[Hpn] *Long*:Earlier to Rise: Homeless children wake hours before school to commute
Morgan W. Brown
Tue, 19 Jun 2001 14:16:20 -0400
Below is a forward of an article regarding children and their families who
are homeless in or around the Long Island, New York area. Following the
forward article, are Web addresses for a related article as well as photo's.
Since the article mentions school segregation of children who are homeless,
following the Web addresses for the related article and photo's are Web
addresses for additional information on the subject FYI.
Morgan W. Brown
Tuesday, June 19, 2001
[Long Island and Queens, New York]
Earlier to Rise
Homeless children wake hours before school to commute
by Lauren Terrazzano
It's 6:40 a.m., and the yellow minibus rumbles loud down Montauk Highway,
until it stops, sputters and turns into the parking lot of the Best Eastern
Motel in East Quogue.
The only other people out on this chilly spring morning are the flatbed
truckers headed east to construction jobs and a few drivers who pull into
the 7-Eleven next door for their 16-oz. cups of coffee.
Mariana Soto's children -- Jessica, Maria, Christina, Angel, Michael and
Jose -- are finishing their juice and doughnuts on the porch of their motel
They have been up for an hour, ready to begin what has been their daily
odyssey since they became homeless eight months ago, and the county sent
them to this fading motel in the Hamptons.
All told, the trip of school bus 3029 will take close to two hours and about
60 miles to deliver these children back to their Brentwood school district,
to the one stable force in what has become an otherwise unstable life.
"It's a long ride; I just look out the window, said Soto's son, Angel
Reyes, 10. "When I get to school, I'm tired. Sometimes I, like, fall asleep
on my desk.
As more families become homeless for longer periods, the education of the
1,500 homeless children on Long Island increasingly is one of the toughest
challenges for educators, advocates and the children themselves.
Getting to and from classes each day is half the battle. Homeless children,
60 percent of whom are school-age, are scattered with their families in
shelters and motels.
Bus rides can be long and the routes change daily. There are medical
emergencies, children arrive late or have to wait a long time after school
to get picked up.
The issue is most acute in Suffolk County, where families are assigned to
housing based on what's available and can be placed as far away as the East
End. Bus rides are shorter in Nassau County, because it allows families to
choose a motel or shelter closer to their children's original community.
While the majority of Long Island families choose their original districts,
educators and educational experts remain divided about which alternative is
best for the kids with long commutes.
Also, dozens of homeless children routinely miss school for days, weeks or
even months as families migrate from home to shelter or motel. Some school
districts resist admitting homeless children or fail to provide them with
government-mandated services, education officials and advocates say.
For two weeks, seventh-grader Raymond Riley killed time in a Bay Shore motel
room because the East Islip school district refused to acknowledge that his
family had become homeless.
"When I wasn't in school, I was depressed. I was sad. I was bored, said
Raymond, whose favorite subject is math and whose parents say routinely
scores in the 90s on his exams. "At one point, I thought it was my fault. It
was really hard for me, so many things at once.
In other cases, homeless students struggle academically because they've
missed so much school and because their family structure already is
fractured in other ways, as parents deal with poverty or drug use or
"Our test scores are [some of the] lowest on Long Island, said Marietta
Fuentes Mee, a school board member in Amityville, where the number of
homeless children has increased significantly in recent years. "Having a
number of transient and homeless children makes it more difficult for this
district to deliver the academic services that they need.
Other problems, while perhaps less momentous, nonetheless are vexing for the
children and their families. For instance, many homeless students can't
participate in such after-school activities as sports or have no quiet place
to study at home.
Soto's daughter, Jessica Reyes, 14, said she would have tried out for the
girl's basketball team this year at the North Middle School in Brentwood,
"... but because of everything going on, I couldn't. A late bus after
practice, for instance, wouldn't have gotten her back to her motel in East
Quogue until 8 p.m.
Long Island districts are struggling to make sure homeless children's
educations don't get lost amid the chaos.
