Child homelessness: Public schools must address more than academic needsPublished 12:03am Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Editor’s note: This is the third in a four-part series examining homelessness among children in Adams County.
NATCHEZ — Educators and administrators at the Natchez-Adams School District are charged with educating all children in Adams County, but sometimes their call of duty stretches off the chalkboard.
With nearly 300 students identified as homeless, NASD educators understand that the personal and emotional needs of those children often precede academic learning.
“They’re falling behind not because they cannot learn but because of the instability of their environment,” said Geraldine Geyen, NASD homeless liaison.
NASD Federal Programs Director Marilyn Alexander-Turner said every time a child changes schools or undergoes major instability the child will lose four to six months of academic progress.
For homeless children in a rural environment life is often a series of moves — two nights with grandma, the next with an aunt, three days with a friend, maybe a night in the car.
Though homeless children in Adams County typically have a roof over their heads, the roof may also be sheltering a number of other people, creating cramped sleeping quarters, noisy nights and limited food.
Instability at home can cause a lack of concentration, and if the situation remains unstable the problem can carry a long-term impact, Alexander-Turner said.
McLaurin Elementary School Guidance Counselor Monica King said simple factors like getting enough sleep and food can affect the way children experience the classroom.
“Students who don’t get as good a night’s rest (as other students) will be irritated,” King said.
Morgantown Elementary School counselor Mary Washington agreed.
“They come to school sleepy, hungry, and that really has a negative impact on kids,” Washington said. “They might be concerned about issues that they really have no control over.”
And teachers and counselors have no control either.
But the district does seek federal funding to help homeless children where it can.
For instance, many children come to school without the required uniform or even notebooks for work.
Uniforms and school supplies are likely low-priority items for a mother trying to feed three children, but they are essentials to appropriate learning, educators say.
For the last 10 years, the Natchez-Adams School District has received a grant through the federal McKinney-Vento Act, which softens the burden of attending school for homeless children.
Among other things, the $37,000 grant provides homeless children with uniforms and school supplies.
The Thursday before Christmas break Washington took it upon herself to deliver the uniforms and other clothes to children who received the services.
She makes home deliveries because some children can get embarrassed to carry the clothes on the school bus to wherever happens to be home that night.
Clothes can make a difference.
“You don’t know all the circumstances (of homeless families), but when a burden is lifted — especially when it comes to helping their children — that can be a big load,” Geyen said.
And to a child, looking like and having the things their peers have is often the first step in leveling the playing field and opening the door for learning.
“At this age (fitting in) can be more important than family,” Morgantown Elementary School Principal Alyson Bequette said.
Of the 80 children receiving services from the McKinney-Vento Act, most of them are in grades three to nine, Geyen said.
Geyen said she could only guess why that was.
“From the standpoint of being a mother, I think (having children at that pivotal development stage) makes them more willing to receive assistance,” Geyen said.
King said her students notice more about how they look than adults probably realize.
“(Third and fourth graders) do know if their clothes are really wrinkled and others are really pressed,” King said.
Mother Keykey Moore, whose children are recipients of the grant provisions and were considered homeless a few months ago, agreed things like backpacks and uniforms affect her children’s image.
She pointed her finger, mimicking memories and stories she has heard from her children.
“Kids will be looking at (other students) like, ‘I have this, but you don’t,’” Moore said.
This subjects her children to being labeled “poor” before they have a chance to make friends.
“The new uniform makes all the kids fit in, because they don’t have to feel or look like they’re staying in a shelter,” Moore said.
And in addition to uniforms and school supplies, the McKinney-Vento Act provides undergarments, shoes and socks, food, the cost of student fees, eyeglasses or personal school or hygiene supplies.
“If not for that (McKinney-Vento) Act my kids would not have anything,” Moore said.
And since she is now raising her kids far into her third pregnancy without a family member less than 60 miles away, the extra help providing clothes, back packs, socks and underwear made her new life seem all the more possible.
“That was a big blessing,” Moore said.
Overcoming the odds — with a helping hand
Geyen said one of the consistencies she finds among students identified as potentially homeless is low test scores and student achievement.
And administrators have pointed to homeless students as a contributing factor to the public schools’ low test scores overall.
But King said she had no doubt that these children have the potential to learn.
“I believe you’re born bright,” King said.
But like adults, children have priorities.
King said learning about the living situations of some of her students has taught her to become more patient.
“You never know what someone is going through,” she said.
Morgantown Elementary teacher Aradia Sims and other district educators agreed.
“A lot of things (the homeless children experience) you can’t even imagine what they’re going through,” Sims said.
Sims said it’s impossible to teach children in the district each day and return to her own house without sometimes worrying about her students.
“This is a business you don’t shut off,” Sims said.
Often that means taking it upon herself to do something about it as an individual or through some other community organization.
King, a Natchez native, said she never realized the number of desperate home situations children in Adams County survive each day until she started working as a counselor in the district.
“I don’t think people understand the depth of homeless issues or the multitude of things that schools do to step in and improve those students lives,” Bequette said.
“It really takes a team to address these issues.”
In 2010, NASD received funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act in addition to the McKinney-Vento grant to cater to homelessness issues, but those funds will not be available for the upcoming school year, Alexander-Turner said.
NASD Business Manager Margaret Parson said the state legislature continues to under-fund the district’s budget as they increase a number of demands that cost money.
And the services schools can provide are always tied to the laws and the lawmakers that govern them and appropriate their funds.