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Schooling The Homeless: Few Programs Address The Daunting Challenge

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SEATTLE--On a chilly autumn morning, Ann Rotermund's crew of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders declares its morning affirmation in unison: "This morning is the beginning of a new day,'' they cry. "I know that at B.F. Day School there are some things no one can take from me--my self-respect and my awesome dignity.''

Educators at the two-story, brick elementary school tucked in a middle-class neighborhood here are acutely aware that the self-worth of many of their students needs an extra dose of nurturing.

Of the 300 children making their way through the school's clean, bright hallways, nearly 50 are homeless. The youngsters, who live in transitional housing or temporary shelters, represent one of the largest school populations of homeless children in the country.

They come from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds. Many have been abused, and they are often poorly clothed, ill nourished, and in need of basic medical attention. Many, too, are learning disabled and have emotional and behavioral problems.

Some have parents who have recently lost jobs. Others have been living in homeless shelters their entire young lives.

School, teachers and social workers at B.F. Day Elementary School point out, is one of the few things the students can count on.

As winter approaches and shelter populations multiply, B.F. Day, like thousands of other schools across the country, will be hit with another influx of homeless children, education officials and homeless advocates say.

In the vast majority of public schools, the students will receive little or no special attention.

The problem, homeless-education experts say, is that there are only about 100 local programs nationwide specifically designed to address the educational needs of homeless children.

"This is a crisis situation,'' Janet Preston, a family-services worker at B.F. Day, said. "There are so many needs.''

For homeless children in Seattle, the outlook is considerably brighter.

B.F. Day--part of a national grassroots movement to educate homeless children through individualized services--is one of six schools in the city designated to serve the more than 4,100 homeless children who live in Seattle's shelters.

"Seattle was one of the first cities to implement a [homeless] program,'' said Jim McConnell, the director of special programs for the Seattle public schools. "This is a unique city that is oriented toward serving.''

McKinney Act Seen as Boon

Nationwide, the U.S. Education Department estimates that there are 322,000 school-age homeless children. Some independent researchers calculate, however, that the number could be as high as 1.6 million.

Local government officials and homeless-shelter workers point out that U.S. Census Bureau and Education Department figures are routinely low because of the difficulty in identifying and tracking transient homeless populations.

"Some principals say that there are hardly any homeless kids when there are,'' noted Joan Alker, the executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless.

Though a few innovative programs for homeless children existed in public schools in the mid-1980's, passage of the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act in 1987 sparked the creation of scores of new programs.

The act, which guarantees homeless children "access to a free, appropriate public education,'' created a network of state homeless-education coordinators responsible for encouraging programs at the state and local levels.

Since the law's enactment, James Stronge, an education professor at the College of William and Mary and a leading researcher on homeless-education issues, estimates that approximately 80 education programs have been established in public schools and transitional and shelter-based settings.

Though many homeless experts believe the number of programs may be closer to 150, they say the exact count is difficult to gauge.

They point out that the Education Department does not know how many shelters have tutoring programs and that it has not compiled data from the state coordinators on the number of school-based homeless-education programs or on their effectiveness.

In part in response to criticism from the U.S. General Accounting Office, the department is developing guidelines to monitor such programs and their impact, a spokeswoman for the department said.

Homeless advocates and educators do agree, however, that the McKinney Act has made it easier for homeless youngsters to enroll in school and led to significant increases in the number of children who are attending school.

Under the law, states and districts were directed to abolish residency requirements for students who, in the past, were required to demonstrate evidence of permanent residence with a parent or guardian in order to enroll in school.

According to Mary Jean LeTendre, the director of compensatory education for the Education Department, 80 percent of homeless youngsters attended school during the 1990-91 school year, compared with 72 percent during the previous school year.

The law has also increased the odds that homeless children will be able to maintain greater continuity in their education, public school administrators say.

Removing Barriers

Though the McKinney Act removed certain barriers to access, many advocates and educators faulted its failure to require comprehensive services for homeless students.

"It isn't enough just to get [the homeless children] into the schools,'' Mr. Stronge of William and Mary said. "You have to educate them once they get there.''

To address the law's shortcomings, Congress in 1990 passed the McKinney Amendments, which required "the revision of any law, regulations, or policies that may act as a barrier to the enrollment, attendance, or success in school of homeless children.''

