TWIN FALLS — A pair of shoes could go a long way.
Since 2015, the First Presbyterian Church has donated $17,250 in gift cards for shoes to the Twin Falls School District.
Good shoes are important, said Darlene Annen, who helped organize the shoe donations.
“Shoes can affect their self-esteem,” Annen said of students. “If their feet are uncomfortable or cold it’s hard to concentrate.”
The project began when Annen, a retired teacher at Filer High School, reached out to the school district to see how the church could help students in need. The district didn’t need school supplies — it needed shoes.
“Sometimes I’m not sure that the general public is aware of how great that need is,” she said.
The Presbyterian church collects donations during the summer and purchases gift cards at Shoe Dept. in the mall. It previously partnered with Payless Shoesource before the store went out of business.
The church gives the gift cards over to the district, which supplies them to students in need. Annen reaches out to the district again in the winter to see if there is further need.
Shoes and other basic necessities are often in need in Twin Falls, which has some of the highest student poverty levels in the state.
Nearly 64% of district students in the 2017-18 school year were eligible for free or reduced price lunch, the 15th highest rate of Idaho’s 90 districts, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
In Idaho, 48% of students qualify for subsidized lunch. Within the Twin Falls School District, 11 of 16 schools are higher than the state average, including three schools — Bickel Elementary, Lincoln Elementary and Bridge Academy — that have 90% of their students qualify.
That can have a real effect on student performance, said Eva Craner, district spokeswoman.
“If a student’s basic needs aren’t being met, it’s hard for them to focus on school, perform academically,” Craner said.
A report by Idaho Ed News showed schools with more disadvantaged students had lower proficiency in math and English Language Arts.
That reality could be exacerbated by Idaho’s per-pupil spending, which ranks next to last in the country, according to a report from Education Week. The state spends $8,422 per student, well below the national average of $12,526, the report shows.
In Twin Falls, per pupil spending is about $6,500.
Making school a priority is a challenge for students struggling with food insecurity and other effects of poverty, Craner said.
“For those of us who don’t struggle with poverty it’s hard to imagine what that’s like,” she said.
The district uses several methods to accommodate low-income families. Organizations such as the First Presbyterian Church and the Twin Falls Optimist Club, which donates winter clothing through its Coats for Kids program, make significant contributions.
An at-risk coordinator employed by the district helps disadvantaged students and those dealing with homelessness.
The district has eight food banks spread throughout its schools to provide food for families in need.
A specific account is set aside to for families with unexpected emergencies and could help pay for things like rent or power bills.
The district also began using an app this year called Purposity, which allows residents to buy items directly for those in need.
Helping students navigate school can impact the community for generations, Craner said.
“As a school district, we feel like we have a big role to play in this because can break the cycle of poverty and change that pathway,” she said. “It takes the whole community coming together and having an impact.”