Educating The Homeless

By Jessica Portner — February 01, 1993 8 min read

It’s the start of the school day, and a group of 3rd, 4th, and 5th graders is reciting 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 in Seattle 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 ill-nourished, poorly clothed, 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 is one of the few things these students can count on. But the vast majority of public schools offer them 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,” says Janet Preston, a family-services worker at B.F. Day. “There are so many needs.”

For homeless children in Seattle, the outlook is considerably brighter. Part of a national grassroots movement to educate homeless children through individualized services, B.F. Day 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,” says Jim McConnell, director of special programs for the Seattle public schools. “This is a unique city that is oriented toward serving.”

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.

Although a few innovative programs for homeless children existed in public schools in the mid-1980s, 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, approximately 80 education programs have been established in public schools and transitional and shelter-based settings, according to James Stronge, an education professor at the College of William and Mary and a leading researcher on homeless education issues.

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

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,” says Stronge of William and Mary. “You have to educate them once they get there.”

To address the law’s shortcomings, Congress in 1990 passed the McKinney Amendments. 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 gifted and special education programs. It also requires states to provide homeless students with transportation to school where necessary.

In 1992, the Education Department allocated $25 million to states to establish educational programs for the homeless, a dramatic jump from the $7.2 million allotted the previous year. According to LeTendre, all 50 states and the District of Columbia have already won McKinney Act grants.

Seattle, meanwhile, has become a beacon of sorts for homeless educators. Using the McKinney Act as a catalyst, social-service agencies, the city and state governments, and corporations came together in 1988 to discuss the problem of homeless children. 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,” Williams says.

In 1988, Williams and other advocates for the homeless helped win state legislative approval for increased funding for homeless education efforts. Last 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 more than 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 intensive care and 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,” says Kelley Clevenger, head teacher and a co-founder of First Place. At the beginning of 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. Carolyn Pringle, executive director of First Place, raised $145,000 last year from corporations and the city to run her nonprofit program, which now serves about 50 elementary school children.

Although several other communities have created transitional schools like First Place, 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.

In both cases, programs usually 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. “Everything they need is right here,” says Pringle. “As the family disintegrates, schools have to take care of them.”

At First Place, the students enrolled usually stay anywhere from five weeks to six months. The school has a student-teacher ratio of five to one and makes extensive use of volunteers. “We think kids are better off in a separate classroom for a period of time,” says Pringle, who argues that without such schools, many children would never make their way into regular classrooms because of the complexity of their needs.

Some homeless advocates worry, however, that the transitional approach hurts children by stigmatizing them as different. “It’s a dangerous precedent to try to separate them out,” says Joan Alker of the National Coalition for the Homeless. “It is part of a larger trend of institutionalizing homelessness.”

And others say they are concerned that the educational programs offered in transitional settings are not as challenging as those in integrated programs. “The advantages of an integrated approach are that students are getting access to a more complete instructional program,” says Joseph Johnson, director of special projects for the Texas Education Agency.

A third, though less common, approach is to provide educational programs to homeless children in a shelter school. This strategy is particularly popular in large cities such as New York, where public school teachers are dispatched to shelters to conduct classes.

Regardless of the approach they favor, educators of homeless children all must contend with a host of overwhelming societal factors. “Poverty and homelessness is almost a culture within itself,” says Williams, principal of B.F. Day in Seattle. “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.”

For many students, the shelters themselves pose significant obstacles to learning. “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,” says Simeon Fields, intake coordinator at B.F. Day.

To help students surmount the many barriers to learning, teachers, social workers, and principals involved with the education of homeless children often end up adopting a whatever-it-takes approach to their jobs. Preston, B.F. Day’s family-services worker, thinks of herself as a combination counselor, tutor, housing specialist, surrogate mother, and nurse. “This school generates so much work,” she says.

McConnell of the Seattle public school system says he expects the district to create more schools like B.F. Day in coming years. “We are breaking new ground,” he says. “If we are going to serve these youngsters, we have to find a new way to do it; this is only the beginning.’”

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A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as Educating The Homeless