The 2015-2016 school year is upon us. Are you ready? To get up to speed, take note of a dozen trends around the country that are having an impact on what students are wearing to school, when your child has to get up in the morning for the start of the school day, how much families must chip in for class supplies and school activities, which kids are most likely to be left behind inside and outside the classroom, and more.
Later School Starting Times
The CDC and pediatricians are among the many who recommend later start times for schools in order to assure that kids get enough sleep. And slowly, schools seem to be getting the message. Three-quarters of high schools in the northern-latitude states of North Dakota and Alaska begin the day at 8:30 a.m. or later, and a trickling of schools in places like Yakima, Wash., and Denver, Colo., are joining their ranks this fall. States such as New Jersey have agreed to study the impact of later school start times as well. On the other hand, nationwide, more than 80% of public high schools still start the day before 8:30 a.m.
Growing Extracurricular Activity Gap
Over the past few decades, researchers have traced a trend they describe as "alarming": The percentage of upper- and middle-class kids participating in the drama program, hobby clubs, and other non-athletic afterschool activities has steadily increased, while poor students have followed the opposite trajectory. In the early 1980s, participation in such activities was measured at 65% for low-income high school seniors and 73% for their wealthier counterparts. A decade later, the numbers shifted to 61% and 75%, respectively. By 2004, extracurricular participation rates for low-income seniors were down to 56%.
It's not your imagination. Schools really are asking parents to buy more supplies to keep their kids' classrooms stocked with the basics—everything from tissues to copy paper to Band-Aids. According to the annual Backpack Index from Huntington Bank, a family with three kids (one apiece in elementary, middle, and high school) can expect to pay more than $3,000 this year for school supplies and extracurricular activities. So much for the idea of a free education.
More and More Student Fees
It's not just increasing school supply lists that are pinching parents. Families are also facing new or significantly higher fees for things like riding the bus or parking a car at school, and participating in sports and other programs. Some schools simply asked students to arrive on the first day with a $50 check to serve as payment for vague "activity fees." School districts usually cite budget cuts as the reason fees must be instituted.
The Lunch Lady Goes Gourmet
Forget about Sloppy Joes. Increasingly, parents and school cafeterias are catering to the dietary restrictions and preferences of young people today, with more gluten-free, organic, and vegetarian options. The cuisine at some school cafeterias is growing increasingly sophisticated as well, serving everything from butternut squash ravioli to made-to-order smoothies, and featuring bistro-style breakfasts and carving stations.
Free Lunch for More Students
As of the 2012-2013 school year, 21.5 million kids in American schools received free or reduced-price lunch, as part of the federally funded National Lunch Program. In most cases, free or reduced-price lunches are provided based on the student's household income levels falling within a certain limit. And the number of students eligible for free lunch is on the rise thanks to an increased income threshold, as well as the expansion of communities that can simply forget about the paperwork and provide free lunches to all students. When 40% of the local students qualify for free lunch, the entire school system becomes eligible, allowing vast student populations in parts of Michigan, Massachusetts, Oregon, Idaho, and beyond to get free lunch at school without any stigma, and regardless of their household income.
Back-to-School Spending Shrinks
Over the past decade, back-to-school spending has increased 42%, according to the National Retail Federation (NRF). So the anticipated decrease in spending this season—estimated at an average of $630 per household, down from $669 last year—is perhaps more than anything else an indication that parents are realizing they've gone overboard in the past.
More School Uniforms
One of the more interesting trends cited by the NRF for the 2015-2016 school year is that 28% of surveyed parents say their kids wear uniforms in school. That's the highest rate ever in the poll's history.
First-Day-of-School Fashion Stress
According to a survey conduced for Ebates.com, a coupon and cash-back shopping site, parents and teenagers are in agreement that the most stressful category of back-to-school shopping is clothing. In the comment section of the survey, parents lamented, “My son is so picky,” and explained that “Having to negotiate what [my daughter] can and cannot wear to school” is what makes shopping for school clothing so stressful. As for what stresses out teens about clothes shopping, the two top factors cited were "My parents can't afford what I want" and "My parents don't agree with what I want." No wonder more schools are resorting to uniforms.
Common Core Backlash
The Common Core initiative seeks consistent educational standards throughout the country. That doesn't sound like such a bad thing. But the Common Core and the standardized tests that come along with it have come under enormous criticism from conservatives and liberals alike. Many teachers and parents aren't fans either, largely because the one-size-fits-all approach and the narrow focus on test preparation undermines the teacher's ability to cater lessons to individual students, potentially leaving some kids in the lurch. Movements to opt out of Common Core tests have gained traction in New York, New Jersey, California, and Colorado, among other states, and according to a recent poll, the majority (54%) of public school parents say they oppose teachers using Common Core standards to set the agenda for what they teach.
As more traditional books disappear from schools thanks to e-books and web-based learning, schools are finding that there is less need for the lockers that have lined school hallways for decades. The disappearing locker trend began several years ago and has picked up steam around the country since. And what are schools doing with the extra space once occupied by lockers? Some are installing laptop charging stations.
Nobody Knows How to Pay for College
It's a good thing that many colleges offer heavily discounted tuition via grants, scholarships, and such. After all, the vast majority of Americans say they could not afford the full "sticker price" college tuition. According to a new poll conducted for the financial services firm Edward Jones, a whopping 83% said they couldn't afford the full cost of college for themselves or a loved one. Even among well-off respondents earning $100,000 or more annually, only 37% said they could cover the entire cost of a college education.