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‘Penny war’ raises funds for yearbook

By Whitney Burdette, Capitol reporter
Bob Wojcieszak/Daily Mail
Kanawha County Schools physical education teacher Sarah Bowlin, 24, counts pennies gathered during a “penny war” competition that will help pay for a yearbook commemorating the last year of J.E. Robbins and Watts elementary schools. Bowlin said previously, the schools opted not to produce yearbooks because they were too expensive for students to purchase, but that she wanted to do something special for students this year, before the schools consolidate to form the new Edgewood Elementary.

Students for generations have looked forward to the end of the school year for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is cracking open the annual yearbook and reflecting on their time in school.

But for students at two West Side elementary schools, yearbooks were just too expensive, so the administrators at J.E. Robins and Watts elementary schools didn’t offer them. Now that the schools are closing out their final year — they’ll consolidate to form the new Edgewood Elementary — one teacher decided the students should have something to look back on.

“I started talking about yearbooks earlier in the year and the kids didn’t have a clue what I was talking about,” said Sarah Bowlin, who teaches physical education at the two schools.

Bowlin, a 2008 Riverside High School graduate, worked on her school’s yearbook staff. She said yearbooks serve an important purpose to students who like to reflect on the events and people who made their school year special. But yearbooks can be costly, and administrators at the two schools didn’t want to offer low-income students something they couldn’t afford.

That’s when Bowlin came up with an idea.

Classes in all grade levels at each school have been participating in week-long “Penny Wars.” The object of the game is for students to bring in as many pennies as they can to go toward the purchase cost of the yearbooks. Each penny is worth a point, and the class from each school that earns the most points will receive a prize of its choice.

“The kids get to pick it,” Bowlin said. “It’s up to the class that wins.”

Students can choose from a range of prizes, including a pizza or ice cream party or the chance to pie a teacher in the face.

“That makes it a little more exciting,” Bowlin said.

But there’s a catch to the game. Students can donate dimes, nickels, quarters and dollar bills on behalf of another class. If that happens, the class receiving the donation will have points deducted based on the monetary value of the coin. For example, if a student donates a quarter on behalf of another class, that class would lose 25 points.

Bowlin first came up with the idea to produce and purchase yearbooks around Christmas. She researched where to buy the cheapest yearbook, and found the schools could purchase 20-page hardbound books for as little as $14 each, shipping and tax free, through the photo website But it would cost each school about $2,500 to pay for the production and purchase of the books. So Bowlin thought the Penny War would be a fun way for the students to get involved.

“With it being the last year, it’s kind of important to have the memories of it,” Bowlin said.

The schools have never produced yearbooks to chronicle their histories, but Bowlin was able to track down some old pictures and documents to include in this year’s book and show students the history of their schools.

“The few I’ve found I’m going to put in there,” she said. “I found a picture of the outside of Robins in 1929.”

Nearly every student —189 at J.E. Robins and 154 at Watts — have participated. Thanks to their enthusiasm, each student will receive a yearbook for free or at very little cost.

“I knew we couldn’t raise enough through the Penny War to pay for the whole thing,” Bowlin said. “Everyone can take part in it and raise the money for it.”

Bowlin has acted as a one-woman yearbook staff of sorts, compiling headshots of students through the portrait studio Lifetouch and taking candid snapshots of students throughout the day. She’ll lay out the yearbook online, and Shutterfly will take care of printing and shipping.

So far, the schools have raised about $300 each. The deadline to turn in money was Tuesday so Bowlin could order the books through Shutterfly by today. Bowlin said the students can expect to have their yearbooks in about two weeks.

Contact writer Whitney Burdette at 304-348-7939 or Follow her at


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