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New York City
July 2002

Schools Provide ‘Oasis of Stability’ to Homeless Children
Reauthorization of McKinney-Vento Act Expected to Have Positive Results for Children in Temporary Housing
By Marylena Mantas

Seven months ago, Kerryann Heron, was evicted from her apartment in Brooklyn after her roommate ceased paying her share of the rent. Financially unable to sustain that apartment, Heron, a 27-year-old single mother of two boys, gathered her belongings and went to the Emergency Assistance Unit (EAU) in the Bronx to seek placement in a shelter. A month after her visit to the EAU, Heron, who had been temporarily placed in a shelter, walked through the doors of the Red Cross Respite II located on E. 28th St off 5th Avenue. She was offered a small room—equipped with beds, a table, two chairs, a refrigerator, a microwave and a private bathroom—that she and her two boys have made home.

Her current neighbor, Jennifer Saldana, 23, found herself on the same path after giving birth to her second child, who is asthmatic. She was forced to leave the basement apartment she shared with six other family members—who were evicted a few weeks after Saldana moved—because the poor living conditions posed a hazard to the newborn’s health. Last February, she moved into the Red Cross Respite II.

Although both women admit to occasionally feeling or having felt scared, they both appear determined to overcome the odds and provide better homes for their children.

“I can’t be scared. I have two children to raise,” says Saldana, who hopes to earn her GED and become a nurse’s aide. Heron explained that the only thing she fears now is death. “I am a woman of confidence,” says Heron, who now works part-time as a nurse’s aide and plans to become a licensed nurse practitioner. “Whatever I aim for I get. To be scared is not my thing. I am an advocate for myself.”

These families are only two of 92 living at the Red Cross Respite II, a 13-floor facility with over 200 rooms, housed in the Latham Hotel, which became a welfare hotel in the mid 1980s. The Red Cross serves as the parent organization of the Respite, which houses the Emergency Family Center—a Tier II facility designed only for mothers and children—and the Family Respite Center, which provides housing to elderly individuals, AIDS patients and other who need a place to live.

The children of Heron and Saldana number only four of approximately 9,000 children in New York City who live in temporary housing sites. They are also four of 1.35 million children nationwide who experience homelessness annually. The two mothers decided to transfer their two school aged boys, Jimmy and Justin, to schools located close to the Red Cross Respite II, even though they, like all parents who live in temporary housing have the right—as a result of the McKinney Act, which was enacted in 1987 to protect the educational rights of homeless children—to keep their children enrolled in their school of origin. Today 80 percent of homeless children are enrolled in school—a sharp increase from the 1980s when only 50 percent of homeless children went to school. By large, the increase is due to the effect of the McKinney Act, which made recommendations to ensure that states remove barriers that prevented homeless students from attending school.

In NYC Community School Districts provide homeless parents with metro cards to transport their children to their original school. In addition, school buses have been rerouted to accommodate the needs of students, while buses make stops at the various shelters around the City, including the Red Cross Respite II. Still parents often opt to bring their children to school close to their shelter since the commute becomes difficult, as it did in the case of Heron and Saldana, who also had to care for younger children. Thus, these days, Jimmy Heron and Justin Saldana board a regular school bus that takes them from the Respite to their new schools.

For children who are homeless transferring to a new school means adjusting to new surroundings and making new friends, while trying to adjust to having no permanent home. According to Camille Huggins, the Assistant Director of Family Programs at the Red Cross Respite II, several students experience academic difficulties, especially when their new school has more rigorous academic standards. Huggins added that the Respite provides tutoring and after school programs to assist students in that situation, while representatives from the Respite meet with parents and schedule meetings between parents, teachers and principals.

Academic challenges further intensify for children living in temporary housing, since they often change schools more than once. According to Lourdes Estrella, Principal of PS 62 in the Bronx where a substantial percentage of the student body live in shelters, some students enroll in PS 62 after having attended several schools. According to Estrella, the children and their parents arrive at the schools frustrated and angry.

“We show parents high respect, so that they can trust us,” she said. “We believe that one kind word can have an impact. We’ve seen evidence of that and it’s beautiful.”

Educators at PS 62 underscored that schools often have an impact in areas beyond the academic sphere.

“This [homelessness] has changed our schools. The education of the child is extremely important. But, we are no longer just an educational institution. We are a homeless institution, a social and emotional institution,” said PS 62 Assistant Principal Lisa Manfredonia, adding that the school often assists parents in locating agencies and that community members help them in everything from housing, to dental care, to attaining prescription glasses.

John Hughes, the principal of PS 48 in the Bronx also characterized the school as a community institution and added that his staff has been instructed to help parents even if their concerns are not directly related to their child’s academics. The school provides children with access to a health care facility—established in the school by a community-based organization—counseling and after school programs, while it encourages parents to further their own education through GED programs.

