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FEATURE

A Still Point in a Turning World

One South Texas school district fights for stability in the lives of homeless children.

Amber Brown tried to hide in plain sight. She’d hang around school during the day, sometimes going to class. Most of the time, she cruised the parking lot, visiting with friends.

When they went home, she faded into the landscape. She didn’t go home, because she didn’t have one. Pregnant at 16, she had run away soon after her son, Tyler, was born.

"I felt like he took my life away," she says. "Mom said I needed to take care of him, but I didn’t listen."

Leaving Tyler behind, she stayed with a succession of friends and relatives, continually wearing out her welcome. One cold, wet night, she slept behind some milk crates on the school patio.

Amber was among the estimated 1 million children who are homeless each year. Many bounce from school to school as they move from place to place. They miss class, lose ground academically, and their grades slip.

They have problems socially because they don’t have clean clothes or a place to shower. They fall asleep in class because they don’t feel safe enough to sleep at night. School is the last thing on their mind as they try to survive. A lot of them drop out.

But Amber’s story is different. She was homeless in Victoria, Texas, where the Victoria Independent School District has put together an intricate network of federal programs, school personnel and community organizations, all focused on helping homeless children succeed in school.

And she was lucky enough to cross the radar screen of Gail Brocklebank and Mary Post, who work for KIDZconnection, the district’s program to find and support homeless students.

With the reauthorization in 2001 of the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, which ensures education for homeless children, school districts around the country can look to Victoria as an example of a community that has gone past the minimum requirements of the legislation to embrace its full spirit.

Their goal: One child, one school, one year — no matter how many times a student moves. The reason: Educators know that changing schools disrupts and delays learning.

"Homeless kids are the mostly likely to drop out of school," says Barbara James, project director for the Texas Homeless Education Office and President of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. "They are the most likely to fail academically. Some of them are the third and fourth generation in poverty. We have to keep them in school and help them end that cycle."

While most people recognize someone who lives outdoors or in a car as homeless, the McKinney-Vento Act now defines homelessness to include children who are "doubled up" — living with a friend, relative or someone else because they lost their house or can’t afford housing — as well as children living in motels, hotels and shelters.

Its new provisions, which took effect last July, require school districts to allow students to stay in the same school all year, even if they move outside the attendance area, and to provide transportation.

"Staying in the same school can provide stability, continuity, normalcy in the face of utter upheaval," says Barbara Duffield, director of education for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. Duffield says the program Brocklebank runs in Victoria, with its "global policy of stability," is showing academic success and is being copied in Houston, Chicago and other communities.

"She’s inspiring," says Post, who was a teacher and coach for 20 years before joining KIDZconnection five years ago. "I bring educational skills. She brings social work. And this is really case management."

Amber was a tough case.

"Everyone had tried to help her," Post says. "They told me not to be disappointed if I couldn’t." Eventually, Amber got arrested for stealing shampoo.

Brocklebank told Post that she might need to give up on Amber to have more time to help other homeless kids.

"I said I could never give up," Post says. "I wondered at night, ‘Is she safe?’"

For Amber, the attention from Post wasn’t always wanted. "She’d show up, wherever I was. I couldn’t figure out how she found me. I didn’t like it at all. I didn’t want her to know anything about me. But then I got to be glad to see her face."

Once, Post found Amber living in a shack with her boyfriend and her son.

"I asked if they needed anything, and her boyfriend said, ‘We could really use fifty cents to get some toilet paper.’ That was the day Amber told me she was pregnant again."

Brocklebank told Post that if she could get Amber graduated, she’d buy Post dinner anywhere in the world.

 

The "Hidden" Homeless

Built on cotton and cattle, then natural gas and oil, Victoria is situated about 125 miles southwest of Houston, 30 miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico. The town’s more affluent neighborhoods are lined with magnolia trees and Victorian and Greek Revival mansions.

At one time, it is said, Victoria counted more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States. Today, this community of about 60,000, which includes some 14,000 public school students, is home to many employees of plants like Union Carbide and BP Amoco Chemicals that hug the bay in Port Lavaca, 30 miles to the southeast.

But just off the main thoroughfare are run-down houses, some without windows and doors. And along U.S. 59, which runs through town, families play housing roulette in the decaying hotels and motels.

Mattresses and other furniture piled by the dumpsters attest to the most recent evictions or runaways.

Just blocks from one elementary school, Brocklebank says, a principal took her to see a house "worse than any crack house I’d seen in New York. There was no front door. There was no electricity, so the food in the refrigerator was rotten, and they were using spaghetti pots for bathrooms."

