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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
October 1, 1997
Vol. 55
No. 2

Creating a Community of Learning for Homeless Children

The shocking truth is that the average age of a homeless person in the United States is 9 years. More than 750,000 homeless children are of school age. How are we educating these children?

By 1997, more than 1 million American children were homeless, moving between shelters and overcrowded or inadequate housing. Of these, more than 750,000 were school-aged, and the overwhelming majority performed well below grade level (Education for Homeless Children 1994; Nunez 1996).
These children are at risk of far more than academic failure. Plagued by domestic violence, family substance abuse, parental uninvolvement, and the psychological devastation of homelessness, they need more than help with their homework: They need a safe haven where they will receive the educational and emotional support to keep them from falling farther into the cracks of society.
Many U.S. public schools provide academic assistance for homeless children, but only a handful of innovative model programs—whether functioning as shelters within schools or schools within shelters—provide comprehensive approaches to education. They have established "communities of learning" by incorporating referrals to adult education and family support services into specialized—rather than special—education for children. By broadening our vision beyond traditional children's education, we can learn from these models and effectively break the cycles of poverty and homelessness to ensure that the next generation will succeed.

Educational Pitfalls Facing Homeless CHildren

Homeless children face monumental obstacles in their pursuit of education. They lag far behind other children, both educationally and developmentally (Molnar et al., 1991; Rafferty 1991, 1995; Bassuk and Rubin 1987). Although all children in poverty fare similarly, homeless children face seemingly insurmountable logistical problems and emotional and psychological pressures.
The most visible hindrances to homeless children's education are the obstacles to enrollment and participation created by movement to and residence in a shelter. While allowed by law to continue at the school they attended before becoming homeless, many children end up in shelters so far from their previous home that they must choose between transferring schools or spending hours commuting. At new schools, the traumatized families face an obstacle course of residency, guardianship, and immunization requirements; inadequate record-keeping systems; and a lack of continuity of programs like special education and gifted education. For most homeless families, this happens two or three times during the school year (Rafferty 1991; Anderson et al. 1995).
Even after enrollment, homeless children struggle to reorient themselves to new schools, teachers, classmates, and curriculums; and teachers are forced to reassess their new students' skill levels and needs. Often teachers do not even know that their students are homeless. Even if they do, few teachers are trained in the special needs of homeless children. Homeless students are frequently left out of extended class projects and are three times more likely to be recommended for special education programs than their peers—and many never escape (Nunez 1996).
These impediments only hint at the devastation to a child's education caused by the psychological impact of homelessness. The loss of a home robs a child of the familiarity and sense of place that most people take for granted. At school, classmates are quick to ridicule homeless children, adding stigma to the displacement homeless children suffer.
What about the parents? The average homeless parent—a young single mother with one or two children—reads at or below the 6th grade level and left school by the 10th grade. Many parents feel alienated from school, and most are unable to reinforce school lessons. A constant crisis mode leaves parents no room for long-term goals such as education and stability. As a result, most homeless children fail to attend school regularly. One study found that homeless children in New York City had missed an average of three weeks of school even before entering the shelter system (Nunez 1996).
To help homeless children and their families move beyond the crises of homelessness, we must provide not just specialized tutoring but also a safe place, stability, and direct services. The Education of Homeless Children and Youth Program of the 1987 Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act has taken significant steps toward ensuring equal access to public education for homeless children. But much remains to be done.

Communities of Learning

Schools must work to ameliorate the barriers to school attendance and participation, as well as the environmental conditions that fail to support—or at worst, sabotage—a child's education. Model programs have combined the educational expertise of schools with the experience and services of shelters into school- or shelter-based communities of learning.
  • Specialized education for homeless children.
  • Contextualized education for parents.
  • Linkages to needed services.
The educational curriculums for children at these centers incorporate traditional techniques used for special education, but do not replace regular school attendance. The centers work to accommodate the frequent and unpredictable disruptions in participation common among homeless children, not to isolate homeless children from the educational mainstream.
  • Be basic enough to help those with even the lowest literacy skills.
  • Be flexible to accommodate the same unpredictable participation rates that plague homeless children.
  • Be relevant to a parent's day-to-day life.
  • Be provided in a one-on-one or workshop format—anything to avoid negative associations with previous classroom-based experiences.

