Student Well-Being

Chicago District Ponders Residential Program for Homeless Teens

By Catherine Gewertz — March 19, 2008 3 min read
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The Chicago school district is exploring the possibility of opening a residential program for homeless teenagers who attend one of its charter high schools, officials said last week.

If the idea proves workable, it could serve as the first step in a larger effort to provide meals, a safe home, and supportive social and medical services to youths in need of those basic services. It could also make Chicago the first school district in the country to provide housing for homeless students who attend its schools.

“There are so many kids with great assets, great potential, and outside-of-school challenges are getting in the way of them being the strong students they can be,” said Josh Edelman, who oversees new-school development for the nation’s third-largest district.

The two-year pilot project under consideration would not create a new school. It would form a district partnership with an existing charter high school, North Lawndale College Prep, and Teen Living Programs, a social-service agency that offers a wide array of residential and support services to homeless Chicago teenagers. District officials estimate that 6.5 percent of their 409,000 students experience homelessness at some point.

Teen Living would provide meals, living space, and other help to the homeless youths among North Lawndale’s 525 students, and the school would provide the education. John Horan, North Lawndale’s director of expansion, said the hardships of the school’s West Side neighborhood leave some adolescents without the basics they need to focus on learning.

“When kids live in this kind of poverty, you see there are a certain number who are going to have no home to go to, at least for some period of time,” he said. “We need to deal with that in a systemic kind of way.”

The district, Teen Living, and North Lawndale hope to complete a feasibility study this summer, said David L. Myers, the socialservice agency’s executive director. It will explore, among other issues, whether enough reliable funding can be assembled to sustain the project, he said.

Expensive Proposition

Funding is a potentially huge obstacle, Mr. Edelman said, and the parties have only begun to explore that part of the picture.

A residential program for needy adolescents—in which they live full time on their school’s campus— can cost $30,000 per student per year. The cost of the model Chicago is contemplating with North Lawndale, in which students will live off site, has not been worked out.

If the pilot is successful, the district hopes to expand the model. It is also exploring other types of residential programs for needy students, and will issue a request for proposals next month to gauge interest among school operators and social-service providers, Mr. Edelman said.

In setting up a residential program, officials must be mindful that any loss of financial support carries particularly high stakes, said Cheye Calvo, the director of expansion for the SEED Foundation, which runs a public boarding school in the District of Columbia.

Mr. Edelman was once the principal of the school, and Arne Duncan, who heads the Chicago district, admires its accomplishments, which include getting 97 percent of its graduates—predominantly lowincome students—accepted to four-year colleges.

“It’s not just a place to go for eight or nine hours a day,” Mr. Calvo said. “You’re developing a home for these kids. So you have to make sure you have the resources to sustain it.”

For the planned opening of a SEED School in Baltimore in August, the SEED Foundation had to raise more than $40 million to cover startup and capital costs,Mr. Calvo said.

Heidi Goldsmith, the executive director of the Coalition for Residential Education, a Silver Spring, Md.-based advocacy group, commended the Chicago district for aiming to provide a comprehensive web of services to disadvantaged and homeless students.

She was one of many professionals in the youth-development and education fields, including Mr. Calvo, who flew to Chicago in January at the district’s request for a two-day brainstorming session. She knew of no other district that has set up a residential program like the one Chicago is contemplating. “They’re pioneers,” she said.

But Julie Woestehoff, the director of the local advocacy group Parents United for Responsible Education, sees the district’s agenda as an “admission of its own failure.” By disrupting the lives of many low-income residents with the closing of their neighborhood schools, she said, the district has helped create the problem it now seeks to solve.

“They need to save communities rather than destabilize them,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2008 edition of Education Week as Chicago District Ponders Residential Program for Homeless Teens

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