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What Happens to the Lost-and-Found Mound at the End of the Year?

The pile of students’ forgotten belongings at Elkhorn Valley View Middle School in Nebraska is big enough to fill the back of a pickup truck by the end of the school year, said Principal Chad Soupir.

Educators like Soupir recognize that kids can be forgetful, as evidenced by the bins, boxes, and tables full of students’ forgotten personal items that accumulate over the course of the academic year at just about every school in the nation. And, while managing overflowing lost-and-found piles doesn’t rank nearly as serious a challenge as, say, chronic absenteeism or subpar reading scores, it’s nonetheless a problem that needs to be addressed relatively quickly before the last day of school.

Following is a look at some creative ways schools are managing lost-and-found overflow—think recycling and “upcycling,” or transforming unwanted items into those perceived as more valuable—sometimes with assistance from outside resources.

But first, a glance at what’s in these piles: the forgotten, the strange, and the gross.

Single shoes, water bottles, and prescription glasses fill lost-and-found boxes

The personal belongings that students leave behind sometimes confound educators.

“Students leave behind interesting things. Something that surprises me are the water bottles. These are expensive! The Stanley water bottle has become a social status item among middle schoolers and as costly/important that these are to them, they are left behind without names on them,” said Soupir.

Joseph Passantino, principal of Honolulu’s Ke‘elikolani Middle School, shared similar sentiments: “Most of our [lost-and-found] pile consists of water bottles and clothes like jackets or sweatshirts. It is always surprising to me that the water bottles that are left behind are like $30 water bottles,” he said.

Some lost-and-found items are geographically specific.

Dave Dershin, principal of Randy Smith Middle School in Fairbanks, Alaska, said that kids at his school forget lots of things, including heavy jackets and other warm clothing items. He’s even seen a pair of “bunny boots” in the lost-and-found: expensive boots made to weather temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Other forgotten personal belongings that perplex educators? Single items normally part of a pair—including gloves, socks, and shoes. Administrators say many students also leave behind prescription glasses, and one principal said students are more likely to claim forgotten “fidget spinners,” items designed to help students focus, than they are to retrieve prescription glasses.

Some of the most disgusting items? Lunch boxes containing very old sandwiches and other food, and damp clothing that gets moldy.

Recycling piles of personal belongings that students left behind

While not every lost-and-found item warrants salvaging (think stale lunches), many do. And some schools are creative about how they manage the forgotten items.

At the end of each marking period, administrators at Middleburgh Jr./Sr. High School in Schoharie County, N.Y., make a public announcement urging students to retrieve items. Whatever students don’t claim is donated to the school’s Community Closet, a student-run initiative through which clothing that is still in good shape from the lost-and-found is washed and displayed on campus, along with toiletries, school supplies and other items, so students in need can take them free, explained Matthew A. Sloane, the principal of the school.

“We offer formal wear, sports clothes, sweaters, and jackets. They are all gently worn and washed before being displayed. Students can come in without fear of judgment and get items they need for whatever reason,” Sloane said. The Community Closet, launched by students who are part of the Liberty Partnership program, a collaboration of dozens of higher education institutions across New York , aims to support at-risk middle and high school students.

While several school administrators told Education Week that they donate remaining lost-and-found items to local homeless shelters, initiatives like the Community Closet are particularly appealing because the items go directly to students in need. In some instances, partners from outside the school facilitate this donation cycle.

Outside partners manage lost-and-found overload and support students in need

David Kobierski, a Phoenix-area entrepreneur, started a charitable organization called the Found Foundation in January 2023 after noticing that many lost-and-found items were donated to places like Goodwill rather than given directly to children in need.

The charitable organization consists of him and a barebones staff of two, plus a third-party telemarketing service that assists with phone calls for requests to retrieve unclaimed lost-and-found items from K-12 schools throughout Maricopa County in Arizona. Additionally, the organization partners with Nourish Phoenix, a local nonprofit food and clothing bank, which provides volunteers who sort through useful items as well as a local site for distribution to families.

Kobierski estimates that they’ll collect and recycle around 2,000 large, trash can-size bags of clothes from area schools by the end of December 2024.

Former teacher Jennifer Finnegan saw the need to reuse these recycled items picking up toward the end of her 15-year career in Duval County, Fla. She quit her teaching job to dedicate her time to The Giving Closet Project, Inc., a nonprofit that she began as a self-described “passion project” in 2016.

“Before [school] breaks, I would see custodians bagging up the lost-and-found items and throwing them away,” she said. At the same time, she noticed an uptick in homeless students. She particularly remembers one student who lived in her car and kept her belongings in plastic bags.

Today, Finnegan continues to operate the nonprofit, which she said has reached 12,000-plus students in schools throughout the Duval and Palm Beach county school districts.

The nonprofit receives weekly referrals through its online system from counselors, case managers, social workers, and teachers at participating schools, explains Finnegan. A local laundromat donates free cleaning services for the clothing they collect. Volunteers deliver “care packages” to schools within a week of their request.

“If a child’s basic needs are not going to be met, it is going to affect them,” Finnegan said. “And a lot of schools are understaffed right now and can’t even get substitutes, let alone getting someone to manage the lost-and-found.”

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