LOS ANGELES — KERISHA COX used to leave for school before 7 a.m., usually walk several blocks to get there, and then, because her family was homeless, return to whatever relative's apartment they were staying at that night.Now the fourth-grader simply climbs out of bed, strolls across a courtyard, and enters a one-room schoolhouse that is short on commutes and long on companions. "This school is more fun," says the nine-year-old. "Everyone is my friend." The Imagine School House is an experiment in dealing with a growing social problem: the education of homeless children. Set in the new wing of a shelter here, it caters to school-age kids of the 30 or so homeless families who stay at the facility. It is one of only a handful of shelter-based schools in the nation. To some, it is an innovative way to help children who often have special needs. But others believe homeless kids are best educated in normal public schools. "We felt they were not being assimilated well in the normal system," says Nancy Bianconi of the Los Angeles Family Housing Corporation, the nonprofit group that built the school. "Homeless children often have a lot of emotional problems. They need some special attention," she says. That such a school even exists underscores the complex challenge posed by homelessness in America. While no one knows for sure how many homeless children there are, the federal government, in an estimate two years ago, put the number at 242,000. Advocates say that is too low. This spring, the National Association of State Coordinators for Education of Homeless Children and Youth estimated the number between 310,000 and 1.6 million. Numerous barriers keep homeless kids, frequently on the move, out of school; among them are lack of transportation to and from the classroom, and necessary paperwork. Not having a stable roof overhead presents more fundamental problems: poor sleep, inadequate clothing, malnutrition. Where do children who live in a public park or welfare hotel do homework? "Homeless children are not educationally different from other children," says Lisa Mihaly of the Children's Defense Fund. "But there can be tremendous barriers to getting an education." Steps are being taken. Congress earmarked $25 million for the education of homeless children this year - nearly four times what it spent a year ago. New provisions were added to a federal statute in 1990 requiring local school districts to eliminate educational barriers. While advocacy groups believe the federal government is not doing enough to enforce the provisions, many local districts have been devising innovative programs. In Orange County, Calif., for instance, the Board of Education has two motor homes that it uses as traveling classrooms to serve the "chronic" homeless - those living in cars, parks, under bridges, or at welfare hotels. The district also has set up a classroom at a local YWCA. Some cities pay taxi drivers to shuttle homeless students to and from school. Other systems send tutors out to shelters. "In general, we are doing better in coping with the problem than we were three or four years ago," says Fred Karnas, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless. "But we still have a long way to go." The Imagine School House in August opened in a modern new annex of the Trudy and Norman Louis Valley Shelter in this community north of downtown Los Angeles.
THE one-room facility is a joint project of L.A. Family Housing, a group that operates 12 shelters and low-income housing developments, and the Los Angeles Unified School District. L.A. Housing built the school and provides counseling and other services for the children, as well as emergency shelter. The school district provides a teacher, an assistant, and the books. The bilingual classroom is a satellite of the nearby Arminta Street Elementary School. "We are trying to get kids to the level where they can fit into the L.A. school system," says Ms. Bianconi, L.A. Family Corporation's director of housing. "We want to assist them so they can compete. We want to give them their self-esteem back." The K-6 students are only intended to stay in the school a few months, until their families find permanent housing. The split-level classroom looks like a normal school: intimidating fractions on the blackboard, vocabulary words on the wall, posters "all about bugs," a display of hand-colored frogs and toads. Some homeless activists, such as Ms. Mihaly, oppose educating children in shelter schools; they believe it further segregates them. Critics question whether shelters can provide the same recreational and other resources that traditional schools offer. Bianconi counters that many of the students were stigmatized when they attended traditional schools: "They became targets for ridicule. 'Oh, you're dirty. Oh, you have brown-bag lunch. She says the students here get more individual attention. Imagine School House students also attend assemblies and field trips with Arminta pupils. Sharon Cox, Kerisha's mother, likes the school. A mother of six, she says she does not worry any more about how her children will get to class. "When they told me there was a school at the shelter, I said, 'What? Right here?' The best part of the kids' day now is getting up and going to school."