Mila Koumpilova, Published December 06 2009
More area students living in shelters
As children chase each other and adults watch television in the commons area of Moorhead’s Churches United for the Homeless shelter, John settles down to algebra homework.
The 14-year-old cranks up the music of rapper Lil Wayne on his portable CD player to drown out the commotion. He is determined to improve upon the D’s he got this fall, when he enrolled in Fargo Public Schools almost a month after classes started. He needs a C-average to play on the football team.
As the economic recession caught up with the Upper Midwest, local schools have grappled with a marked spike in the ranks of homeless students. Fargo-Moorhead schools serve hundreds of youngsters without a stable place to live and with much to distract them from classroom lectures and school assignments.
Federal law defines homeless students as those living in shelters, motels, campers and cars, or “doubling up” with relatives or friends. The law calls on public schools to go extra lengths to help these children keep the turmoil in their lives out of the classroom.
Beyond the numbers
John moved here from north Minneapolis when his family could no longer keep up with rent there. His mom, Annette, figured Fargo-Moorhead would be quieter and more affordable.
But the wait for public housing assistance here turned out to be 18 months, and an arrangement to stay with a local relative fell through.
Shelter life is an awkward fit for a 14-year-old: At the shelter, John needs to stay in his mom’s sight at all times. At school, he only gets to hang out with his new friends during recess. He’s only told one of them where he lives.
“I just never brought it up,” he says with a shrug.
Tricia Ode, Fargo’s homeless student resource coordinator, says she is assisting an unprecedented number of families like Annette’s, in the midst of their first slide into homelessness.
“I can’t believe this is happening to me,” parents often tell her.
Fargo’s Homeless Youth Program saw a 33 percent increase in 2008, to 422 children, a number the city is on track to surpass this year, Ode said.
After years of steady numbers, the Moorhead School District saw a
25 percent jump in its homeless population last year, to more than 140 students. The numbers are likely incomplete: Students and parents don’t always report homelessness.
Last spring, more than 1 million students nationwide lacked stable housing, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. These students often lag behind their peers academically; they wrestle with truancy, behavioral issues and the sheer challenge of focusing on school as stress and chaos cut into their lives.
A Fargo elementary class came to a brief halt this fall when a boy burst into tears, recalls Ode. When the teacher pressed him, the boy explained he’d only had a tomato for dinner the night before. His parents and two siblings camped at Lindenwood Park.
“It’s difficult to do homework when you don’t necessarily have a place to do it,” Ode says.
A moment to act
For homeless youth, school can also be a haven of stability, even as dealing with personal turmoil trumps keeping up with academics. Federal law mandates schools do their best to give these students a measure of continuity. It’s a tall order that can inspire desperate ad-libbing.
At a Moorhead funeral home in June, Linda Scheet pulled a student into
a comforting embrace – and made a quick pitch for summer school.
For most of that spring, Kelly, a bright 16-year-old, had dodged Scheet, Moorhead’s homeless student liaison. After the girl’s mom died and an older brother became her legal guardian, Kelly couch-hopped and skipped school. Friends told Scheet they were just letting Kelly crash; they didn’t know what she was up to.
So when Scheet spotted Kelly signing the guestbook at a classmate’s wake, she gave her a hug and pled, “Come register for summer school.”
Kelly and her mom spent several months without a stable home when the girl was 13. Back then, school became a safe place “to get away from everything.”
But during her more recent bout with homelessness, school turned into a vexing distraction. Kelly got a job at a pizza place, showed up at school once a week at best and failed all her classes.
“At school, I worried about where I was going to sleep the next day and what I was going to eat,” Kelly said. “When it comes down to survival, it’s hard to focus on anything else.”
Meeting the need
Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, school districts need to offer transportation to students’ “school of origin” even if they’ve moved across town or the river.
The Moorhead district has two vans transporting homeless students who live off school bus routes. Federal stimulus money earmarked for homeless student education has helped keep up with the rising numbers.
A cab picks up and drops off John, the Fargo student, at Churches United.
“We’ve been doing a lot of cabbing this year” says Ode, who also drops off some students in a YWCA vehicle. She says even on cold winter days, some high schoolers would rather walk a block or two than risk classmates seeing them slip out of that car.
Districts also have to immediately enroll students classified as homeless, even if they are missing normally required medical and academic records. The mandate is right for students, officials say, but can sometimes have them scrambling to assess student needs and fill in transcripts that one educator said often look like “Swiss cheese.”
This fall, Moorhead enrolled an elementary student displaced by domestic violence. The staff didn’t know the boy had recently gone off medication for behavioral issues exacerbated by the recent tumult – until he flung chairs in class one afternoon.
Megan Ramsey, another homeless liaison for Moorhead schools, now meets with the boy one-on-one for an hour every day after lunch. She shows up with cookies, a book and the promise of a movie if they keep getting through his assignments.
Ramsey also lines up food baskets, clothing and YWCA care packages. She leaves cookies donated by Churches United in new students’ lockers as a surprise. And she makes home visits, once trying for weeks to reach a family staying with relatives. The parents thought she was investigating them.
“It’s been eye-opening to me to see how much the issues that present themselves with these students have to do with their living situation,” she says.
Goals are a must
Oftentimes, the key task for teachers is finding a goal that will energize students to get back on track.
Karla Flisk, family case manager at Churches United, tells of a senior who went through a defiant, truancy-filled stretch after his family landed in the shelter. He rallied in time to graduate with his peers and make it to Minnesota State University Moorhead, where he wanted to play football.
This summer, Kelly, the Moorhead homeless student who was couch-hopping, moved in with a friend’s family, under one condition: She would have to return to school. It’s been hard to adjust to rules and chores and vegetables instead of Ramen noodles and SpaghettiO’s for dinner. But the consistency has been good for her.
Her grades have improved. She takes classes at Minnesota State Community and Technical College and already has a welding certificate. She joined a robotics team and a philanthropy club.
“Now I get my work done, and I’m more focused, and I have my goals,” Kelly says. “I am so big on school. It’s my only ticket out.”
Forum reporter Kelly Smith contributed to this report
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mila Koumpilova at (701) 241-5529