School days: Back-to-school shopping ritual limited for many rural families in region

Authored By Jenni Frankenberg Veal

As summer comes to a close, many of us assume that all children will have the opportunity to run through store aisles gathering up school supplies: bright crayons, freshly sharpened pencils, folders in every color of the rainbow, shiny new sneakers and some new duds to impress.

However, the reality for many Southeast Tennessee families is that this ritual shopping effort causes toxic financial stress-or doesn’t take place at all.

According to the National Retail Federation, back-to-school spending this year is expected to average $634.78 per family. The biggest share of the cost is clothes ($231.30 per family), shoes ($124.46 per family) and electronics ($212.35-$229.88 per family).

Given Chattanooga’s cultural charm and aggressive growth, it is easy to forget that the Scenic City is located within the heart of Appalachia, a historically economically distressed region of about 25 million people that stretches along the Appalachian Mountains from southern New York to northern Mississippi. While some Appalachian communities have successfully diversified their economies, many rural communities continue to struggle with high poverty, unemployment, poor health and severe educational disparities.

Within an hour’s drive from Chattanooga, Southeast Tennessee is home to three counties that rank in the top 10 percent of the nation’s most economically distressed counties, according to the Appalachian Regional Commission: Grundy, Meigs and Bledsoe counties.

The commission has also identified Polk, McMinn and Rhea counties as “at-risk,” which means they may become economically distressed and that they rank in the top 10 to 25 percent of the nation’s most economically depressed areas.

Just to compare, in Hamilton County (which is considered by ARC to be in “transition” between a strong and weak economy), 59 percent of students are considered to be from families that are economically disadvantaged, according to the 2013-2014 State of Education in Tennessee report. In the three “distressed” rural counties of Southeast Tennessee, the percent of economically disadvantaged students jumps to 70 percent in Meigs County, 79 percent in Grundy County and 84 percent in Bledsoe County.

In our region’s three “at-risk” counties, economically disadvantaged students make up 61 percent of students in McMinn County, 71 percent of students in Polk County and 74 percent of students in Rhea County.

“One year, we had a student who was living in a tent with her family next to Cookson Creek,” said Joel Cox, federal projects director for the Polk County Board of Education. “Our school pitched in to help support this family, but the need was great. We washed their clothes at night at the high school and helped them find assistance and housing. The daughter was a very bright student, but living where she was living, what chance was she going to have?”

So it’s clear that back-to-school shopping bliss is not universal, especially in many rural communities surrounding Chattanooga. That is why school supply donation efforts are critical-and opportunities to donate and make a difference are appreciated at regional schools through the year.

Each summer, the Polk County Chamber of Commerce hosts a Stuff the Bus campaign to purchase supplies for students in the county’s six schools. Other efforts are sponsored through the Copper Basin Medical Center in Copperhill; the Polk County Baptist Association in Benton; and the nonprofit organization People Helping People in Benton, which provides clothing, furniture, household needs and school supplies to economically distressed residents of Polk County.

The need is great, according to Cox, and donations and supplies are accepted and appreciated-throughout the year.

 ”We are always in need of donations and supplies,” Cox said. “Anyone interested in donating school supplies, children’s books, paper, backpacks or funds can contact these organizations or any of the Polk County schools directly.”

Every donation makes a difference-for students, teachers, schools and the region as a whole.

“If a child has school supplies when he or she begins school, it is one less thing the family and the child has to worry about,” said Amanda Prichett, elementary school supervisor for Meigs County schools. “The earlier we can intervene, the better.”

In Meigs County, school supply fundraising efforts are sponsored by the Give a Kid a Chance program through Cottonport Road Church of God and Meigs County Ministries, which are both located in Decatur. Each of the four schools in Meigs County will accept donations and supplies throughout the year as well. Contact Prichett at [email protected] for details.

This year, if you are wondering what to do with a perfectly suitable backpack or a cheery elementary-aged book that is collecting dust on the shelf-or if you feel inspired to purchase an extra this or that while shopping for school supplies-think about donating it to a rural school not too far down the road in Southeast Tennessee.

Click here for a complete list of school districts in Southeast Tennessee.

Jenni Frankenberg Veal enjoys writing about the people and places that make Southeast Tennessee unique. Visit her blog at