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Schoolkids' jackets a case of dropped and forgotten

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First-grader Cameron McCormick sat stalling for time in her grandmother's hatchback outside Stockdale Elementary School in southwest Bakersfield. It was time for school, but it was a little cold despite a charcoal gray hoodie she wore to ward against the morning chill.

It's the third jacket her family has purchased for her three months into the 2013-14 school year. She lost another gray one a few weeks ago, and another before that.

"I can't remember what color," Cameron said, shrugging, when asked to describe the wayward garment.

Out of sight, out of mind.

In that respect, 6-year-old Cameron is typical of children her age.

"It hasn't changed in 30 years," said Cameron's grandmother, Annette Dominguez. "I remember going through this when her dad was little."

The culprit is something meteorologists call the "diurnal swing," or the variation in temperature over the course of a single day.

In some areas, high and low daily temperatures aren't that far apart. But in early November in Bakersfield, an average day can swing from an overnight low in the 40s to an afternoon high in the 70s, according to the National Weather Service.

Parents of small children, with sincerely good intentions, dress little ones in layers so they can peel them off as it heats up.

But unlike adults who put outerwear in a closet or over an office chair, elementary school students drop it wherever they happen to be standing -- and leave it there.

There are many cycles in a school year. You can tell it's August when playgrounds that were empty over the summer are once again teeming with children. In October, construction paper pumpkins appear on bulletin boards.

And you can tell it's November when ... you were expecting something about turkeys?

No, the real sign of November is overflowing lost and found bins. They are as sure a sign that fall is near as leaves drifting from the trees.

On any given day, castoff clothing can be found all over Central Valley elementary schools.

Most often, it's on the playground, but it could be anywhere: a school bus, a cafeteria, the computer lab.

Sara Angelillo, 30, has managed to hang onto the clothes her 5-year-old son wears to Stockdale, but she's had a few near misses.

"He came home in somebody else's sweater awhile ago," Angelillo said. "We switched the next day."

At Veterans Elementary School in northeast Bakersfield Thursday, a lost and found bin had overflowed, its contents spilled over the sides onto the ground.

"You can see where it threw up, there, where people were going through it," joked Principal Matthew Baxter. "It's pretty crazy how much gets left out."

Jenn German is a yard aide at Veterans. She estimates she retrieves 10 to 15 jackets and sweatshirts a day this time of year.

Recess is the worst.

"They just get hot and throw them on the ground," German said. "And some of them are school-affiliated jackets, you know with the logos on them, and those things are like $30 apiece."

Fellow yard aide Elizabeth Leininger is heartbroken by what she finds casually discarded.

"Nice stuff, and they drop it in the dirt or the wet grass and it's all stained," she said.

Both German and Leininger are parents, and their own families are not immune even with mothers for whom the issue is top of mind.

"I've given up," Leininger said of efforts to get her 8- and 9-year-old sons to come home from school with their jackets.

At Stockdale, administrators try to keep children and their jackets together, too, to no avail.

"We put the lost and found where it's visible during recess, and in the morning announcements every day we remind the kids to go in there and look through it if they've lost something, but they almost never do," said Principal M.T. Mericke.

Half the time students don't even realize they've lost something, so it would never occur to them to look for it, said Brenda Cassell, principal of Horizon Elementary School in southeast Bakersfield.

"We try to get parents to label the clothes so we can find out who they belong to, but that's not really happening," she said.

Trini Tran, 40, has a 10-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son at Stockdale. She's seen notes sent home in backpacks imploring parents to label clothes, but hasn't done it even though her daughter has already lost a jacket this year.

"I just figured she was old enough to be more responsible and could recognize her own clothes," said Tran, who isn't willing to dig through a heaping lost and found hunting jackets down.

"I'll go look on the first day, but if it goes longer than that then by the time you get them back, they're usually all dirty," she said. "Jackets are cheap. You can just buy another one."

That is evidently how a lot of parents feel. So many clothes go unclaimed that by winter break, campuses have run out of room to store them.

That's why during the next few weeks, schools will be sending frantic notes and emails warning parents of a semiannual purge. Anything that isn't claimed by such and such date will be donated to charity.

Some schools get creative as the deadline approaches, laying jackets out on the cafeteria floor during lunch in hopes someone will recognize something.

At Veterans, jackets are draped over about 100 feet of wrought iron fencing during parent-teacher conference week. Children are marched past to grab what they will, and parents are encouraged to give the sad display a look after meeting with teachers.

Invariably, though, piles and piles of clothing never make it home.

It's a boon for local charitable organizations. Among the beneficiaries of school lost and found purges are the Bakersfield Homeless Center, the Jamison Children's Center (a 24-hour emergency shelter for foster children) and Operation School Bell, which provides clothes and coats for low-income children.

"At least a dozen schools drop off clothes for us every year," said Operation School Bell Chairman Barbara Sandrini. "We're always surprised not only by the volume but by the quality. Some of it's hardly ever been worn."

That's the one upside of children losing so many jackets, Cameron's grandmother Dominguez said.

"At least they go to a good cause," she said.

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