Under the amended law, state coordinators are required to work with local social-service providers to help get students enrolled in government-funded food-assistance programs and in special-education and gifted programs. It also requires states to provide homeless students with transportation to school where necessary.

This year, the Education Department allocated $25 million to states to establish educational programs for the homeless, a dramatic jump from the $7.2 million allotted last year. According to Ms. LeTendre, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have already won McKinney Act grants.

Looking ahead, advocates and educators are hopeful that the Clinton Administration will advocate further federal steps to address the problem of homeless youths.

A vigorous lobbying effort is already under way to increase funding under the McKinney Act, which is due to be reauthorized in 1993 and which will likely be on the agenda when Congress convenes next month. Lawmakers have also pledged to develop mechanisms to monitor homeless-education programs, Congressional aides say.

"It's my hope that homelessness will start to abate as we look to reauthorization mechanisms,'' said Ms. Alker of the coalition for the homeless.

B.F. Day and Seattle

Seattle, meanwhile, has become a beacon of sorts for homeless educators.

Using the McKinney Act as a catalyst, social-service agencies, city and state governments, and corporations came together in 1988 to discuss the problem of homeless children, according to Mr. McConnell of the Seattle school district.

At the same time, B.F. Day's principal, Carol Williams, proposed that the city schools seek additional federal and state funds to supply schools with support workers from local agencies.

"The children need to know there is something permanent, and, as a principal, I needed to help,'' Ms. Williams said of her efforts.

In 1988, Ms. Williams and other advocates for the homeless helped win state legislative approval for increased funding for homeless-education efforts.

"We plugged into all of our resources and put red flags up and got the students what they needed,'' said Gary Jennings, a 5th-grade teacher at B.F. Day.

This year, the city won $150,000 in federal and state grants to help pay for teachers, case managers, and direct aid to homeless children. That amount is nearly triple the $45,000 in state and federal homeless-education funds Seattle received in 1988.

At about the same time the city school plan was taking shape four years ago, a small group of professionals who recognized that the situation for homeless children in the city had become desperate came together to set up another option for homeless students.

They started First Place, a "transitional'' school designed for homeless students who need additional services that are harder to provide in the traditional school setting. They sought private donations and city funding, set up shop on two floors in a renovated school building, and started looking for students.

"We called shelters and asked if they needed services,'' said Kelley Clevenger, the head teacher and a co-founder of First Place. In its first week of operation, the school had five students; by the end of the week, it had 25, and now there is always a waiting list.

"The city was embarrassed that they didn't have anything in place,'' said Carolyn Pringle, the executive director of First Place.

Ms. Pringle has raised $145,000 this year from corporations and the city to run her nonprofit program, which now serves about 50 elementary school children.

Referring to the growing corporate support for homeless-education programs, Katherine Kendrick, a family-support assistant at B.F. Day, said, "When businesses keep getting people who can't read and write, they start sticking their finger in it.''

Different Program Approaches

Across the rest of the country, the clear majority of specially designated education programs for homeless children are in public schools, where, typically, the youngsters are placed in classes with their non-homeless peers.

As is the case with the B.F. Day program, city funds are often used to hire a social worker from an agency such as the United Way to manage the project, the transportion effort, and program volunteers.

Several communities, however, have set up transitional schools, which, like First Place, are separate facilities designed to provide students with intensive and individualized care for a short time before mainstreaming them into regular school classrooms.

In both cases, programs typically provide students with psychological counseling to deal with the often-traumatic circumstances associated with being homeless. And the majority also tend to have on-site health-care workers to provide immunizations and housing specialists to coordinate student intake with shelter workers.

There is a difference of opinion, though, on which approach is best for students.

Advocates of the transitional approach argue that such programs provide more individualized instruction to homeless children in a "psychologically safe'' atmosphere where it is often easier to navigate the educational bureaucracy.

"Everything they need is right here,'' said Ms. Pringle, who noted that First Place also offers parent-education and rental-assistance programs for families. "As the family disintegrates, schools have to take care of them.''

At First Place, the 46 students currently enrolled will likely stay from five weeks to six months. The school has a student-teacher ratio of five to one, makes extensive use of volunteers, and gets help from social-work students who assist teachers.

"We think kids are better off in a separate classroom for a period of time,'' said Ms. Pringle, who argues that, without such schools, many children would never make their way into regular classrooms because of the complexity of their needs.

To Separate or Not To Separate?

But other educators worry that the transitional approach hurts children by stigmatizing them as different.

