Educating homeless kids is a team effort

We received this article from our friend Arnold Cohen of the Housing and Community Development Network.

This is the quote from this article that drives home the need to end homelessness in NJ: “As of last week, there were 325 homeless students in the district. According to the state Department of Education, there were 13 districts reporting 508 displaced students in Essex County and 406 districts with 3,929 students statewide last year. ”

Educating homeless kids is a team effort
Unit helps keep Newark students in school

Star-Ledger Sunday, February 18, 2007
BY KASI ADDISON, Star-Ledger Staff

Novalette was 17 and a few courses shy of graduation from Barringer High School when her world changed.

The teen, who’d spent much of her life in and out of foster care, became homeless, was forced to drop out of school and moved into a Union County juvenile group home.

“But I want to finish,” said the now 18-year-old, who asked that her last name be withheld. “I want to go, I want my diploma.”

For the Newark Public Schools homeless unit, cases like Novalette’s are not unusual.

The three-person team was created to locate homeless students, make sure they are enrolled in school and help them get to and from class, regardless of where they are living.

The team — Mary Lou Bogan, Melvyne Johnson and Bilal Muhammad — race around the city in search of students living in cars, abandoned houses and buildings without heat and hot water.

“We are mainly trying to make sure the same rights the children who are not homeless have are available to the homeless and displaced children,” said Muhammad, the district’s liaison and unit director.

As of last week, there were 325 homeless students in the district. According to the state Department of Education, there were 13 districts reporting 508 displaced students in Essex County and 406 districts with 3,929 students statewide last year.

Under the federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, school districts around the country are required to assign someone to deal with the needs of homeless kids. Because of the size of the city, and the volume of the affected children, the Newark school district created a specialized unit, Muhammad said.

The team advocates for parents at social service agencies, makes medical and dental appointments, reroutes buses to pick up special education students and educates district staff, educators and shelter operators about the law.

Each day they scan the papers for fires, building condemnations, anything that could mean a Newark child was displaced. In the case of fires, the unit also recruits donors for clothing and food.

They track down immunization, academic and immigration records, and find treatment programs for drug-abusing parents.

On a recent afternoon, Muhammad hopped in his car, drove from the district’s Cedar Street offices to counsel Novalette and then headed west to an Irvington group home to help two teenage sisters who recently immigrated to the United States from Jamaica and were trying to enroll in Newark schools.

When necessary, the homeless unit provides alternative education services, like tutoring.

Since the start of the school year, the unit has operated an after-school tutoring program out of two of the city’s largest shelters, Harmony House and the YMCA.

Johnson said it’s an attempt to give the kids access to tutors or after-school programs, something they miss because they must board a bus back to the shelters after their classes are done.

The YMCA program was Muhammad’s last stop that day. He greeted parents as he walked down the stairs toward a resource room where a cluster of kids and their tutors reviewed math homework.

Homeless families can be difficult to work with, Bogan said. Ashamed parents will drill into their kids that under no circumstances should they tell anyone they are homeless, which makes finding and helping the families that much harder, she said.

“Parents think their kids won’t be able to go to school if people know,” Bogan said. “But no matter what caused a child to be displaced — fire, divorce, the family had to move to a safe house — these children are allowed to attend school of origin.”

The “school of origin” is where the child attended classes before becoming homeless.

Key to the unit’s success is developing relationships with the directors of shelters around Essex County. It was through Kyle Good, director of Apostle’s House in Newark, that Muhammad found Novalette.

When the teen’s grandmother and guardian moved South last year, the state Division of Youth and Family Services placed her in the group home. After her 18th birthday, she moved into the Apostles’ House to get closer to school, but a pregnancy postponed her return.

The district’s intervention speeded up the process of re-enrollment. For now, Novalette will be tutored at home and will go back to school when her baby is born in April, Good said.

The homeless unit “makes my job so much easier,” he said. “Once you get the kids situated, we can work on the primary source, the mother. When the kids aren’t in school, the mother can’t look for housing, a job or training.”

For children to learn and grow, they need to be in an environment where there are enough resources and stability, said Elaine Herzog, a child psychologist with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey’s Behavioral Health Center.

Helping stabilize families and giving children something they can count on is important if kids are going to learn, Muhammad said.

“They need to be in school,” he said.

Kasi Addison may be reached at (973) 392-4154.

© 2007 The Star Ledger
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