Almost 4,000 students in the Minneapolis Public schools – about one in 10 – experienced homelessness in the 2013-14 school year, according to Minneapolis Public Schools. That’s a 10 percent increase since increase since the 2010-11 school year.
People Serving People is Minnesota’s largest and most comprehensive emergency shelter for children and families experiencing homelessness. Each night we provide shelter for approximately 365 homeless persons. Last year alone, we assisted nearly 3,500 people. Tragically, 60 percent of those housed at our shelter last year were children, with an average age of 6.
There is growing evidence of the devastating effect of homelessness on children, especially on their ability to perform well in school. While it is impossible to generalize about the causes of an individual family’s homelessness, it’s clear that three systemic issues are contributing to the drastic increase in family homelessness in Minneapolis: 1) a lack of affordable housing; 2) racial and socioeconomic disparities in education and employment opportunities; and 3) the cost of high-quality child care. These are complex problems; however, if we are truly serious about breaking the cycle of childhood poverty and family homelessness, we need to focus on at-risk children like those sheltered at People Serving People.
Developing executive functioning skills
We are working to break the cycle of homelessness and poverty for children through our educational services, targeting early childhood development, as well as school-age and teen programs. Our programs for young children are shaped by our collaborative research with the University of Minnesota, aimed at developing executive functioning skills in homeless and highly mobile children.
Executive functioning skills are neurocognitive abilities that include self-control, memory, and flexible thinking, or the ability to adjust one’s behavior based on various demands, priorities, and available options. These skills make it possible for children to voluntarily focus their attention and regulate their behavior to achieve a desired goal. It is vital for children entering kindergarten to possess sufficient executive functioning skills to be able to wait for their turn, listen to the teacher, and follow directions.
Many children experiencing homelessness, however, do not learn these critical skills. Homelessness disrupts the ability of parents and teachers to set up the framework for children to test and develop these skills through consistent routines and structure.
Studies conducted at People Serving People – in collaboration with researchers at the Institute of Child Development at the University of Minnesota – show that scores related to executive functioning skills are more relevant than measures of general intellectual ability in predicting many aspects of school success. There is also a growing body of literature contending that executive functioning skills predict lifelong success.
People Serving People’s Early Childhood Development Program (ECDP) has four all-day classrooms for infants through preschool that utilize sophisticated curricula focused on the needs of children experiencing homelessness. We focus on emotional self-regulation and executive functioning skills, and our teachers tailor the curriculum to the average shelter stay of 38 days. In 2013 our program was awarded a four-star rating — the highest possible — by the State of Minnesota’s Parent Aware rating system for using the best research-based practices to prepare children for kindergarten.
We are proud of the work People Serving People is doing to ensure that more of Minnesota’s children are prepared for school and have access to quality education, but it’s clear that much more needs to be done. To that end, we, along with an expanding roster of nearly 100 other organizations, comprise the MinneMinds Coalition. With statewide participation of businesses, leading philanthropic organizations, parents and providers, MinneMinds is guided by the vision that the most at-risk children are able to receive scholarships so that they have access to high-quality early care and education.
MinneMinds successfully advocated at the Minnesota State Capitol for more funding and built the foundation for an infrastructure through which qualifying families have been matched with scholarships that are parent-directed, tied to quality and follow the child. However, there are 20,000 low-income 3- and 4-year-olds across the state, many of whom are homeless, who do not yet have access to high-quality early learning programs.
There are far too many children in Minnesota whose potential to thrive is being disrupted. The best way to ensure that all children have the building blocks to a successful future is through access to high quality early learning experiences. The way forward is clear.
Daniel Gumnit is the CEO of People Serving People.
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