"School is often the only stabilizing influence in these kids' lives, said
Moses Greene, Brentwood's attendance coordinator. "It's the law. They are
entitled to it.
The McKinney Act, a 1987 federal law, gives homeless children the right to
attend school in the district where they had lived or the district to which
they have moved. Congress amended the law in 1990 to provide funding for
services such as busing and counseling. Eleven districts on Long Island
receive some sort of McKinney funding and some, such as Brentwood, have
developed programs that the state considers models.
But districts on Long Island and in other suburban areas in New York don't
always follow the legislation, state officials say.
"They either don't want to acknowledge they have homeless children, or they
don't know how to deal with them, said Gay Wainwright, the coordinator of
education for homeless youth at the state Education Department.
When Jean Riley and her family became homeless because an apartment they
planned to rent fell through, they moved into the Summit Motor Inn in Bay
Shore four months ago. She hoped East Islip school officials would let her
children finish out the year in the district they had attended most of their
Instead, she said, school officials told her that Jennifer, 10, and Raymond,
12, could not because the low-rise motel was not in the district's
Her children missed about two weeks of classes while Riley, a waitress, and
her husband, a construction worker, pleaded with officials to re-enroll the
"My husband and I are trying to do the right thing; we work, she said,
adding that they are still having trouble finding an apartment they can
afford. "I never expected the school district to do this. I thought they
would help. But we got nothing.
Wainwright said the East Islip district misinterpreted the law by not
considering the Rileys homeless because both parents worked and the family
was living in a motel.
Finally, school officials agreed to admit the Riley children after
Wainwright intervened. She said the state is pursuing legal action against
the district. A lawyer for East Islip declined to respond to Wainwright's
comments citing confidentiality rules.
Such enrollment problems occur in part because suburban areas historically
haven't had to deal with homelessness.
"The city certainly has more experience with the geographic concentration,
so they're the ones getting confronted with this by the dozens on any given
day, said Anthony Ciaglia, the assistant superintendent in Freeport and a
former principal in Westchester County. "You won't see that kind of
magnitude in most of the communities in Nassau.
Manhasset school officials say it's even a challenge to determine which
students are homeless because many families fear the stigma they feel would
follow the disclosure. The district says without knowing who is homeless, it
has a difficult time providing the additional academic or psychological
support the children might need.
"People who have become homeless, unless they tell us, we do not know it,
said Robert Feirson, the assistant superintendent for Manhasset. "Often, the
only way we know is secondary evidence of mail being returned.
If children switch districts, the children's records often are incomplete
when they arrive at a new school.
"It's a difficult thing if you don't know where these kids have been, said
Mee, the Amityville school board member. "I think these kids are seriously
behind the eight ball. I wonder if they'll have a chance of getting on an
equal playing field, and it's not from anybody's lack of trying.
Even when schools are receptive to providing services, the rules of county
bureaucracies sometimes keep children out of classes.
Steve and Marianne Kovalovsky became homeless in March after the owner of a
Ronkonkoma house they were renting evicted them after a dispute over a
It took a few days just to negotiate emergency housing with the county.
Then, because social services required the entire family, including all six
children, to appear at departmental interviews, the kids missed four days of
school in the Connetquot district, said Marianne Kovalovsky, who handles
warehouse orders at P.C. Richard & Son.
Social service officials said that on rare occasions do they grant children
waivers from having to go to the department.
The county settled the family at the Best Eastern Motel in East Quogue, 67
miles from the children's schools. Steve Kovalovsky, now a service manager
at an auto dealership, didn't let his children ride the bus even once.
Instead, he drove them to and from school each day in his 1989 Jeep
"I refused to let them sit on a bus for three hours, said Kovalovsky, whose
family has since been moved to a small house in a shelter program.
But the Kovalovskys at least have a car, which not only allows them to
bypass the bus but to get to the children's schools in emergencies. Other
homeless kids who get sick during the school day often have to tough it out
until school lets out.
