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November 1, 1996
Vol. 54
No. 3

Hope for Homeless Students

At a Phoenix school for homeless students, adult volunteers are making a difference in the lives of children who long for stability.

Earth mother. Very practical. Analytical. Enthusiastic. Serious. High-powered. With these key words describing prospective mentors, it fell to me to match our 7th and 8th grade homeless students with these volunteers from our area utility, the Salt River Project. Each mentor agreed to donate two hours a month to one of our students. The students come from area shelters or other temporary living arrangements. There are no guarantees that the matches will work, nor that the students will still be here when the mentors arrive. The only guarantee is a challenge—for the mentor to make a difference in the life of a child who longs for stability.
"Earth Mother"seemed to be the mentor that my student Sylvia needed. Sylvia was 14, raised by her father, with no steady female influence in her life. She was pretty rough-and-tumble—but the best basketball player in the 8th grade. When she met Earth Mother, Sylvia told her to stand by the basketball court and watch while she played for an hour! I was appalled. But Earth Mother smiled serenely, yelling words of encouragement. At the end of the hour she called Sylvia over and asked to give her a hug. Sylvia was shocked, pointing out that she was all sweaty. Earth Mother assured her that she was washable, and a bond was made.

An Accommodating District

Our school, the Thomas J. Pappas Regional Education Center in Phoenix, Arizona, is a magnet school for homeless students from throughout the Phoenix area. We provide stability and extensive support to students who need intervention in their lives. As an accommodation school within an accommodation district (Maricopa County Regional Schools No.509), we serve all students who reside in the county but outside an organized school district. These children live in unorganized territories, on military installations and Indian reservations, and within the national forest boundaries.
In 1988, School Superintendent Sandra E. Dowling expanded our district's mission to educate underserved, at-risk populations in the county. An alternative high school was started for students who had dropped out or were suspended or expelled from their neighborhood schools. The following year, the program for homeless children was initiated at the principal site of the Central Arizona Shelter Services. In 1992, the program moved into its own building and became the Thomas J. Pappas Regional Education Center. (A second alternative high school has been started, as well as a teen pregnancy program and a sobriety high school based on a 12-step recovery program.) Next year we will be moving into a new building.
Many of our school's capital items—everything from classroom furniture and supplies to computer stations—are donated by businesses, churches, and individuals (see Woods and Harrison 1994). The district itself has little capital money and leases nearly all the facilities for its programs. This is because there is no opportunity to seek additional funding through bonding elections, and therefore no local tax is levied on behalf of the schools. The district is therefore supported by federal formula programs (Chapters 1 and 2, for example), state funding (K–3 At-Risk, daily attendance, and so on), and donations of money, materials, and services.

Special Needs

Our effort to find suitable adult mentors began when I met with the Salt River Project Educational Services Representative, Kathie Shergalis, in April 1994. We weren't sure exactly how to proceed, but we agreed that mentors would spend two hours monthly, and preferably one hour every two weeks, at the school. They would listen to, talk with, play games with, tutor, work on computers with, or even help their charges in the classroom.
Kathie recruited volunteers from the Salt River Project's 4,200 employees, stipulating that they have flexible work schedules and supervisors who agree to their community service during school hours. She then forwarded 20 names to me, together with key words describing them.
Before introducing them to students, we required the mentors to attend a two-hour orientation session. There they toured the school and learned about its rules, were fingerprinted for security reasons, and filled out paperwork.
We spent most of the time talking about our student population and why we believed mentoring was so crucial. We quoted Serving Homeless Children(U.S. Department of Education 1992), stressing that "homeless children may have special social and emotional needs resulting from a destabilized, disrupted, or confused family life." We warned mentors that, as Lineham (1992) has written, homeless children often exhibit tendencies toward a host of behavioral problems, including acting out, restlessness, aggression, depression, learning problems, inattentiveness, hyperactivity, persistent tiredness and anxiety, and (particularly in younger children) regressive behavior. These were the students with whom they would be working.
As a final note, we explained the difference between our students and their own children, nieces, or nephews. Their children, most likely, had adequate parental role models and learned social skills through their daily interactions with their parents—at-home-learning that is part of a curriculum for life. We hoped the mentors could provide this learning for children who had never experienced it.