Model Programs

The Brownstone School, operated by Homes for the Homeless at the Prospect Family Inn in the Bronx, is a shelter-based after-school program that takes an accelerated—rather than remedial—approach to helping homeless children address specific academic difficulties while keeping up with their peers. The Brownstone provides one-on-one tutoring, homework help, and creative educational activities that are organized around themes to provide continuity from one day to the next. The tutors modify these activities for multiple skill levels and offer them in brief cycles to accommodate new students who arrive at the shelter (Nunez 1994).
At the Prospect Family Inn, adult education begins with basic literacy workshops. In these, parents read, write, and talk about parenting, health and nutrition, stress management, budgeting, housing, and apartment maintenance. Many parents attend an alternative high school on site at the shelter that prepares them to receive their General Equivalency Diploma (GED). Parents then attend employment workshops and qualify for internships and placement. Parents' participation in these programs and children's participation in Brownstone and on-site day care supplement parenting and literacy training with the opportunity for parents and children to read and spend time together in a structured and safe place (Nunez 1994).
Yet homeless parents and children cannot be expected to make education their priority so long as they must continue to worry about where they will be sleeping the next night or when an abuser will resurface. Communities of learning must attend to these other issues.
Such attention begins by providing for basic needs. The Recovering the Gifted Child Academy, a public alternative middle school in Chicago founded by Corla "Momma Hawk" Hawkins to serve children who come from poverty (and many from homelessness), maintains a "survival kit" including clean underwear, socks, deodorant, toothpaste, and toothbrushes for any student who needs them. The Academy also offers three meals a day for its students—operating on the assumption that no assumptions can be made about what children are provided with outside of school (Pool and Hawk 1997). Once these basic needs are attended to, communities of learning still must attend to less visible needs, such as the effects of domestic violence and substance abuse. Teachers can listen when children want to talk, be prepared to discuss personal issues, and provide resources and referrals for specialized counseling and direct services.
Housing referrals and placement are critical needs. The Benjamin Franklin Day Elementary School—"B.F. Day"—a public school in Seattle with a high percentage of homeless students and a specialized program to meet their needs, acts as a liaison between landlords and families to ensure that buildings in undesirable neighborhoods do not fall into disrepair, but remain occupied and maintained by families (Quint 1994).

Community and School Partnerships

Communities of learning must establish lines of communication between schools and community-based organizations. This common thread of communication and collaboration unites the efforts of model programs to make them successful. Yet this critical step in providing a safe haven for homeless children is the piece most often missing from many programs.
Although schools are legally responsible for making sure that homeless children receive the special educational attention they need, lack of understanding of the needs of homeless children among school administrators and staff has left the few existing programs woefully inadequate. On the other hand, the few shelters and community-based organizations offering children's education programs have difficulty in implementing educational curriculums. Even when children's education, adult education, and family support are well provided within one environment or the other, the lack of communication between schools and shelters impedes the education of homeless children. Schools often lose track of students making frequent moves, and shelter programs fail to reach children who are almost homeless—who are being shuttled between the apartments of family and friends.
  1. Identify community resources and their locations.
  2. Develop an information-sharing relationship between schools and these organizations. At a minimum, this relationship should facilitate the education of school administrators and staff about the presence and specific needs of homeless children.
  3. Update administrators of both schools and shelters on progress and developments within their programs to ensure that the programs are complementary, not conflicting.
Even such basic communication can make a significant difference in the life of a homeless child. In South Bend, Indiana, children residing at the Center for the Homeless shelter would get on the school bus at the stop in front of the shelter to taunts and jeers by their nonhomeless classmates. Open lines of communication between the shelter and the school district made it possible to alter the route of the bus to make the shelter the first stop in the morning and last in the afternoon so that no students would be identified as "shelter kids."
From this information-sharing relationship, collaboration develops. The B.F. Day School developed a relationship with the Mercer Island United Methodist Church, which provided volunteers to assist in moving families into permanent housing and to collect and distribute household items. Volunteers also assisted parents with household maintenance, budgeting, and cooking. Then, other partnerships emerged. For example, a clinic sent a physician's assistant to the school every Monday to examine children and provide immunizations and prescriptions (Quint 1994).
In other school/community collaborations, schools have provided services on site at shelters. The Alternative High Schools, a New York City public preparatory and vocational training program for teen parents and high school dropouts, agreed to establish a branch at the Prospect Family Inn so that homeless parents attend class among familiar faces, rather than traveling across town and getting involved in yet another bureaucracy (Nunez 1994).
The ultimate goal of this collaboration is seamless integration of children's education, adult education, and support services, making full use of school and shelter resources to establish effective communities of learning either in schools or in shelters. Thus homeless children already living in shelters can receive the educational assistance they need to avoid returning to the shelters as adults, and children on the verge of homelessness can be linked to the services their families need to keep from having to enter a shelter.
Perhaps the greatest example is set by the Homeless Children and Families Program in the Salem Keizer Public School system in Oregon. In addition to identifying homeless students and ensuring that these children have continuous access to schooling, the program has become involved in the activities of five local family shelters to engage the parents of homeless children in education and case management services. Program staff members serve as a bridge between the schools and shelters. They work with homeless children while they are in school and then go to local shelters to provide after-school and preschool enrichment programs for the children and case management, referrals, and life-skills classes for their parents.