"The hardest part is when they have fevers or a flu -- it's really
frustrating, said Dorothy Taitz, the school nurse at Hemlock Park
Elementary School in Bay Shore. "I feel sorry for the children because they
should be home in bed.
"We're not allowed to give medicine unless a doctor has prescribed it,
Taitz said. "We can't even give Tylenol to get the fever down. We give them
ice packs and try to make them as comfortable as possible. If the fever
spikes past 103, we rush them to the emergency room.
The nurse's office at the Hemlock Park school has two blue vinyl couches, a
shelf full of children's books and toys, and the only version of managed
care that many homeless children receive.
A 1998 study in the American Journal of Diseases in Children found that
about 30 percent of homeless children have no regular source of medical
care. Despite the expansion of health insurance plans for children, homeless
parents often lack the transportation they need to get their children to the
doctor, experts say.
Taitz said she now gets at least a visit a day from a homeless child. One
boy needs his asthma medication every morning. There are colds and flus to
attend to. The homeless children, like many who live in poverty, are more
susceptible than other students to such illnesses due to poor nutrition,
which compromises their immune systems. Meanwhile, a lack of sleep weakens
many of the kids, Taitz noted.
"We used to be about boo-boos and Band-Aids; now we do so much more, said
But educators across the country and in other parts of Long Island have been
experimenting with new programs to better serve homeless schoolchildren.
In Phoenix, an alternative school provides on-site social services in
addition to a food pantry to serve the children's families. While critics
have assailed the segregation of homeless children from non-homeless
students, advocates say it's a place where children can receive
comprehensive services, and where their circumstances won't embarrass them.
In New York, the state Education Department last year opened the New York
State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students in
Riverhead. Kate Ventura, the center's director, acts as a liaison among
homeless families, school districts and the state. But she says she spends
most of her time trying merely to ensure that children get to school and
have the legally mandated services, like busing or extra academic help, they
A statewide study done by NYS-TEACHS last year suggests a reason: School
districts have been falling behind in providing services. Only 30 percent of
the districts surveyed acknowledged the presence of and provided services to
homeless children, the study showed.
Some advocates believe that while there are some districts that fulfill
their responsibilities to homeless students, many try to discourage them
"There are a lot of factors that influence why a district will or will not
educate a child, from not understanding the legal mandate, to the fear of
how these students might affect the curve of student grades, Ventura said.
Each day at 3:30 p.m. at the Brookhaven Elementary School in Brookhaven
hamlet, about 30 children gather for an after-hours program designed to aid
homeless students, many of whom live at the nearby HELP Suffolk shelter in
Bellport. For two hours a day, it becomes a place where they can make their
own decisions, develop academic skills and build self-confidence, said
assistant principal Bette Errig.
The school also has hired a part-time psychologist to deal exclusively with
the needs of the homeless children.
"We show them how to deal with each other, and we have a much better chance
of improving their behavior and avoiding aggressive behavior, Errig said.
On a recent day in May, the students were busy making murals about different
prehistoric periods for an end-of-the-year show to which their parents would
"How are we going to get this done? teacher Tara Seifert asks the children.
"Cooperate, a boy yells out.
"No fighting, another adds.
A skinny girl in a dirty red T-shirt chimes in: "Be respectful of one
However, the homeless students sometimes don't remain at the school long
enough to benefit from such programs: One day they are in school, and then
they are gone, moving on to their next shelter or motel without warning,
Errig said. And that makes it difficult to keep academic records.
"All of a sudden, you have disappearing youngsters, she said.
In the Brentwood School District, where the homeless population has
increased from 98 to 127 in the past two years -- a fraction of those who've
lost their own homes, officials suspect -- each school adopts a homeless
family for the school year.
Working with the Brentwood teachers association, the schools provide food,
Christmas gifts, clothing and other items the families need. Also, the
district administration has received private donations of backpacks and
school supplies for the children who have none.
Greene, who grew up in the community, stays in contact with the families,
relentlessly tracking kids down if they don't show up for school.
