School districts report upswing in homeless students as they struggle to offer stability 

click to enlarge Recent education grad Kristina Martinez - SCOTT ANDREWS
  • Scott Andrews
  • Recent education grad Kristina Martinez

Kristina Martinez is well dressed, articulate, and passionate about her chosen profession. As a newly minted teacher with a certificate in special education from Texas A&M University - San Antonio, she had high hopes for herself and her daughter, now eight years old. “When I started going to college, everybody was like, ‘Oh education, that’s where I want to work. It’s a booming field!’” she said. “That was five years ago.”

She graduated in 2010 and the ground shifted.

“I never expected things to turn around like that.”

Instead of starting a full-time job, she found herself scouring for substitute teaching gigs. For a while, things seemed to go well, she even landed a tutoring position in a San Antonio school that lasted for over three months. “The students would see me and say, ‘Hi Ms. Martinez, how are you?’ or they’d stop by my classroom where I would do all my tutoring and they’d stop by in the morning and would ask me if they could help set up or something like that.” Then the work stopped. Unable to afford rent, she and her daughter stayed with her father, and then with friends. In the past year they have moved four times. And with public education spending cut by $5.4 billion by the Texas Legislature this year, it’s perhaps unsurprising that she’s still waiting at the phone for a few days of substitute work when she can get it.

The public face of the homeless is male, standing next to a highway entrance with a ‘work wanted’ sign, or trudging shadows outside homeless shelters. Hidden from view are the families living on the margins: doubled-up with friends or family, staying in cheap hotels, cars, and campgrounds. According to a 2009 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness, approximately half of those without stable housing are children. Nationally, one in 50 children are homeless, that’s over 1.5 million. Texas reported the largest number — over 337,000. Those children who are able to receive help by staying a few weeks or months at a time with friends or family, are likely to be moved from one school district to another over the course of a year. Each time a child’s education is interrupted, however, they must get to know a new school, catch up with missed lessons. Inevitably, the child falls behind, becomes isolated, and years are lost. Fortunately, as a recently trained teacher, Martinez knew her child had options. Though she bounced around plenty, thanks to Northside Independent School District’s Connections program, her daughter was able to stay at her regular school.

Connections is one of many programs in school districts across the country that have been set up to implement the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act guaranteeing education rights and protection for homeless children. The act mandates that all districts search out and aid homeless children and youth. In addition, homeless children are guaranteed enrollment in their home school districts, giving them the ability to stay in the same school, no matter where they may be staying at the moment. Without help from Connections, Kristina Martinez’s daughter would have been moved from the Northside, to the Southside, and back again in one school year. Instead, the third-grader has been able to stay at the same school, close to her friends.

Connections Director Marta Martinez said that social workers at NISD serve as liaison to families and isolated children, helping select a home school, while also making sure the children have the ability to attend. “If the children need backpacks or school supplies, or child nutrition services or transportation, we make sure they get it,” she said. But some families have it rougher than others.

Sitting at a Starbucks just north of downtown, I met “Allison.” Due to the stigma associated with homelessness, she asked not to be identified by name. Allison is currently staying at Haven for Hope with her two children, aged five and seven, but she hopes to get back to work soon. After discussing radio shows on NPR and recounting her memories of visiting museums in NYC, she begins her story of painful transitions. After nine years together her husband died in March after struggling with Type I diabetes and cancer. She hadn’t worked in eight years, having left her management job at a River Walk restaurant when her first child was born. So when her husband died, Allison, now in her 40s, found it difficult to find a job without recent experience. She ended up moving in with her family after her savings gave out. But after many arguments she left, and has since stayed at several San Antonio shelters. Currently, she is looking for a job and hopes to return to school. Connections is helping both Allison and her children, “They are allowed to go back to their school where they went to last year, “ she said, “which is a blessing. Northside comes and picks them up.”

Barbara James, director of the Texas Homeless Education Office, tells me that the number of homeless children is rising in Texas — fast. “There is definitely an upsurge. Our phone is ringing off the hook,” she said last week. As of November, some districts have already reported larger numbers of children in need than they did all last year. At NISD in San Antonio, the relatively affluent district located west of the airport, 1,500 homeless children received assistance during the 2010 – 2011 school year. This year NISD officials expect that number to be at least 1,700 or higher.

I asked if perhaps the schools are just getting better at identifying children in need. James attributes some of the increase to breakdowns in the social networks — families and friends losing their ability, or willingness, to help out any more. The economy, she says, is definitely a factor. “Two funders of a homeless shelter in a major city — I can’t say where — are now residents of the shelter they supported. Both have lost six-figure salaries,” she says.

Tyler Shoesmith began work at North East ISD a year ago as the district’s director of Family Support Services. He immediately saw that they needed to concentrate resources differently — caseworkers were getting frazzled trying to take care of everyone at the same time. In a sort of triage, he started “Target 10.”

“In order to effect serious change, each week we look at the students with the worse grades and attendance records.” Each of those 10 worst-performing students is then given focused counseling and tutoring to achieve “credit recovery.” The next week, they start the list again and lift up a new batch of students. In the last year, homeless students enrolled at NEISD schools have seen a 3 percent increase in general performance, and a 10 percent improvement in math scores. “Given that homeless children are usually at least 10 percent behind in everything,” says Shoesmith, “It is remarkable.”

Shoesmith remarks that districts such as his work with many agencies to provide material assistance to children and families. “But,” he said, “sometimes people don’t know how to advocate for themselves.” The red tape, he admits, can be confusing. Fortunately, schools are ready and able to help out. Shoesmith recommends that if you need help, or know of a family that is in need, you should contact your local school district immediately, and ask to speak with support for homeless children.

With increases in the homeless population more than likely this year, I ask Shoesmith what his group will do. Will they be overwhelmed by the need? “No way,” he says. “Children are the highest priority. If you have kids yourself, you know what I mean. If it takes working longer hours, we’ll do it. With children, you cannot help but say yes.” •




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