An Opportunity for Action

The challenge that faces our schools is less a mandate to stretch underfunded services still further and more an opportunity to fulfill their potential as the spine of society. Schools have the greatest ongoing contact with all members of the community—children, parents, aunts, uncles, grandparents, neighbors—and the ability to steer the direction of lives through supportive measures. By addressing children's needs through collaboration with local service providers, schools have the power to make a difference not only for homeless children in shelters but also for families on the verge of homelessness. Indeed, it is ironic that out of the problems of homeless children, solutions have developed that meet the needs of many children at risk of educational neglect.
Though the goal of communities of learning is to educate children, the process must first focus on educating the educators. Every school administrator and teacher must understand that childhood homelessness is not something that flares up only during periods of media attention. We must recognize that the boy or girl who acted up in math class may be missing far more than the principles of long division. Only then will all children—homeless and otherwise—receive both the educational and developmental support they need from schools.
Individual schools can make a difference in their district, and individual teachers can make a difference in their schools. By learning about the needs of homeless children and accepting the opportunity to take responsibility for more than a child's grades, individual educators can begin the collaborative approaches needed to develop a community of learning.

Anderson, L.M., M.I. Janger, and K.L.M. Panton. (1995). An Evaluation of State and Local Efforts to Serve the Educational Needs of Homeless Children and Youth. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Undersecretary.

Bassuk, E.L., and L. Rubin. (1987). "Homeless Children: A Neglected Population." American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 57, 2: 279-286.

Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program. (1994). Report to Congress: Fiscal Year 1994. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Molnar, J., W.R. Rath, T.P. Klein, C. Lowe, and A.H. Hartmann. (1991). Ill Fares the Land: The Consequences of Homelessness and Chronic Poverty for Children and Families in New York City. New York: Bank Street College of Education.

Nunez, R. (1994). Hopes, Dreams and Promise: The Future of Homeless Children in America. New York: Homes for the Homeless.

Nunez, R. (1996). The New Poverty: Homeless Families in America. New York: Insight Books/Plenum Publishing.

Pool, C.R., and M. Hawk. (April 1997). Hope in Chicago." Educational Leadership 54, 7: 33-36.

Quint, S. (1994). Schooling Homeless Children. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University.

Rafferty, Y. (1991). And Miles to Go . . . Barriers to Academic Achievement and Innovative Strategies for the Delivery of Educational Services to Homeless Children. New York: Advocates for Children of New York.

Rafferty, Y. (Spring 1995). "The Legal Rights and Educational Problems of Homeless Children." Perspectives: Journals of the Children's Institute of the Dyson College of Arts and Sciences (Vol. 2). New York: Pace University.

Ralph da Costa Nunez has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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