Ron Peace, superintendent of the Victoria Independent School District, who grew up poor in Dallas, says he was surprised to learn about the homeless in Victoria.

"In Dallas, you see the homeless on the corners, asking for quarters," Peace says. "Here, you have to get off the main road to see these people who are truly in need. They’re not sleeping in a cardboard box, but they’re not very far from there."

One of the goals of the McKinney Act is to identify these "hidden" homeless in order to provide services for them. So in Victoria, enrollment forms now include questions to determine children’s status.

Questions like: Are you temporarily living with a relative or friend? Are you living in a shelter? A hotel? A campground?

In 1998, when the Guadalupe River came across Bottom Road and flooded the F.W. Gross Montessori Magnet School campus and most of the surrounding homes, the number of homeless children hit a record high of 1,400. During the 2001-02 school year, it was about 900.

Across the country, homeless families often encounter difficulty enrolling their children because administrators fear they will impede progress in the classroom, increase dropout rates and bring down standardized test scores, all of which can lower a principal’s job rating.

"We are charged with educating all the children sent to us," Peace says. "You can’t assume that a homeless child is harder to educate. We have to make sure we’re not treating any child differently."

Who is Homeless?

According to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act of 2001, the term "homeless children and youths" refer to individuals who:

 

  • lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.
     
  • are sharing the housing of other persons due to loss of housing, economic hardship, or a similar reason; are living in motels, hotels, trailer parks, or camping grounds due to the lack of alternative adequate accommodations; are living in emergency or transitional shelters; are abandoned in hospitals; or are awaiting foster care placement.
     
  • have a primary nighttime residence that is a public or private place not designed for or ordinarily used as a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.
     
  • are living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing, bus or train stations or similar settings.

 

The McKinney-Vento Act also prohibits segregation of homeless students. It requires school districts to:

  • identify homeless students as defined in the Act.
     
  • allow homeless students to stay in their schools of origin for the entire school year if they wish, and provide transportation.
     
  • enroll homeless students immediately even if they don’t have normally required school, medical or residency records.
     
  • designate one person in each district to assist homeless families.

When Brocklebank was hired in 1994, after working as a nursing home inspector in the area, her office was at the youth home, now called Crossroads Youth and Family Services, which houses children who have been removed from their families.

The 200 to 250 children who move through the center each year attended school across the hall.

"They were isolated, stigmatized," Brocklebank says. "I thought the district must mean well, but these kids are already traumatized. They don’t need to be traumatized again at school."

And, coming from the background of regulation enforcement, Brocklebank read the law and decided the segregation of homeless children was illegal.

But she thought that getting them enrolled in the nearest school, which served some of the most affluent neighborhoods in Victoria, might be tricky.

As it turned out, Ginger P. Henry, the principal at Chandler Elementary School, welcomed the students. During the 2001-02 school year, Henry said, 17 or 18 of the school’s 604 students were considered homeless, either living at the youth home or in other situations.

When Brocklebank secured a McKinney grant, she hired Post to concentrate on pregnant and parenting homeless teens. Daniel Gonzalez, the third member of their team, focuses on children living on the streets or in hotels, cars, tents or shelters.

The threesome is part of a districtwide effort that includes a former teacher turned parent liaison in each school. Together, they all try to find permanent shelter for the children, and make sure they have food, clothes and school supplies.

They pay to reconnect cut-off utilities, collect money for deposits to get families into apartments and send out e-mails to find beds and baby clothes. They have instituted after-school homework programs so children have someplace to go and someone to help them study.

There is a summer camp, a family literacy program and a lending library of educational tools. There are daycare centers for teen parents. And there is personal commitment.

"No one in this district would go home at night knowing someone didn’t have food," Brocklebank says.

To help coordinate community programs that collect school supplies and coats and provide holiday meals and gifts, she founded the Victoria Homeless Coalition. The group also has helped establish a bus system that began running this year.

 

A School Exceeding Expectations

On a recent Monday afternoon, about 3:15 p.m., the phone rings in Terry Cavazos’s office. Cavazos is the parent liaison at Hopkins Academy in the Victoria district, and she is trying to track down the mother of an absent kindergartner and 4th grader.

"I saw they weren’t here today," Cavazos says. "You’re moving? Where are you going? Well, they can finish the year here. You just get them to Shields Elementary by 7:30 a.m. and the bus will bring them here. This will start tomorrow. Then it will take them to your house tomorrow afternoon."