Twenty-nine out of the 32 Community School Districts (CSD) in New York City have shelters. A district coordinator is assigned by the Board of Education (BOE) to every CSD to ensure that children living in temporary housing receive all the educational services they are entitled to. In addition, an on-site contact is assigned to every shelter and scattersite housing to work with the residents. The on-site contact works with parents as soon as they enter the shelter to enroll the children in school. The on-site contact functions as the liaison between the school and the shelter and the school and the parent and is responsible for helping to resolve any problems that emerge, such as poor attendance.

According to PS 48 Attendance Coordinator Pat Mullins, problems with attendance usually spark a phone call to the on-site contact, a phone call to the parent if they have access to a phone and sometimes a visit to the shelter. Mullins also offers various incentives to encourage children to come to school, including ice cream and cookie parties to those classes with 100 percent attendance.

“Most students have gone through some sort of trauma…yet, some do remarkable work,” she said. According to Robert Diaz, director of the BOE Attendance Improvement Dropout Prevention Programs/Office of Students in Temporary Housing, the BOE receives funding from the New York State Department of Education, which it then distributes to school districts to provide services to members of their student body in temporary housing. The funds are part of the Attendance Improvement and Drop-Out Prevention Money, which amounted to $6 million in the past academic year. The allocations are provided to ensure that students receive various support services, including after school programs, academic enrichment programs, counseling and transportation. Districts can also use funds set-aside as part of the federal Title I program for homeless children, or they can apply for McKinney grants.

“The districts are responsible to ensure that the youngsters’ needs are met,” said Diaz. “We enhance whatever services the schools have. Since this population has greater needs than the regular population we have to address the issues and enhance the services. We do whatever we can to help these families.”

He added, “The system is as effective as possible. We are constantly changing according to the needs. The system is not fool proof. It’s constantly changing.”

According to Diaz, the BOE liaisons work hard to ensure that “the lines of communication are open between schools and shelters.” He believes that school provides homeless children with a sense of “continuity and safety.”

Most of the services provided to the homeless student population in NYC will soon extend to students in the approximately 700 school districts in NYS and to others nationwide. Although the recent reauthorization of the McKinney Act, which became effective on July 1, will not impact NYC because most of the provisions put forward have been activated in NYC for quite some time, advocates for the education of children who are homeless are expecting the reauthorization to have an effect on other school districts.

“Homelessness remains one of the greatest unresolved issues facing our nation. In spite of the unprecedented resources devoted to addressing this problem, the system of delivering and enhancing services to homeless children must be improved. With the reauthorization of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, we are on a new trajectory that will increase the ability of homeless children and youth to enroll, attend and succeed in school. Among a host of other revisions, the new law expands the definition of who is considered homeless; ensures that homeless children and youth be given the opportunity to meet the same challenging State academic standards that all students are expected to meet; spells out the rights of homeless students relative to school selection, segregation, enrollment, dispute resolutions and the provision of transportation; and mandates that every school district designate a homeless liaison to act as an advocate for homeless students and their families,” said Gay Wainwright, the New York State Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, of the National Center for Homeless Education.

The reauthorization comes at a time when the number of homeless children is growing around the nation.

“Advocates for the homeless says that one of the major reasons for this is the recent economic boom, for some, that provided cash that was used to buy up what was previously unaffordable properties (and that was historically used as rental properties) thereby resulting in a lack of rental/affordable housing. This, coupled with the lack of a living wage, affordable child care, affordable housing, and mass transit, were the major contributors to the increase in the number of homeless nationwide,” said Kate Ventura, director of the New York State Technical and Education Assistance Center for Homeless Students (NYSTEACHS).

She noted that the number of homeless on Long Island is the highest ever recorded according to the Suffolk County Department of Social Services. In New York City, according to Diaz, the number of scatter sites has increased to 1,700 from 200 last year when the program began.

Ventura and Barbara Duffield, of the National Coalition for the Homeless, cited the lack of awareness as a main challenge in bettering the education system for the homeless. NYSTEACHS has been holding training sessions around the State to make districts aware of the reauthorizations and to assist school districts in taking necessary steps to comply with the legislation.

“If we do not intersect to change the life of these children, they may just repeat the history of their parents or guardians,” said Ventura. “We have to change the playing fields of schools. They [the students] will come to school frightened, hungry and tired. The school districts need to address that. We need to look at the American family and see what they need. They need socialization more than before,” she added and called for an “increase in the funding of McKinney grants. And, support for the collaboration among state holders on all levels; federal, state and local.”

Duffield agreed. “We have our work cut out for us to make sure that he law has been implemented. We want to see the promise of McKinney made reality,” she said, adding that for homeless children schools serve as “the oasis of stability at a time of great upheaval.”

“The experience of homelessness leaves children with academic and emotional needs that go far beyond the resources of schools to adequately address. We continue to encourage our elected officials and policy makers to take the necessary steps to eradicate homelessness and to improve the lot of society’s neediest children,” said Wainwright.#


Education Update, Inc., P.O. Box 20005, New York, NY 10001.
Tel: (212) 481-5519. Fax: (212) 481-3919.Email: ednews1@aol.com.
All material is copyrighted and may not be printed without express consent of the publisher. © 2002.


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