Bellingham High students enjoy their newly released yearbook, spring 2021

Equity work takes many forms in Bellingham Public Schools, but there is almost no other clearer manifestation of it than in the Project Free Education initiative over the past decade in the district.

Spearheaded by Superintendent Greg Baker when he arrived in the district in 2010-11, the purpose of this initiative is to reduce the financial burden of a public school education on families. One of the first major changes was a pivot to full-day kindergarten from a half-time schedule. Some families who could were paying for full-day, five days a week. This change in the district was implemented before the state of Washington provided funds for it.

Also in Dr. Baker’s first year, a districtwide audit revealed that school supplies cost families substantial amounts of money per student. To offset these costs, the district started reprioritizing budgets to provide all school supplies that families had been asked to buy, as well as other costs associated with attending school and participating in sports, activities and field trips like Mountain School and the Snow Goose.

As a starting point in that very first year, the district began buying school supplies for all elementary students at every elementary school. It soon expanded to simplified supply lists for middle and high schools. By 2015, all supplies were covered at all schools. Since it began, Project Free Education has expanded almost every year.

Assistant Superintendent Jay Jordan was in the district as the principal at Shuksan Middle School when the initiative first launched. He remembers when the district began working on and adjusting the cost of middle school sports (2013) and how the district literally leveled the playing field for some families and students. Jordan also expressed how progressive and proactive our district and superintendent has been in this equity work.

“Perhaps one of the biggest signs at how forward-thinking Dr. Baker has been supporting families with the true cost of a child’s education is that Washington state recently passed House Bill 1660 in June 2020,” Jordan said. “This house bill now directs all school districts in the state to adopt a policy waiving fees and costs for students who are low income. This work has been a part of our culture for a decade.”

In 2018-19, two exciting developments were implemented through the program at the high school level. In that school year, driver’s education (through the Traffic Safety and Financial Education course) was included back into high school course offerings at no cost. Additionally, graduating seniors no longer needed to buy their own graduation cap and gown. Graduates are now loaned a graduation gown and receive a cap and tassel to keep.

As of spring 2021, in one of the latest expansions of the initiative, all student yearbooks at middle and high school are covered. Previously, due to cost, students had been routinely left out of the jubilant and fun yearbook signings at the end of every school year. Now every student receives a yearbook at no cost and doesn’t need to feel the burden of not being able to afford it.

Staff member Erin Voiss shared how this recent expansion of Project Free Education will have a positive effect on kids based on her own experience growing up.

Voiss wrote in a June email to Superintendent Baker that “truly free education is close to my heart and the fact that ASB cards and yearbooks are now being included in that makes me so happy!”

“I was one of those low-income kids who couldn’t get a yearbook every year due to cost,” she continued, “and not only did it make me feel super self-conscious and out of place during yearbook signing, but it was sad for me because I wanted to remember and be able to look back at pictures just like any kid that age. “

Being an equitable organization continues to be a major pillar of The Bellingham Promise. It is actively called out in the key strategy of A One Schoolhouse Approach when it states “we provide an equitable distribution of resources and services to ensure excellence for all students.”  With that in mind, Bellingham Public Schools strives to provide all the supplies, fees and other costs students need for learning. And with the latest manifestations, we can include social emotional learning by erasing inequities about feeling a sense of belonging.

The full history and evolution of what supplies and other costs are now covered can be found online at bellinghamschools.org/project-free-education.

BHS photo credit: Evelyn Parbon

KMS photo credit: Katherine Hendricks

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