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Wednesday, Feb. 15, 2006 06:59 am

School of hard knocks

More poor and homeless kids strain the public-education system

A mother at a Springfield mission is pleased with her four children’s experiences in the local schools. “Oh yeah, they like school. Oh yeah, the teachers are good,” she says. Her children are making friends, and although they could ride the bus, she walks with them most days. Living at the mission, she has “more time to interact, homework-wise,” she says. “It’s a lot easier to be with them at the mission. I’m with them more time than I was before.” This woman’s children are among the roughly 210 homeless children in Springfield public schools this year, says Peggy Cormeny, homeless liaison for District 186. Most children in transition are in Springfield, but a few are scattered among other Sangamon County communities. The schools rely on shelters to notify them of the presence of school-age children, Cormeny says. Principals, teachers, and secretaries are also responsible for identifying homeless pupils — for instance, a child in their care might remark, “We had to leave our house.” Staffers at the Sojourn Women’s Shelter helped a mom and her teenage daughter set up a time to register at Southeast High after the two moved to Springfield. Faith Sanderson, homeless-education liaison in the Sangamon County Regional Office of Education, recently obtained rental and utility assistance for a family in Riverton. Sick for a long time, the father was unable to work, and the family had fallen behind on their bills. However, a family must have exhausted all other resources before asking the schools for such help. Federal grants provide the schools with the money. Schools also connect at-risk families with resources to help them before they become homeless. According to federal law, schools must enroll homeless pupils immediately and deal with enrollment requirements later. The liaisons help families obtain the children’s medical records for enrollment and birth certificates so that they can move into public housing. Sanderson says that every school district must identify homeless pupils and “remove barriers to educational success.” Determining who is homeless, she says, depends partly on the “permanency and adequacy of their situation,” on a child’s or family’s reason for leaving their home, and on the length of time they are in transition. “It’s necessary to get the whole story,” Sanderson says. “For instance, if a family is living with relatives, how physically and financially comfortable is the arrangement?” “If you don’t have a home, school is not at the top of your list,” Cormeny says. In a life filled with uncertainty, though, school is a place of safety, according to the Illinois Board of Education’s Opening Doors Project, which helps homeless children and youth get educated. Something as simple as a desk to call her own can provide a homeless child with a sense of routine and ownership. In addition to living in shelters and with relatives, a lot of families live in motels, especially if they have a bad utility history, Cormeny says. “Some people don’t understand they are homeless,” Sanderson says. They may have been evicted and begun living with a relative. Many people are out of their homes as a result of house fires. “If kids can’t sleep at night because they are cold, or they’re not getting fed, how are they going to perform in school the next day?” Cormeny asks, recalling families living in cars, a boy living in a tent out in the county. Many teens do not have adult supervision, Cormeny says: “Nobody is their guardian.” These kids often wind up “couch-surfing” — moving around, sleeping on relatives’ or friends’ couches. They are afraid that if they are referred to the Youth Services Bureau, the Department of Children and Family Services will put them in foster care. A University of Illinois at Chicago study released in December identified 25,000 unaccompanied youths ages 12 to 17 in Illinois. The main causes of homelessness among unaccompanied youth are physical and sexual abuse by a parent or guardian, neglect, parental substance abuse, and family conflict, according to Opening Doors. The number of people living in poverty and the ranks of the homeless are both on the increase. “Things are getting worse for families,” Sanderson says. Some adults work at low-paying jobs, such as food service, that come and go and are subject to fluctuations in hours. When someone loses a job, it could take weeks to find another one. In Sangamon County in 2005, a person had to earn $11.13 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment, says the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “People can hardly earn enough,” Sanderson says. According to the Heartland Alliance, in 2005 Illinois was the least affordable Midwestern state for renters and had the highest poverty rate while being the second wealthiest state. “Families have lives where they can’t stay in one place,” Cormeny says. She worked with a mother and two children who stay with one friend for a few days and then go to another friend’s or relative’s home for another few days, repeating this pattern so that the people she stays with do not lose their lease for having too many people living in their apartment. The mother could not afford her own housing. Sanderson is concerned about the 22 percent increase over three years in the number of children receiving free or reduced-fee school lunches. In Sangamon County, 43 percent of children qualify, according to the advocacy group Voices for Illinois Children. These kids are likely to have experienced homelessness or are “one crisis away from homelessness,” Sanderson says. Many homeless children have divorced or unwed parents or parents who, Cormeny says, “made bad choices.” She believes that the best way for a child to break the cycle is to stay in school, get a high-school diploma, and go to college. Although she hopes to see a family that gets a house stay put, she recognizes that for some people, “owning seems so foreign.” The homeless liaisons build relationships with families to get the parents into the schools and involved in their children’s education. “Parent and family involvement is very important,” Cormeny says. She believes that children in transition are among those at risk for academic failure because many have moved around or missed school. Studies show that a child loses three to six months academically after changing schools. Several programs are under way to provide tutoring for homeless kids; for instance, Contact Ministries held a four-week program last summer, and the Boys & Girls Club provides after-school tutoring. “We are trying to get a program at Sojourn,” Sanderson says. To get children involved in extracurricular activities, schools waive the fees these activities usually require. Although the schools give pupils bus passes and parents money for cabs to pick up their children, a pilot program is being tried at several schools in which children, should their families choose, would take special buses to their old schools rather having to transfer to new schools on moving. Districts within Sangamon County share transportation costs when a child moves from one to another. Six years ago, Sanderson recalls, one mother finally caught on that it’s not good for a child to change schools. Now, every time she moves, she calls to get transportation for her child. The outlook for homeless families is bleak, but they are not without help.