Attachments and Expectations

Our match-ups were, for the most part, successful. The students were at first thrilled to be taken out of class. Slowly they came to trust and form attachments to their mentors. Some students were more of a challenge than their mentors had anticipated. Kathie and I quickly discovered that for a mentoring program to work, teachers should give mentors their home phone numbers in case pressing problems and questions come up during non-school hours. (Kathie, who was on-site with the mentors, saw her e-mail load increase.)
Our students were living proof of research findings that "homeless children often behave in a demanding manner with adults, and sometimes seem to be searching for someone to protect and nurture them from a dangerous, uncertain, and unreliable world" (Bassuk 1990). Not only were the students forming emotional bonds with their mentors, but they also began expecting them to help solve their problems. We reminded the mentors that their only commitment was to be an adult in the student's life who listened for two hours a month. This was the hardest part for the mentors—to accept that they were unable to fix problems. By the very act of listening to the children's problems, however, they were giving the children a safe thinking space to work on solving their problems themselves—a space that is unavailable to most homeless students.
The attachments grew, and the students quickly began pointing out mentors at school, identifying them as "SRPs" for Salt River Project. When a student left the school, I would reassign the mentor to another student who had not yet had one. Other students would brief the new student about the SRP. We sensed that the mentors had became important people to our students. I overheard one student telling another about a graded paper that she was saving to show her mentor. Later, comments about mentors began showing up in the daily class journals.
The most telling comment came following a class discussion, when a student piped up, "that's what my mentor told me." I smiled while shrieking with joy inside. The at-home learning was taking place. No more did students tell me that I was only a teacher and didn't know about the real world. Instead, they seemed amazed when I told them the same thing that their mentor had. I also noticed more students asking about my business background to compare it to their mentor's, whereas before they had shown no interest in my background. Students often began class discussions by relating something their mentor had told them.

The Real World

It seemed only natural to have the students accompany their mentors to work for a day. So we headed over to the Salt River Project. At lunchtime, some mentors joined Kathie and me, while others took their students to nearby restaurants (I had set a $5 limit for my students' lunch orders).
Following lunch, we gathered in the cafeteria. The room was abuzz with students exchanging details of their mentors' jobs and what they themselves had done there. One student had seen the weather forecasting equipment for the entire state and told me what to expect for the summer and fall. Others had attended meetings, typed memos, answered phones, and sent and received e-mail for the first time. Some got to visit electric substations, water facilities, or the transportation and maintenance yards.
With difficulty, we separated students and mentors and headed back to school, where my students shared their new social skills. They told me how to properly take and leave a telephone message, how to shake hands when meeting someone in a professional situation, and how to eat properly in a restaurant (which fork to use, where to place the napkin, how to order). They also reported which mentors had a nice boss, a nice office cubicle, or a phone that never stopped ringing.
The thank you notes the students wrote were eloquent. All said they wanted to have a job like their mentor's when they grew up. Many went further, saying they were glad for the day because they now knew what they had to do to get a good job.
Building upon these successes was easy. This year, we invited mentors to join us on our field trips. The excitement on the faces of the students has been unforgettable. Once again, we provided an at-home learning experience. The students now knew what it was like to have an adult accompany them on a trip (no parent had ever accompanied us, even though they were invited). Students who had no mentors, or whose mentors were unable to attend, were assigned to another mentor for the day and new bonds were formed.
These bonds have been magical. Beyond my expectations, the mentors have been positive role models They have helped students gain social skills. They have encouraged them to look ahead and plan for a future that is different from their present reality—a future in which they, too, can know success.

Bassuk, E.L. (1990). Community Care for Homeless Families: A Program Design Manual. Boston: Better Homes Foundation.

Linehan, M. F. (1992). "Children Who Are Homeless Educational Strategies for School Personnel." Phi Delta Kappan 74, 1: 61-65.

U.S. Department of Education. (1992). Serving Homeless Cchildren: The Respoonsibilities of Educator. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education.

Woods, C.J. and D. Harrison. (November/December 1994). "A Magnet for Homeless Students: The Thomas J. Pappas Regional Education Center." The Clearing House 28, 2: 123-126.

Cyndy Jones Woods has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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