[Hpn] For thousands of homeless kids, school is their bridge to survival
Thu, 28 Dec 2000 13:49:24 -0700
Published: Tuesday, December 26, 2000
For thousands of homeless kids, school is their bridge to survival
What is it like to be a homeless child?
Two sisters -- Tina, 8, and Marcie, 9 -- sat on the lap of, or near, their
mother as I asked questions and strived to get to know them. Neither girl
was shy, not in the least. It wasn't hard to detect signs of sibling
rivalry. Each wore cotton pants and an olive-colored t-shirt. You could
imagine them wearing those clothes outside at the State Fair in August, but
not on a cold December day.
Tina is in third grade; Marcie, in fourth. When they were serious and tried
to honestly answer questions, they sometimes sounded wise beyond their
The two homeless sisters transferred to a Minneapolis elementary school from
the suburb where the family was evicted from an apartment. Before the
eviction, they lived in a hotel. They've been in a homeless shelter for two
months. That's where we talked.
Marcie and Tina (not their real names) are undergoing adjustments in their
new surroundings. Other kids make fun of them, because they are new at
school, said Marcie. ``They tell jokes about me all the time,'' she
explained. ``They kinda made fun of me when I lived in the hotel. They made
fun of my clothes.''
One time a classmate warned another classmate not to style the hair of one
of the girls because of the possibility of lice. They didn't have lice. Tina
spoke harshly about her dad, from whom they are running away.
For a homework essay, Marcie wrote about homeless people. I asked what she
wants to do when she grows up. ``Help the less fortunate,'' she said.
Her mother said the girls are more aggressive since becoming homeless.
Academically they've slipped. The girls said they wanted to go back to their
To children who are homeless, school provides the greatest stability in
their lives. For some of the luckier homeless kids, adults go to great
lengths to ensure that a child can stay in his or her school after a family
move. For example, one child whose family moved to a Minnetonka homeless
shelter still attends his Minneapolis Phillips neighborhood school. He
begged to stay there. His bus fare is paid from a private donation fund the
school principal set up.
In St. Paul, an 11-year-old homeless girl sobbed after several teachers
quizzed her about waiting outside her school before it opened. The van from
the suburban shelter drops her off almost an hour before the school doors
open. She has no where to wait but at the front door, but she's adamant
about wanting to stay in that school.
As of September, 361 children ages 5 to 10 received services for homeless
children through the St. Paul School District, according to Ellie Seifert,
coordinator of the Title One program for homeless children. The program has
served 391 children in the 11 to 18 age range. The total is on the
conservative side because homeless families are not always identified and
because the total excludes the older children.
Of the 752 kids, 252 transferred into St. Paul schools from Minneapolis, 348
were already St. Paul residents and 152 homeless children were enrolled from
other states such as Illinois and Wisconsin.
In Minneapolis, from June 1999 to May 2000, some 3,076 children in grades
kindergarten through 12 were homeless. The number has hovered around 3,000
for the past three years, according to Bill Price, director of
thehomeless/Title I program in that city.
More than 1,700 of the Minneapolis children are in grades kindergarten
through grade four, or age 5 through 9.
The subject of homeless kids and why they deserve so much attention on these
pages was affirmed recently after a visit to a St. Paul school. I talked
with a homeless child who had rammed into his fourth-grade teacher a couple
of weeks earlier. The boy was on strict probation. His teacher said that his
body language suggested that he would explode again at any time. Ultimately,
she believed he would be kicked out.
The right mix of teacher, social worker, principal, peers, policies and
tutors can and do form a foundation of stability that permits a child to
weather homelessness. In the lives of these children, the only setting that
remains constant in their lives is the school. The only people who remain
constant are the faculty and staff at the school.
That's why the St. Paul School District's Title One Program paid $17,000 in
bus tokens this year so homeless children can stay in their own schools. In
one case, a family scrambled to make bus arrangements so a homeless child
whose family moved to Hastings can still go to school in St. Paul.
Transportation consistently provides the greatest challenges to people who
are homeless, Seifert said.
Getting to school is just the start of serving these kids well, however.
Smaller gestures count, said Ann Masten, a University of Minnesota professor
who has studied homelessness and resiliency in children for more than a
decade. A school nurse could discretely provide a homeless child with
hygiene products including a toothbrush. Quietly, metropolitan teachers
continually pay for these products from their own salaries. They ask for
school supplies and clothing donations from family and friends because its
critical that a homeless child look like the other children.
``I've been a principal, and know that if a child is homeless, you guard
that information,'' Bill Price said. ``When kids get hold of that
information, they will be mean to the homeless kids.''
Some teachers never learn that a child is homeless, partly because the stay
in a shelter is brief. Many, however, know that their students live in a car
or shelter, that the children's dads are in jail, that their moms are in
drug rehab most of the time and the kids get shuffled around. Younger
children, especially, will confide in a teacher when home life is exchanged
for shelter survival.
The obvious solution is stable housing. But even with that, one working
parent known to Price works two jobs to pay the steep $1,100 monthly rent
for a two bedroom apartment. Shift work at odd hours keeps parents from
school conferences and from overseeing their children's homework, he added.
Still, even as they cope with the stress and fear that homelessness brings,
many parents are staunchly supportive of their child's academic progress.
They walk their kids to the school bus every morning, and meet them at the
bus in the afternoon. They schedule regular homework time no matter how
hectic the temporary shelter environment. They return calls from the child's
``Parents don't have to be wealthy to provide high quality parenting,''
Masten said. ``I've seen many children in shelters who do fine in school.''
Ray Aponte, principal of Andersen Elementary School in the Phillips
neighborhood of Minneapolis, said that it's hard for most of the school's
homeless families to get around. He set up a special fund from private
donors so children who must move frequently but want to stay in that school
can do so through public transportation. The boy who arrives from Minnetonka
is 45 minutes to an hour late to school every day.
``But he'll be here, and that's the most important thing,'' Aponte said.
``I'm not spending thousands of dollars for extra transportation costs. It's
rare that a parent will ask for bus tokens. Maybe $200 buys 10 monthly
passes, so figure that's the cost to keep a child in school.''
Families learn soon that absenteeism isn't tolerated, and that their
children's education is critically important.
``The parents may get runarounds and forked tongue answers on shelters and
on jobs, but when they deal with us, they know we're honest and come from a
power base of love because that is all we can do,'' Aponte said. ``Some have
been burned and hurt. Over time, they see things our way.''
Write Locke at email@example.com or at the Pioneer Press, 345 Cedar
St., St. Paul, Minn. 55101.
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