Alicia Cathers, of Telford, Pa. (pop. 4,680), remembers a time when going back to school meant a fresh box of crayons, notebook paper, a Trapper Keeper and folders with her favorite animals on them. “I looked forward to that all year,” says Cathers, who now buys school supplies for her son Alex, a student at Vernfield Elementary School.
Of course, times have changed since Cathers, 34, graduated from high school in 1988. Sure, familiar brands like Elmer’s, Aladdin and Crayola are still back-to-school staples, but names like Texas Instruments (TI), Hewlitt Packard (HP) and Apple are on today’s “must have” supply list as well.
So what’s hot? “I’m saving up for an iPod,” says Alex, 11, adding that his favorite back-to-school item would allow him to listen to music while riding the school bus.
Isabel Ross, an upcoming senior at University School of Nashville (Tenn.), agrees. “iPod’s are definitely a must-have at school, assuming the school allows it,” says Ross, 17. “It helps if you’re in the hallway, and there’s a lot of noise. It’s also a nice escape sometimes if you’re feeling really stressed.”
However, more practical educational items such as personal organizers, pop-up lunch totes and hi-tech calculators also are popular at schools across the nation. “At my school, we are required to have a TI graphing calculator,” Isabel says.
Still, the basics of school supplies haven’t really changed that much. “A pencil’s still a pencil,” says Ivan Reed, of Delray Beach, Fla. (pop. 60,020), Office Depot’s senior manager of campaigns. “What’s changed is the technology.”
This year, Office Depot is offering a liquid graphite pencil ($3 per three pack) that looks and feels like the real thing but never needs sharpening. And they even write in that all-important No. 2 graphite, which remains a requirement for taking standardized tests after all these years.
Other old standards also have a new look. Reed remembers using brown paper bags to cover his schoolbooks. “The corners would wear down, the paper would tear, and every book looked alike,” he says.
But today’s students use stretchable book covers ($1 to $4) in a variety of colors and prints. They’re easy to put on, fit a variety of book sizes, and are washable and reusable.
Other popular variations on standard school supplies include:
• Pop-Up Lunch Tote (by California Innovations)—Remember picking out the metal Green Hornet lunch box with the glass thermos? Today’s students prefer the convenience of this collapsible bag, which folds down to the size of a CD once the tuna sandwich is traded or eaten. (Cost: $8)
• Franklin’s Princeton Review Pocket Prep—Why lug around that oversized, outdated Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) prep book? Today’s upperclassmen just pocket this device, a tutorial on the verbal, mathematic and essay sections of the new SAT. (Cost: $179.95)
• Texas Instruments’ TI-84 Plus Graphing Calculator—Sure, kids still learn basic mathematics by memorization and rote. But when it comes to advanced functions such as interactive geometry and trigonometry, it’s time for something more than the basic calculator mom uses to total the grocery bill. This model has nine times the memory and twice the speed of last year’s. (Cost: around $149.99)
• Handheld Organizer—Once organization meant a Trapper Keeper, with its many pockets and folders. Students in 2005 can stay organized electronically by entering assignments, upcoming test dates or a cheerleading tryout time into this handheld device. (Cost: Organizers can range from $29 for the Sharp Personal Organizer with Microsoft Outlook to $399 for the PalmOne Tungsten T5.)
• JanSport Air Cure Backpack—No more trudging through the hall with those dinky shoulder straps digging into your skin. Using what JanSport describes as padded “airlift” straps, wearers can dramatically reduce the stress on their back and shoulders. This ergonomic backpack is built for the modern student with room for books, a laptop computer, an organizer, calculator, and even has a side opening for music player headphones. (Cost: $90)