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Many schools face major ‘hidden’ problem — helping homeless students succeed

By Beth Hawkins | Monday, March 31, 2008
Every school day, the Minneapolis district must coordinate transportation, logistics and a wide range of family stability issues before it can even get to the task of providing an education for more than 1,00

homeless students
Photo by Caroline Yang/Courtesy of People Serving People
Area shelters and Minneapolis schools are coordinating efforts to sensitively handle education issues that affect homeless and highly mobile students.

Weekday mornings, a steady stream of buses pulls up on Third Street in downtown Minneapolis. Each inches forward until a paper in the window identifying its route is visible through the gable-shaped arch in front of People Serving People. Up to 70 school buses a day pick up kids at this homeless shelter, located just off Portland Avenue.

Because most kids don’t want others knowing their situation, the Minneapolis school district has devised complicated bus schedules to make such shelters the first stop in the morning and the last in the afternoon.

Many of the parents waiting in the vestibule wear mismatched or ill-fitting clothes, but the children are neat as pins. A little girl pressed against the glass front door is a study in pink, right down to the pompoms on her pastel shoes. A pre-teen in a fur-trimmed jacket and new Timberlands simultaneously finishes off her homework and a plastic foam cup of diced pancakes. Once they get to school, it’s unlikely anyone can tell where they started the day.

Public seldom sees the tough task facing schools
This invisibility might be face-saving, but it’s also something that has kept the number of homeless students — and the magnitude of their problems — hidden from the general public and from the teachers and school staff who most need to know what would help a struggling child.

Educators now say that the more adults in a school who know a child’s circumstance, the better it can provide support. In recent years, several Minnesota districts have started programs aimed at doing a better job of identifying homeless kids and letting teachers, social workers and other staff know how best to help them.

“The importance of the school community is that it may be the only stable institution and group of people in a child’s life sometimes,” said Elizabeth Hinz, Minneapolis Public Schools liaison for homeless and highly mobile students. “It boggles my mind sometimes to think what that’s like.”

So far this academic year, Minnesota schools have identified nearly 5,600 students as homeless and highly mobile, a category that includes children who are temporarily “doubling up” with friends or relatives. Hundreds are scattered in rural and suburban districts, but the vast majority attend urban schools.

Because most Twin Cities shelter beds are located in Minneapolis, the city last year was “home” to 4,441 of the kids — including preschoolers — even though many attend school elsewhere. About half of St. Paul’s 855 homeless students usually stay in Minneapolis; St. Paul sends three buses across the river every day.

On any given night, 1,200 MPS students are homeless, according to district administrators. Ninety percent are picked up within Minneapolis, although the district does send buses to a few neighboring suburbs.

Every Minneapolis public school serves at least a few homeless
Every MPS school serves at least a few. At Lucy Laney Community School, 105 of the 620 students are homeless or highly mobile, as are one-fourth of Bethune’s 415 pupils. There are 81 homeless kids enrolled at Cityview, 61 at Sullivan and 84 at Nellie Stone Johnson.

In the metro area, they are disproportionately minority: two-thirds are African-American, 7.3 percent American Indian, 6.4 percent Asian-American, 5.5 percent white and 2.8 percent Latino. Most come from families that end up homeless again and again. Many are still learning English or need special-education services.

But many more aren’t necessarily easily pegged as challenged, say educators.

“There are a lot of kids who are doing fine, who wouldn’t leap out at you, but who the data show need attention,” said Brenda Beyer, an MPS social worker overseeing a program for homeless students. “It’s usually those kids we don’t pay any attention to.”

More than children from low-income families, homeless students pose enormous challenges for schools. And because of the instability elsewhere in their lives, it’s especially crucial that they stay in school — preferably the same school where people know them.

High student mobility a bigger problem for schools than poverty
It’s common wisdom among teachers that student mobility poses a far greater challenge to academic achievement than socio-economic status. It’s much harder to teach kids who change schools one or more times during the year, whether the reason is frequent family moves or disciplinary problems at past schools.

Partly, that’s because test scores are the last thing on the mind of any child who’s just landed at a new school. From most kids’ perspective, mastering new classroom routines and curricula are nowhere near as important as fitting in. One new student can disrupt an entire class’s equilibrium.

