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Lost and Found Overflows By Year End

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A tall seventh grader named Azalea Kelley stood in a Harlem classroom last week, surrounded by an explosion of fabric, footwear and the occasional piece of sports equipment, spilling from a clutch of plastic bins. As part of an after-school program, she and a dozen other students were ankle deep in the school’s lost and found, sorting it so that the spoils could be donated to a local church and a family shelter.

As a boy tried on a single black hockey glove he picked from the pile, Azalea lifted a pair of black stretch pants in front of her. “Oh, these are nice!” she said. “But how can anyone lose something like this? It’s a pair of pants!”

As surely as the sun will rise in the east and time will march only forward, children will lose things. Many things. And by each June, as teachers and students prepare for summer, the detritus of the school year can reach impressive heights.

“I am amazed,” said Karen Ditolla, principal of Mark Twain Intermediate School for the gifted and talented in Coney Island. “Pretty much anything and everything, they leave behind.”

An unscientific survey of schools around New York City in recent days found a diverse little universe of misplaced treasures: an art portfolio. A lunchbox with food in it. A large bottle of cherry blossom moisturizer. A shower cap. A palm-size doll in a red dress, found at a sixth-through-12th-grade school. Dirty socks. Glasses. And many, many pairs of pants and shoes — or sometimes half a pair.

“It’s not uncommon for us to have one shoe,” Ms. Ditolla said. “Sometimes I’ll make an announcement: Will the owner of one size 6 green Nike please report to the office?” When the student arrives, she said: “I’ll ask: ‘Where is the other one? Did you walk around with one shoe?’ But it’s middle school, so they just kind of look at you.”

“Please, parents!” she pleaded. “Write your kid’s name on everything!”

At Columbia Secondary School, a selective school in Harlem, where Azalea is a student, an assistant principal said that once or twice a week, a cellphone is misplaced by its owner, most often in the bathroom. Generally, the phones and their people are reunited. But during the chilliest months, heavy coats are frequently left behind, and mysteriously, their owners do not seem to consider that a problem.

“It’ll be negative 2 degrees and we will have a pile of jackets,” Andi Velasquez, the parent coordinator at Columbia Secondary, said.

As Ms. Velasquez spoke, an administrator who passed by said that her son had lost four sweatshirts in a single school year. She suspected that he was giving them away to girls, though he denied it. But the most bewildering item sometimes lost at the school, employees said, is something more intimate: the occasional pair of underwear, abandoned and brought into the office. They hasten to add that they believe them to be clean.

“People leave weird stuff,” Ms. Velasquez said.

At Columbia, middle school students were enlisted to sort the lost and (not yet) found into three piles: scraps and stained clothing for fabric recycling, old uniforms to keep on hand at school, and clothing and accessories that could be donated to local charities. Many schools do likewise.

But before anything goes out the door, administrators said, they do extensive outreach, and often a little begging, to try to get students or their parents to reclaim lost items. When parents are going to be in the school building for an event, like parent-teacher night, children’s leavings are sometimes spread out in an empty classroom for perusal, except for valuables, which must be described before they can be reclaimed.

Cara Tait, principal of the Green School in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, said that once teenagers get to high school, they tend to keep better track of their belongings, but there are exceptions.

“The only things that seem to land in our lost and found are umbrellas,” Ms. Tait said. “I don’t buy umbrellas. I don’t think the kids buy umbrellas. They just circulate like communal property.”

Miriam Nightengale, principal at Columbia Secondary School, agreed that umbrellas were a “hot item,” and on rainy days, she said, students developed a tendency to recognize them.

“They’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s my umbrella!’ ” she recounted. “Yeah, right. When it’s raining. They all look alike.”


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