Schools that Shelter Homeless Students
Originally published in 2004; updated in 2009.
Karen Regan, head of public school nurses in New Bedford, Massachusetts, leads the way past a row of towering steel storage units, and drops an armful of tote bags next to a rack of children’s sweatshirts. She pulls a Spider Man backpack from the pile.
There’s good news: the tags are still attached. “Backpacks are one of my biggest expenses,” she says, “but I hate to give a child a used backpack.”
Doling out backpacks may not sound like typical school nursing duties, but for Regan and her team, it’s a big part of their work. The Health Office runs a program which provides basic supplies to homeless children enrolled in the schools of this economically-depressed former mill town. The services are vital: while New Bedford is still called the Whaling City, the urban area of nearly 100,000 is no longer the wealthy community it was when Herman Melville penned Moby Dick. New Bedford’s high unemployment and lack of affordable housing have contributed to a mounting population of homeless families.
With an enrollment of 15,000 pupils in 29 schools, New Bedford provides educational and other services to almost 600 school-age children without homes, but administrators are certain there are many more they don’t know about. “Nobody has good numbers,” says Peter Cirioni, the Massachusetts coordinator for education of homeless children and youth. “If anything, the population is under-reported.”
Nationwide, the Urban Institute estimates that between 900,000 to 1.35 million children are homeless.
“It’s a pretty devastating experience,” says Cirioni. “There’s a social, emotional and educational upheaval. They’re in crisis and there are so many other things going on; educational needs take a backseat.” Often, parents have lost even the basic documents – birth certificates or school records -- normally required to register for school. The National Center for Homeless Education estimates that at least 20 percent of homeless children do not attend school.
“Make Sure We Get These Kids in School”
Protecting children’s educational rights was the focus of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, enacted in 1987, and reauthorized through the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The act broadly defines “homeless children and youth” as those who lack a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” The guidelines include children “doubled-up” in shared housing, those living in emergency or transitional shelters, and those awaiting foster care placement. Also covered are children and youth living in cars, trailers, campgrounds and similar circumstances, as well as unaccompanied youth who are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian.
The law says that children without fixed addresses must receive educational services and an equal opportunity to succeed in school. The act gives such children the right to enroll in school immediately, whether or not they have documentation, and prohibits segregation based on a student’s homeless status. Students must also receive transportation to and from school, and in some circumstances may be bused to their schools of origin so their education can continue without disruption. States must include homeless students in their academic assessment and reporting systems, and states which receive funding under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act must submit plans to coordinate such funds with McKinney-Vento.
Under a directive from Superintendent Michael Longo to “make sure we get these kids in school,” New Bedford embraced the provisions of McKinney-Vento. “We’re so in tune to what we need to do, that if a shelter calls during a school day, that child is in school the next day,” says McKinney-Vento district liaison Heather Larkin. “Our principals are wonderful, and the counselors are constantly reminded about the needs of homeless children who come in. We set up programs to welcome the kids. We assign them a buddy in the classroom so they’re not alone and they have someone to sit with at lunch. We make them feel it’s a good supportive place and they’re safe.”
Enrollment Isn’t Enough
But while McKinney-Vento ensured enrollment, the 31 school nurses and health aides saw other problems. The staff saw children whose basic needs were unmet, recalls Regan. “They were telling me about children with no hats, gloves or coats who weren’t on the same playing field as the other children.”
It was clear that a comprehensive plan for services was needed. When a grant of $25,000 from the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Program became available for the 2002-2003 school year, Regan and the Pupil Services Department were able to put together a program of supplemental assistance. Now in its third year, with current funding of $60,000, the program unites nurses, teachers, principals and outside agencies in a team approach to support students.
Through grant funding, the New Bedford Public School’s Homeless Child and Youth Program (HCYP) goes beyond what the schools can do, bringing parents and children to housing offices, social service agencies and medical and dental appointments, and helping families obtain health insurance. The staff also regularly visits area shelters to communicate with parents and provide information.
Last year, the HCYP distributed more than 500 care packages of bedding and other household objects, and at one shelter, it allocated funds to enclose and restore a play area bordering a busy roadway. In 2003-2004, the grant assisted more than 100 homeless families and 580 children in New Bedford, a number Larkin expects will increase this year. Plans for the 2004-2005 school year include workshops on health topics, social skills and parenting.
The program also provides students with essentials they may not own or may have left behind. “Some of them have only the clothes on their backs,” says case manager Shelley Correira. “Some don’t even have a toothbrush.”
For each child, it starts with a checklist of clothing goods and school materials, faxed by caseworkers and nurses to staffers like Pat Fredette and Christine Avelar. They swing into action, trying to equip the child the same day so he or she will be ready for school right away. It’s a process that’s gratifying to both the program workers and the students’ families, comments Regan as she and a group of volunteers sort through bags of donated clothing.
“I had some moms ask me for backpacks for their kids, and you’d think I’d given them a million dollars,” she says. “You develop a bond with them, and then they look at the school system as a friend that wants to help. They’ve had so much rejection in their lives, they almost expect to hear that people frown upon them because they’re homeless. We don’t.”
Creative Solutions: Building a Network
The funding from the grant is essential, but it’s not enough. “We use up the money for transportation in the first month alone,” says Regan. She knew from the beginning that the program’s success would depend on supplementing the funding with creative solutions and community services. And she knew she’d need help. “I can’t do this on my own,” she says. “This is a team effort.”
|School nurse Karen Regan, New Bedford’s assistant homeless liason.|
An assessment was critical. “You need to know what your issues are before you can address them,” explains Regan. “Who are you going to serve? What are their needs? What’s going on in your community, and where are the gaps that need to be filled?” Regan also set out to identify existing services so the school’s program could build upon those efforts, and she established a network of organizations and individuals which helps stretch out funding.
A web of partners throughout the city include the New Bedford Police Department, the Boys and Girls Club, the InterChurch Council, and the Mayor’s Invest in Kids Program. To organize the contributions and other activities for the start of school, Regan and Larkin work throughout summer, meeting on their own time with agencies and shelters to determine needs and allocate donations.
Securing help from volunteer organizations has been crucial. Regan calls teenager Erin Rosen-Watson “Afghan Erin,” because she runs a 4H project which offers the children “the 3 B’s” of bears, books and blankets. And Cradles to Crayons, an organization outside of Boston, sends used and new clothing, educational materials and books in both Spanish and English. Just in time for September, donations from Cradles to Crayons included a bonanza of 250 new backpacks.
Unpacking the Backpacks
Starting school is intimidating for any child, but it’s especially hard for children without permanent homes. The bears and backpacks make a difference. “It makes their transition a little easier,” says Correira. “Just knowing there’s someone there at the school department is comforting.”
The week after school started, Regan’s delivery truck pulled up outside the former mill building which houses one shelter. Each child filed into the cafeteria to receive a bag labeled by name, and containing school clothes, books and a backpack loaded with notebooks, crayons and more. “The kids were so happy,” says Correira. “They were jumping and screaming!”
Some children write thank you letters. “I keep them all in a book,” says Regan. “That’s what makes you keep going.” But it’s not the backpacks that are so important, she insists. “It’s what’s inside the backpacks; the basic materials that most of our other children have access to, and which every child should have. They get all the services that other children get, that they’re entitled to, and we make sure of it through the McKinney-Vento Act.”
Freelancer Judith Reppucci runs a marketing communications business from her home on Cape Cod, and tutors children and teens in writing skills on her off hours.