Homeless and highly mobile children are often hesitant to invest in friendships with other students, but become very attached to the adults in their schools. “It’s very stressful to leave their teacher behind,” said Beyer.

It’s also harmful to a child’s psychological development. All kids need consistent relationships with stable, caring adults in order to develop a strong sense of self. “This disconnect is exactly the opposite of the positive web of relationships with others that children and youth need,” said Hinz.

Also, administrators in Minneapolis and other large, urban districts have long argued that concentrations of highly mobile kids put them at a competitive disadvantage in a political climate that focuses on standardized tests to measure a district’s success.

Homeless kids post some of the lowest test scores, and the percentage passing standardized tests plummets as they get older. In Minneapolis, two-thirds of homeless third-graders can’t read at grade level versus 41 percent of district students overall. By 10th grade, the numbers grow to 88 percent and 61 percent. In math, the gap is even wider: Three-fourths of homeless third-graders failed state math tests, as did 96 percent of 11th-graders.

“Horrendous though these statistics are, they are not worse than other districts,” said Hinz.

20-year-old federal law trying to improved situation
 Indeed, the depth of the problem — and the consequences of ignoring it — has been clear to education policymakers for decades. The rights of homeless students are spelled out by the McKinney-Vento Act, a 20-year-old law requiring every school district in the country to work to identify children and provide a broad array of services aimed at keeping them in school. (Minnesota’s late Rep. Bruce Vento was a strong, early supporter; his name was added to the law after his death in 2000.)

Under McKinney-Vento, students’ districts of origin must provide transportation, even if it means sending a bus or taxi outside attendance boundaries. States may do more: In Minnesota, high school students are eligible for bus passes; Minneapolis also offers parents cab fare to come to school for meetings.

The law also says each district must appoint a homeless student liaison, who may function in a parent’s place if need be. Other provisions recognize how difficult it is for homeless parents to stay involved. Schools can waive paperwork, such as proof a child has been vaccinated. McKinney-Vento also guarantees that kids remain eligible for free meals without parents having to reapply for assistance whenever they move.

Finally, McKinney-Vento provides funding for school districts that want to provide extra services, such as summer school and after-school activities. Minneapolis, St. Paul, Bemidji, Duluth, Moorhead, St. Cloud and St. Louis Park receive grants.

Compliance with law’s basics is mixed 
Compliance with the law’s most basic requirement — seeking out and identifying homeless kids — is mixed. There are nearly 500 school districts in Minnesota, but state rosters show only 150 have identified homeless students. Osseo Public Schools report 123; Elk River has identified 103. The largest district in the state, Anoka-Hennepin, has 68. Dozens more districts have reported one student.

John McLaughlin, state coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, says many Minnesota districts probably have large numbers of homeless students they’ve failed to identify. McLaughlin estimates that the true number statewide may be twice or even three times as high.

“We get 100 or more calls a year about enrolling kids,” said McLaughlin, “how to handle it, what they can do.” Numbers of homeless students are rising in northern Minnesota, particularly on Indian reservations, he added. 

The numbers are daunting. According to research conducted by the Amherst H. Wilder Foundation, 1,300 Minnesota families were homeless in 2006. Ninety percent of those report that their children attend school. Children and youth make up half of the state’s homeless population; 550 to 650 youth are considered “unaccompanied,” or on their own any given night.

One-fourth of Minnesota’s homeless adults report that their first experience with homelessness came as a child. “It really is a pattern of homelessness,” said Hinz. “It’s not so much isolated incidents.”

And as the number of affected students grows, it reaches farther into the ranks of the working poor. “Each school year we find one or more family of MPS employees staying in shelters or with relatives,” said Hinz, who points this out when she talks to MPS staff. It’s helpful when they realize homelessness can affect people they work with every day, such as clerical workers and bus drivers.

Homeless students not always easy to spot

Identifying homeless kids isn’t always easy. Parents are usually quick to tell school staff when they enroll their children if they are living in shelters or with relatives. But it’s hard for most to admit that they’re on the street with their children.  “We do find kids in cars,” said Hinz.