"It's a dangerous precedent to try to separate them out,'' said Ms. Alker of the coalition for the homeless. "It is part of a larger trend of institutionalizing homelessness.''

Others, including Joseph Johnson, the director of special projects for the Texas Education Agency, say they are concerned that the educational programs offered in transitional settings are often not as challenging as those in integrated programs.

"The advantages of an integrated approach is that students are getting access to a more complete instructional program,'' Mr. Johnson said, adding that they are less likely to fall behind academically.

But Ms. Pringle said she co-founded First Place on the philosophy that students who may have suffered emotional stress or abuse or who are academically behind need time to catch up before they are mainstreamed.

A third, though less common, approach to providing educational programs to homeless youths is the shelter school, particularly popular in large cities, including New York, where public school teachers are dispatched to shelters to conduct classes.

Society's Roadblocks

Regardless of which approach they favor, educators of homeless children agree that they all must contend with a host of overwhelming societal factors.

"Poverty and homelessness is almost a culture within itself,'' Ms. Williams, the principal of B.F. Day, said.

"We have to break the concept that 'I am homeless, and I will always be that way' ... and the stereotypes and barriers that go along with that,'' she said.

Cynthia Crosson-Tower, a professor of human services at Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts and an expert on the problem of homelessness, said homeless children are under a great deal of psychological stress due to their unstable situation.

As a result, she said, homeless youngsters are often insecure and anxious.

"A lot of kids are depressed,'' Ms. Pringle said, adding that 80 percent of the students at First Place have been physically or sexually abused.

She said she often sends such students to therapy sessions with trained counselors to "work out issues through play.''

In a room with puppets and dolls, the children create a make-believe world while a social worker observes them from behind a two-way mirror.

"A lot of what we are doing is giving the kid an opportunity to share things and feel safe,'' said Deb Brinley-Koempel, a counselor at First Place who supervises the sessions.

Barriers to Learning

For many students, the shelter environments themselves pose significant obstacles to learning.

"Shelter life, punctuated by chaos, full of stimuli, and lacking in privacy, provides little or no opportunity for children to concentrate,'' Ms. Crosson-Tower of Fitchburg State said.

"A lot of [the children] don't have places to study, and when you don't have lights, you can't read, and when Mom and Dad are doing drugs, they're not going to read to the kids,'' said Simeon Fields, the intake coordinator at B.F. Day and a frequent after-school tutor to homeless youngsters.

To help overcome the students' barriers to learning, many teachers, social workers, and principals involved with the education of homeless children end up adopting a whatever-it-takes approach to their jobs, several interviewed for this story said.

Ms. Preston, the family-services worker at B.F. Day, said she often takes students to doctors' appointments and on shopping trips.

"This school generates so much work,'' explained Ms. Preston, who said she thinks of herself as a combination counselor, tutor, housing specialist, surrogate mother, and nurse.

Understanding that shelters house only a portion of the homeless population, Principal Williams said she routinely searches before and after school for homeless children living in cars or abandoned buildings.

"It's a different world out there than when I was a child,'' Ms. Williams said. "Sometimes I do get frustrated.''

'Only the Beginning'

Several educators said they are always trying to add to the services they provide in an attempt to improve the future prospects of homeless children.

Principal Williams said she would like to start a preschool program and launch a series of parent-education classes at B.F. Day.

Others said they would like to create drop-in services for older homeless students who could earn their high school diplomas on a flexible schedule.

Mr. Johnson of the Texas Education Agency noted that some cities are developing computer tracking systems to follow a student's movements through city shelters and to keep updated records, medical histories, and other information on file.

Sometimes, the efforts to help are much more personal and have a much more immediate impact.

Sifting through a clothing rack during a recent outing to a thrift store, homeless students from B.F. Day pick out a wardrobe for free.

Rodney, a lively 5th grader, is excited as he looks through a pile of colorful outfits. He is doing well, his teachers say, despite his behavioral and learning difficulties stemming from his mother's drug use.

Showing off the bright blue winter coat he has chosen, Rodney stops to admire himself in the mirror. "Looking good,'' he smiles approvingly.

"We are breaking new ground'' in these schools, Mr. McConnell of the Seattle public schools said, adding that he expects the district will add more homeless-education sites in the coming year.

"If we are going to serve these youngsters, we have to find a new way to do it,'' he added. "This is only the beginning.''

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