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Bellingham School District levels the financial playing field for families

Project Free Education is an initiative that aims to increase equity amongst all Bellingham School District students

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Bellingham High School is one of 22 public schools in the Bellingham School District. Every public school in Bellingham is part of Project Free Education, which provides supplies and opportunities to students at no cost. // Photo courtesy of Bellingham Public Schools

Bellingham School District’s Project Free Education is aiming to reduce financial barriers for families of Bellingham students. 10 years ago, the district’s leadership team sought out to find costs, hidden and not-so-hidden, that were causing families to struggle to provide their children with necessities. The program finds itself still going strong today.

Enacting this initiative back in 2011 required the district to rearrange their budget and prioritize closing the gaps left by state funding.

This year for the first time, Project Free Education will provide yearbooks to students at no cost. Additionally, Project Free Education provides all-day kindergarten to all students, free school supplies, reduced testing fees for high school students, covers the costs of field trips and more. 

 Bellingham School District communications director and media liaison, Dana Smith, said the goal of Project Free Education was to create “an overall initiative to look at all the hidden costs that might be there in schools for families, and try to reduce them as much as possible.” 

Smith explained that one of the largest costs eliminated by Project Free Education is school supplies. The initiative provides vital school supplies, such as pencils, notebooks and even graphing calculators to students at no cost. 

Project Free Education also covers the cost of athletics for middle and high school students. In many school districts, student athletes must pay to participate in sports. 

“Our goal is to provide a free public education, and we think that activities and athletics, and all the other things that are part of school, are part of that education too,” Smith said. “That’s where students find their passions and their connections.”

Bellingham School District superintendent, Dr. Greg Baker, said the initiative’s main goal is to provide “equitable access to resources and opportunities for all students.” 

Jennifer Schiffner, a fourth grade teacher at Roosevelt Elementary School in Bellingham explained that she has taught in other districts where students were expected to bring their own supplies and that Project Free Education has made a huge difference in leveling the playing field for all students. 

“I feel more supported in my teaching knowing that simple supplies are taken care of,” Schiffner said. 

Another cost covered by Project Free Education are field trips. In the Bellingham School District, all fifth-graders are invited to participate in Mountain School, a two-night field trip in which students spend time outdoors learning about their surroundings. Under Project Free Education, this trip, which was previously very costly, is now free to all families and is included in fifth grade curriculum.

“Prior to Project Free Education, some of the kids just knew that they weren’t going to be able to afford it, so you see those kids and they start making up excuses early,” said Schiffner, who previously taught fifth grade.“‘So just to know that everybody will easily be able to go to a big event like that, is huge for all the kids.”

In other school districts, high school students pay their own testing fees for the PSAT or Advanced Placement tests, creating fees up to $100 per test. Additionally, the PSAT was held on a Saturday and was optional for students. 

However, Project Free Education now covers the cost of the PSAT, it is held on a school day and the test is given to all students in Bellingham’s four high schools. 

Smith said that taking the PSAT can “put students on the radar of colleges,” and that allowing all students to take this exam is another way of leveling the playing field.

The newest component of the initiative this year is free yearbooks for all middle and high school students. 

“All students take part in creating the yearbook,” Baker said. “The yearbook is considered an annual capstone project for all high school students, and we are pleased to be able to remove another financial barrier for our students and families.”

Paige Thibaut is a second-year student at Western double-majoring in Journalism and Political Science. This is Paige’s first quarter on The Front and she is currently a city news reporter interested in covering all sorts of current events. When not reporting, Paige enjoys spending time outdoors or with her dog. You can contact Paige at paigethibaut.thefront@gmail.com.


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