SCHENECTADY — Third-graders Solymar Selim and Jahida Sferrazza couldn’t decide what they wanted. There were too many choices.
Browsing through the offerings at Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School’s store of donated clothes — called Unique Boutique — the pair of friends examined dresses and shirts, shoes and socks, hats, gloves, scarves, jackets and toiletries. But as their time in the school store wound down, they were still empty-handed.
“We don’t know what to get,” Jahida said after they finished sifting through a bin of clothes waiting to be sorted and hung on one of a dozen racks distributed throughout the classroom-turned-shop.
“There are too many things,” Solymar agreed as she started pouring over the shelves of shoes.
The store, which opened in the spring and upgraded to a full classrooom over the summer, opens to students for the last 45 minutes of the day, three days a week. The school’s social workers and other staff manage inventory and help guide students as they shop through the clothes and make purchases using special dollars they earn in class.
“They are too overwhelmed of too many things to choose from,” said Courtney Bordeau, a speech therapist who was manning the store’s cashier’s desk last week as Solymar and Jahida repeated laps through the store.
With one of the highest poverty rates and some of the lowest state test scores in the district, MLK’s Unique Boutique is meant to give students access to new clothes they might not otherwise have.
Clothing has long been a challenge at MLK and other schools, where students sometimes come in without the full apparel needed for the season or a student needs an immediate change of clothes during the day. In the past, the school nurse stashed spare clothes in her office, the social workers said, but now she can slip into the store and grab what a student needs.
“You start to see that clothing is important for all kids,” social worker Ed McCorry said. “No kid is immune from from wanting new clothes that are their own.”
But the store is also set up so students have to earn their right to shop freely for stylish shoes or a warm coat. Students earn “dollars” in their classes for demonstrating skills tied to monthly themes — good character and citizenship, for example. One dollar can buy one item in the boutique.
Giving the students the chance to shop, try on clothes and spend the dollars they have earned helps build social skills while also bolstering students’ seasonal wardrobe, McCorry said.
The store is also stocked with clothes for babies and adults, giving students a chance to shop for family members too.
“Some of them will buy things for their siblings; they’ll say I want to buy this for my mother or my brother,” said social worker Ellen Mueller, who has worked in fashion and helped manage turning the class into a store. “It brings out the best in them.”
Up to around a dozen students can shop at once, wandering between racks and trying on outfits in the dressing room, curtained off in a corner of the room. Mueller and the other teachers and staff who help run the room try to offer clothes and styles the kids are interested in. Dresses go fast and kids try hard to prove that a good pair of shoes fits their feet. The City Mission provides fresh deliveries of donated clothes on Thursdays, and the school has sought donations from other sources as well.
“The summer collection is all packed up," Mueller said. "This is our winter collection."
As other students came and went, Solymar and Jahida continued to circle in on their ultimate purchases.
“Oh, I like this jacket,” Solymar said as she walked past a ski jacket on a rack full of winter gear. “It will match the book bag over there.” But matching wasn’t an option with a single dollar to spend.
Another possible buy went to another girl who had selected it first. She didn’t like a dress after trying it on. But Jahida liked the dress and picked her purchase.
“It has lots of clothes, and I like shopping,” Jahida said of the boutique room after at least 10 minutes of browsing. “Shopping is the only thing I want to do.”
Solymar circled back to a pair of warm boots she had earlier eyed but passed by. As soon as she slipped them on she decided.
“I want them,” she said.