Santa Cruz County educators seek educational equity with Stuff the Bus drive

By  | | Santa Cruz Sentinel

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SANTA CRUZ — Hiding in plain sight, Santa Cruz County’s population of homeless children accounts for approximately one in every 20 students, according to county Office of Education officials.

While Santa Cruz County, as with other communities across the country, struggles to get its arms around the thorny issue of homelessness, families often are forced to make financial decisions that may result in sending their children to school without all the tools they need to learn, according to Office of Education’s Homeless Project Coordinator Erika Cortes. Citing the California Department of Education’s DataQuest reporting system statistics, Cortes said Santa Cruz County’s homeless student population is about 45% higher than the statewide average.

“I think sometimes education supplies and need are put into this forgo pile of, ‘This is not what we need to survive at the moment,'” Cortes said of the tough choices she sees families having to make.

Families with children in elementary through high school plan to spend an average of $890.07 on back-to-school items this year, up about $25 from last year, according to trade group National Retail Federation.

This month, the county Office of Education, paired with fundraising partner United Way of Santa Cruz County, is taking a step toward ensuring increased educational equity with the annual monthlong Stuff the Bus fundraising campaign. Through community donations and volunteer efforts, thousands of new backpacks are purchased and filled with basic school supplies before being distributed to the local school districts and other community partners. The effort culminates Aug. 5, when volunteers will gather for a one-day session of filling the bags and “stuffing” them into a bus for transport back to the Office of Education’s Encinal Street headquarters. The Stuff the Bus campaign will fill backpacks with three-ring binders and notebooks, coloring and writing utensils, highlighters, rulers, staplers and more.

The program was launched in 2009 when the United Way first partnered with the Office of Education to bolster its Write Start Backpack Project, which had launched two decades earlier.

Prepared from Day 1

Sharing that she, too, was once classified as a “student in transition,” Cortes said at one point for her family, even coming up with a calculator was a challenge.

“Showing up to school without a backpack sends a message to students that from the start of the morning, they’re already less prepared to learn than their peers,” Cortes said. “It’s discouraging and over time, can create negative associations about their ability to learn and be successful in school.”

Amanda Gamban, United Way’s resource development and marketing manager, is leading this year’s fundraising effort. She said community and corporate donations have been strong this year, which has been timely on the heels of several years of increased pressure from factors such as the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 CZU Lightning Complex fires and this winter’s Pajaro Valley flooding. Any backpacks that exceed United Way’s goal of about 2,800 backpacks will be saved for midyear transfer students and other emergent needs, such as with the flooding, she said.

“We’re really thankful we’re getting so much support, because a lot of those backpacks — a majority of them — have historically gone to South County students,” Gamban said. “With the need this year, with the students that were affected by the floods, like Pajaro Valley Middle School, a lot of those backpacks are going to be going down there.”

Dropping count but continued need

The Stuff the Bus program is essential, Cortes said, because homelessness is a communitywide problem that requires a communitywide response and the problem will take more than a housing supply to fix.

“Ultimately, it’s about equipping a student with a backpack and helps promote their belongingness, their safety, community, preparedness and confidence,” Cortes said.

Some 2,857 homeless children and youth — defined broadly under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act as those who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence — were tabulated countywide during the 2021-2022 school year. That figure, down more than 25% from the previous school year, was still 558 more individuals than were counted in last year’s Santa Cruz County Homeless Point in Time count, which includes both adults and children and more narrowly defines the homeless status. Cortes speculated that the increased cost of living locally may be driving families to either leave or let their children drop out of school, accounting for the decreased homeless youth tally.

In a recent column for the Sentinel, County Office of Education Superintendent Faris Sabbah noted a general 2.2% drop in countywide K-12 enrollment in 2022-2023, compared to the prior school year. That drop, to 38,025 students, represented the lowest enrollment level since the mid-1990s, according to Sabbah.

At a glance

• Campaign runs through Aug. 1.

• $25 pays for one backpack filled with supplies.

• One-day “Stuff the Bus” event at 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Aug. 5 at Kaiser Permanente Arena, 140 Front St., Santa Cruz. Volunteer sign-up is required.

• Donate, sign up and find drop-off sites online at