Transportation problems, including setting up bus rides to and from their
shelter or motel, occupy a significant portion of Greene's time.
The length of the children's daily commutes depends largely on whether their
parents choose to have them return to their original school district,
frequently many miles away, or to enroll them in the school closest to their
shelter or motel.
Educational experts disagree about which is the better choice.
Because stays at shelters and motels can range from a few weeks to a few
months, and families can be reassigned without warning, many parents opt to
keep the children in their original districts.
"All their friends are back in Brentwood, and that's where we'll be once we
get settled again, said Mariana Soto, who sends her children back to
Brentwood. Also, she admits, "I never thought we'd be homeless for so long.
Like Soto, 77 percent of Suffolk's homeless families on Long Island choose
to send their children back to their home districts, social service
But the distances that some children have to travel by bus give many
"It would seem if a kid is traveling two hours and living outside-district
for a year, we ought to re-examine that case and do what's in the best
interest of the child, said Ciaglia, the assistant superintendent in
For the Soto children, who use their father's name, Reyes, the bus trips are
at once jarring and sleep-inducing, with the routes tracking the transient
lives of the families as they move between shelters and motels.
On one day in late April, Driver Callie Moore pulls up late to the Best
Eastern, crossing off a checklist. Moore grumbles that the family at the
first motel on his route never called to say the children wouldn't be there.
"He's here, Mariana Soto yells to the children, and they hurriedly grab
their backpacks and head out the door at 6:40 a.m. She hands them $2 each
for a snack.
There is no one on the bus, so the children each get their own seat.
Jose puts his San Francisco 49ers jacket over his head to block the bright
Michael makes an attempt to read his schoolbooks, but he begins to drift. "I
try to do my homework on the bus sometimes, but it's too bumpy, he says.
Jessica slides into the back seat of the bus. With her Walkman playing a
compact disc by the rapper Big Pun, she gazes out the window.
The younger children begin to doze.
"You can understand why they go to sleep, Moore says as the bus rocks
along. "This is pretty early for any child.
Arrival times are often erratic.
Sometimes, school officials say, the children get to school 45 minutes
before class starts and have to wait on the bus or in the cafeteria. That's
how Maria Reyes usually starts her day. "I go to the cafeteria and do my
homework sometimes, she said.
Or, the buses can arrive as much as 45 minutes late due to heavy traffic or
glitches resulting from the ever-changing bus routes.
On this particular morning, Sunrise Highway is a parking lot, with cars and
trucks barely creeping along.
At 7:20 a.m., 40 minutes after leaving the Best Eastern, Moore pulls over to
read his map, looking for Hampton Avenue in Patchogue, where a new child
But the map is misleading: It shows a through street where a dead end
actually exists. Moore circles the neighborhood for 10 minutes before
finally finding the right house and picking up the little girl.
At 7:50 a.m., the bus veers back onto Sunrise Highway, which is still a
parking lot. Moore grows more frustrated with each passing moment. "I try
not to keep them on the bus too long; I try to get them to school and home
as quick as possible, he says.
It will be another half hour before the bus reaches its first destination,
Jessica's school, Brentwood North Middle School. She gets off without saying
a word; the bus doors fold closed, and Moore heads out toward the children's
final destination, the North Elementary School. Moore arrives at 8:35 a.m.,
nearly two hours after he left the Best Eastern.
In six short hours, school will end for the day, and Mariana Soto's children
will have to make the same long trip all over again.
---End of forwarded article---
~~~Related news story & photo's:
Monday, June 18, 2001
In a Tight Spot:
Homeless kids struggle to maintain normalcy in motels:
Slide show: Childhood on Hold:
~~~Related information -- FYI:
Separate but Equal?
The Truth About Separate Schools for Homeless Children:
-- Note: If you have not already, be sure to read:
School Segregation and Homeless Children and Youth: Questions and Answers:
National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH):
**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this
material is distributed without charge or profit to
those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving
this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**
-------End of forward-------
Morgan W. Brown
Montpelier Vermont USA
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