Hopkins is an example of a school exceeding expectations. Ninety-six percent of its 453 students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

Seventy-two of the students are homeless. Still, last year, nearly 85 percent of the students scored at or above grade level on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills.

"Our No. 1 goal is attendance," Cavazos says. "They’re not learning at home. They need to be here."

The program would not work without the constant juggling of transportation. At the district’s transportation center, there is a 3- by 4-foot map of the more than 50 bus routes.

But James A. Crober, assistant director of the transportation department never looks at it. He has it memorized. During the morning and afternoon rush, Crober mans a two-way radio, directing drivers, shuffling stops.

In a three-ring binder, he keeps a sheet of paper for each school listing each homeless child. The page for Dudley Magnet School is completely filled.

One boy has moved four times and now travels 12 miles one way to get to his original school. It costs Brocklebank’s program about $1 a mile per student each day.

"When she first came to us and said she wanted to do this, we said, ‘Holy Mackerel. We can’t do it,’" Crober says.

But they did and they do. The day starts shortly after 5 a.m., with the "baby bus," which takes teen parents first to the district’s daycare centers to drop off their children, then on to their schools.

It ends sometimes after 8 p.m., when the last child is taken home from homework centers. And they do it without computer routing software, because the $30,000 it would cost has never been approved.

Because the program meets the basic needs of the children and their families, it frees others in the district to concentrate on their academic goals.

Elaine Wheat, a special education counselor who works with emotionally disturbed and learning-disabled children at Crain Middle School, says she used to counsel 13 to 20 children. Now, even though she’s cut back to part time, she can work with 26.

"Before, I was spending most of my time running around getting beds, coats, food, clothes, shots," Wheat says. "Without those, everything else, including school, is on the back burner. That’s what this place does."

The most important beneficiaries of such stability, Wheat and her colleagues point out, are the students themselves.

Last April, more than a month before citywide high school graduations, Mandy Martinez put on her cap and gown to "walk the hall," a ritual marking a student’s completion of graduation requirements at Profit Academic Center for Success, Victoria’s alternative high school.

Principal Carolyn Rison’s voice came over the loudspeaker, asking students and staff to step into the hallway.

As the familiar strains of "Pomp and Circumstance" began, Mandy, 18, who at one time was homeless, stepped forward, one hand clutching a bouquet, the other her 2-year-old daughter, Jacklyn. Every few feet, she stopped to hug a teacher, a friend, a relative and wipe her tears.

Success came for Amber, too. One day, she showed up at Brocklebank’s office to tell her she was graduating. In fact, she was giving the welcoming speech at the ceremony. She knew about the dinner deal, and she had a proposal.

"She told me that if I took them both out after graduation, they’d settle for Victoria," Brocklebank says. "I said, ‘Done.’"

Amber chose a restaurant she had always wanted to visit – Red Lobster.

That was in 1999. A few months later, while working as a waitress, Amber submitted an essay and won a national scholarship for students who have been homeless. She used it to get her Licensed Vocational Nurse degree at Victoria College.

Today, the confident 22-year-old dresses in hospital whites, her hair neatly twisted into French braids. She works two jobs, at a hospital and a nursing home, and rents an apartment for herself and her son and daughter.

She plans to finish studies to be a Registered Nurse. And she is engaged to be married.

"Now, when I see eight kids living in a shack, I want to take them home and bathe them," she says. "I don’t ever want my children to have the bitter hatred toward the world that I had."

Startling Statistics

Before poverty can be solved, says Michael O'Neill, public attitudes must change.

Challenging these attitudes is O'Neill's job. He coordinates the speakers' bureau for the National Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. Accompanied by a panel of speakers, all of whom are currently or formerly homeless, O'Neill travels to high schools and colleges across the country to educate students about the reasons behind hunger and poverty.

He begins panel discussions by asking students to name stereotypes about poor or homeless people. "They all shout, 'alcoholics and drug addicts,'" O'Neill says. "Then I share statistics."
O'Neill explains to students that 39 percent of the national homeless population are children younger than 18; almost half of those children are under age 5. Other startling facts include:

    * Hunger exists in one out of every 10 U.S. households.
    * More than 36 million people in the United States live in households that experience hunger.
    * An estimated 13 million American children go to bed hungry every night.
    * In the past eight years, poverty has risen 17 percent.

Jonathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools, has praised the National Coalition for the Homeless and its school-based presentations.

"The poor too seldom are allowed to speak for themselves in our society, yet they are frequently their own best advocates," he says. "This is why the (speakers' bureau) serves such a valuable role."

Data compiled from Kids Can Make A Difference, Bread for the World, and the National Coalition for the Homeless.