"We also feel like uniforms are a way to make all of our students feel that they are one family, one community. There's not competition among clothes," she says.

Some school leaders say ideally they would be able to provide all the uniforms and supplies families need up front. But it would cost money, and the state hasn’t increased its per-pupil funding in more than 10 years. In fact state funding per student is lower than it was in 2008, adjusted for inflation.

"Things just cost more than they did 10 years ago," Mehok says. "So without that increase, we are feeling very stretched."

Bailey feels stretched too.

"I just try to stay prayed up," she says. "And to keep everyone that I love around me prayed up."

Bailey says for her, it would be easier and cheaper if her daughter could come to school in the clothes she already has. She’s planning to reach out to school staff to see if they can give her some extra uniform shirts. But her immediate concern is keeping the lights and the air-conditioning on for her daughter.

Where to find free back-to-school supplies

Aug. 25: Orleans Parish School Board and Audubon Zoo host the Back To School Fest at the Audubon Zoo from 10:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. Event will include school supply giveaways. Complimentary admission will be given to first 10,000 students. Students must wear a school shirt.

Support for WWNO's education reporting comes from Entergy Corporation.

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