If a school secretary looks at a child’s enrollment history and other information parents supply and suspects they may be homless, there’s a form that can be used to determine whether a family fits the McKinney-Vento definition of homelessness. It covers such factors as living in a shelter, motel, vehicle, campground or abandoned building, or “doubling up” with friends or relatives because they can’t afford housing. Teens are asked whether they are on their own.

Often, the form provides a respectful way of posing a tough question. “A secretary can ‘ask’ without having to ask in an open office,” said Beyer. “They can just give [a parent] the form.” Staff can then pass it on to a social worker who can initiate a conversation.

Last year, MPS gave Hinz the money to start Building Bridges, a pilot program at 12 elementary and K-8 schools where 10 percent or more of the students were homeless last school year. She tapped Beyer, who works out of Longfellow Community School to head a team of social workers.

“We wanted people already in the schools, who already had relationships in the building with teachers and others,” said Beyer. Instead of assigning some staff to work exclusively on homeless kids’ issues, Beyer and Hinz rejiggered workloads to free up the equivalent of one day a week for social workers already in the targeted schools. Their aim: to get to know each affected child and to serve as a friendly face and family resource.

To that end, Beyer’s team makes a point of meeting the buses every morning. It’s important there’s someone standing there who knows each child’s name. “We can have a lot of positive influence,” she said.

Because a personal endorsement from a friendly face can make the difference in terms of making a parent feel welcome in a school building, they’ve also armed shelter workers with stacks of business cards. “They say, ‘You know, if you have any concerns, you can call this person and she’s really great,’ ” said Beyer.

‘U’ studying results for homeless, highly mobile students
With the help of researchers at the University of Minnesota’s Institute for Child Development, Hinz and the social workers are building a database comparing homeless and highly mobile students with children who are very low-income but continually housed. They hope to identify factors that make children academically resilient, as well as “promising practices.”

The team has already noted some commonalities. At some schools, for instance, most students who register after October are homeless or highly mobile. “Social workers say, ‘When a new student registers, please call me and I’ll just come meet them and find out about their living situation,’ ” explained Beyer. “Sometimes we inform them of their rights. We make sure they know their kids can stay in school for the rest of the year, or, if they move to, say, Bloomington, they can register there right away.” 

Students’ family circumstances have traditionally been regarded as confidential, but at least in Minneapolis, schools now identify homeless kids on a “need to know” list. “Some key people need to know: the nurse, the social worker, their classroom teacher,” said Hinz. “It’s private, it’s personal, but it’s not a secret.”

School nurses check for asthma, vision and hearing problems and whether vaccines are up to date. They also report frequent contact with kids suffering from stress-related conditions, such as chronic headaches and stomachaches.

More revolutionary is including classroom teachers in the loop. “We can do a lot right here in the classroom just by changing some things,” explained Hinz, who has produced a brochure to help teachers respond sensitively to tricky situations.

Homeless kids, for example, usually have no personal belongings because they have nowhere to keep things, Beyer noted. A teacher’s aide at one of the schools where she works realized a child’s family was shuttling from one church basement to another on a weekly basis. She helped the girl create a secure space in her locker and then asked her, “What kind of things do you want to keep in here where it’s safe?”

Other suggestions for supporting homeless kids in the classroom include placing students in charge of caring for a plant or keeping track of a game, creating a folder of work that demonstrates accomplishments at school, and not assigning homework projects that require supplies.

Just as important is making teachers aware of the impact homelessness may have on students’ behavior. Beyer cites, for example, the case of a fifth-grader with impeccable manners who normally referred to his teacher as ma’am.

“His attendance was good, his grades were good,” she recalled. “One day last October, he called his teacher an inappropriate name. He apologized and said he knew it was wrong, but he was really, really angry.”

More concerned with the boy’s atypical behavior than with being called a name, the teacher questioned him. “He said it was because he was living in a shelter,” Beyer added. “And he was still living in a shelter in March. He holds all that stress inside all day long.” The teacher found some extra time to spend with the boy, who is less angry.

“There are astonishing examples of resiliency among these kids,” said Hinz. “I encourage teachers to be sympathetic, but it’s critical to do your best work with these students.”

Beth Hawkins, former reporter and editor for City Pages, writes about schools, criminal justice and other topics. She can be reached at bhawkins [at] minnpost [dot] com.