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Empty Desks: Why Some Homeless Students Travel 2 Hours to School
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March 15, 2013
by Gwendolyn Glenn
"What is that?"
Forty-year-old Jeanae Paul’s children arrive from school, eager to tell her about their day.
"We’re doing an African dance for Black History Month."
"That is very nice."
Because Paul has a large family, only three of her children live with her at Sarah’s Hope, a homeless shelter for women and children in Reisterstown. Her husband lives in a different shelter and so does another daughter.
"It was a tough decision, but I agreed on it because my daughter is 17 so they was like she is gonna be in a well-secure place, so I was like OK."
Paul has two bunk beds and a small dresser for the four of them, in a room they share with a mother and her son. Paul’s husband is disabled and can’t work, so when she lost her job at a restaurant, they lost their home. The disruption has caused her children to miss a lot of school.
"The first three days that we were homeless, they missed three days of schooling because we were three days on the streets. You know, it would be times where we walked around all night long. We came up risks as far as almost getting robbed, so my biggest concern was getting them somewhere safe for security."
Paul’s 12-year-old daughter Shamura Johnson is outgoing and upbeat until she talks about missing school.
"I’ve been out of school for like almost a couple of weeks. They say that if you don’t be in school, you can fail like that and I ain’t want to fail."
Barbara Duffield, policy director at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youths, says the crisis situations homeless families face often makes it all about survival.
"Where are we going to sleep, how are you going to get food--those issues can take priority over school, even though ironically, school can be the place where you can get help for all of those things."
School assistance could range from uniform vouchers and book bags to day care referrals and transportation. But not all homeless parents and students are aware of these services.
Paul says Sarah’s Hope officials helped her get public transportation passes from the district so her children could get to their schools in the city. Paul’s nine-year-old son Darion Johnson says that two-hour trek by bus and subway from Reisterstown to his school in West Baltimore was difficult.
"Every time we ride the subway, we was late every day. We used to try our best to wake up at like 6 o’clock, 5 o’clock in the morning but sometimes the bus don’t be on time. So when we catch the bus to the subway and sometimes the other bus don’t be on time."
Darion missed his first-period class most days until they got lucky.
"My teacher knew the situation and the principal."
"So, what did they do to help you because you were late?"
"They gave us cab service."
Duffield says many parents do not know that their children are entitled to adequate transportation, even if the family moves to a shelter or hotel in a different school district.
"What students know or families know are their legal rights and what schools know in terms of why a student is gone, that gap in awareness on both sides can lead to absenteeism."
Karen Ndour, Baltimore Schools’ Student Support and Safety Director, says identifying homeless students is the biggest problem they face in tackling the issue. It is especially glaring for homeless high school students, who usually don’t have parents riding the bus or subway with them or dropping them off at school.
"Often unaccompanied youth; they are actually living from place and they don’t want to be part of the system. They don’t have any impetus to come to us and say I’m a homeless student and I’m in need of services because then the fear is they’ll end up in foster care system or some other system they don’t want to be a part of."
Ndour says they have scheduled training sessions this summer for teachers and other staff to help them better identify homeless students. Currently, enrollment officials are required to ask more questions of parents.
"When a student comes in to register, they have to have a certain number of things that identify where they live. The first clue that a student is homeless is that they don’t have their medical records, they don’t have a telephone bill, they don’t have a gas and electric bill, and so then the deep questions need to be asked. I think in the past, there was a tendency to say, ‘well go back and get it.’ Now there’s an assumption that there may be a deeper issue."
In August, school officials hired Shanya Robinson, as the district’s first homeless liaison. She says she is paying a lot of attention to the homeless students’ academic needs because the district’s chronically absent students lag others by more than 25 points in math and 16 points in reading on state exams.
"Those students are facing hardships, so they’re gonna need additional support, so one of the things that we do have for example is in five of the largest shelters in the city, we provide tutoring, typically teachers, who go out to those shelters and provide tutoring to students. We receive lists indicating school age children that are residing there, so we set up our tutoring around that."
Robinson is also collaborating with Head Start officials to meet the needs of homeless pre-school students’ when they enter city schools. Duffield thinks this is all good, but says one liaison is not enough.
"Particularly for a district the size of Baltimore, I mean …. If you have one person and they’re assigned to do everything for homeless students, then it really becomes a juggling act. So one issue is really having the people in place who can make the connections to the Boys and Girls Club and the community agencies, make the connections between programs and then do a lot of the individual advocacy for kids of all different ages. "
Ndour says they are developing more extensive plans to tackle absenteeism of homeless students, but they will take time to fund and implement.
"The solution will be slow in really making huge changes, but I think that training is at the forefront of what we wanna do. Training is going to be paramount to make this process work."
Back at Sarah’s Hope, Shamura Johnson examines her sandwich to make sure it’s fresh. She says she wants to be a fashion designer someday, and has this advice for other homeless students.
"Don’t give up. Try your best to do your work, try your best to get there on time."
Shamura’s mom hopes a restaurant job will open up soon, allowing her to reunite her family in a place of their own.
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