How to School Homeless Children

One California school offers counseling, individual tutoring for such pupils; backers say the plan could become national model

AT the Coeur d'Alene Elementary School here, the turnover of students is so high that some teachers discourage pupils from taking textbooks home at night. Their concern: The students will suddenly move away, inadvertently taking the books with them. The high turnover is a product of the large number of homeless children who attend the school, many of whom live in nearby shelters and show up for classes for a few weeks, then move away with their parents.

At any given time one-quarter to one-third of the 275 students at Coeur d'Alene are without permanent homes, putting the school on the cusp of a quietly emerging social problem in America: how to provide adequate education for the growing ranks of homeless youth.

``The frustration is trying to meet all these childrens' needs without knowing how long they are going to be here,'' says Suzanne Staheli, a third-grade teacher who has seen almost one-third of her pupils leave in three months. ``Sometimes I lie awake at night wondering where they are.''

The United States Department of Education estimates there are 220,000 homeless school-age children in America. More than one-quarter do not make it to classes regularly.

The reasons for their absence are legion. Some are simply not in one place long enough to attend a school with regularity. Some cannot afford the transportation to get to school. Others cannot be admitted even if they do make it to campus because they do not have school records or a permanent address in the district.

Other challenges arise once they are enrolled. Cracking the riddle of a square root can be difficult enough. When homework is done amid the tumult of a shelter or in the back seat of an abandoned car, it is more trying.

``There is a serious lack of stability in the lives of many of these kids,'' says Joan Alker of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington D.C.

Nudged by Congress, states are beginning to address the problem. Massachusetts prohibits school districts from turning away homeless children because they do not have academic or health records. Maryland is setting up a computerized tracking system so the state has files on youngsters wherever they enroll. In New York, the state pays to bring homeless children to schools.

Yet, activists say the response from states is uneven, and many districts are doing nothing at all.

``It is still an unmet problem,'' says Shelley Jackson of the Center for Law and Education in Cambridge, Mass.

Because it has among the highest percentage of homeless children of any public school in America, Coeur d'Alene is launching a specialized program its backers think could become a national model.

Aided by the Los Angeles Unified School District and a local coalition for the homeless, the stucco school in this Bohemian beachfront community is providing additional counseling, social services, and individualized instruction for homeless youths. Staff members also work with their parents.

``We're not experts yet,'' says principal Beth Ojena. ``We're just trying something.''

Coeur d'Alene sits in a community that has always been a magnet for drifters and the downtrodden. Gritty and avant-garde, Venice attracts its share of out-of-towners, as well as local homeless who find it more tolerant than other neighborhoods.

Many used to bivouac on the beach near Ocean Front Walk, the two-mile cavalcade of jugglers, roller skaters, hawkers, gawkers, and gurus who make up one of the nation's most bizarre expressions of nonconformity. But beach sleepers got to be too much even for this liberal community, and many were forced to move on or take refuge in one of the area's shelters.

``They come here from all over,'' says Mark Hilst, director of the Bible Tabernacle, a local church that runs a homeless shelter sometimes so full that as many as 100 people will sleep in the chapel on pews.

Most of the homeless children who attend Coeur d'Alene stay at the shelter, though there are exceptions. Melinda Stingley, the school's urban impact coordinator, remembers a family that was living out of their car; the children washed up at the local McDonald's. A few live in garages.

Because families often move from shelter to shelter, some children will leave and reenter school three or four times a year. Many, however, simply move on: Fewer than half the students who start the year at Coeur d'Alene are still there in the spring.

To reach out to students, a $70,000 grant has been given by the Greater Los Angeles Partnership for the Homeless, a private nonprofit agency. The money pays for extra nursing and psychological services. A special teaching assistant tutors them, while a social worker helps their families with adjustment problems or snafus in obtaining welfare benefits.

``When these kids need something, they know someone is here,'' Mrs. Stingley says.

A computer lab has been set up to enhance reading and writing skills, and after-school tutoring gives pupils a place to do homework other than under a viaduct.

Teachers and staff are taking ``assertiveness training'' to help with discipline problems. While the sessions are aimed at dealing with all students, homeless youths can be overly aggressive.

``These children really struggle academically, socially, and emotionally,'' says Ms. Staheli, taking time out from a mathematics lesson, which today is four-digit subtraction.

Although the emphasis on the homeless is relatively new, school officials believe they are already having some effect on the youths. And as word of the effort spreads, others are coming forward to help.

Members of a parent-teacher group in another part of Los Angeles recently donated $700 in food certificates to the school. One man from the Pasadena area gives books and buys the homeless youths shoes and clothing.

The school's efforts have not gone unnoticed by Theresia Carter. She lives in a two-bedroom apartment at the Bible Tabernacle shelter along with her four children and two other families. She hopes to get a place of her own soon, but wants her daughter, eight-year-old Lawanna Walker, to stay at Coeur d'Alene no matter where they end up.

``I would like to keep her there,'' she says. ``She is doing good.''

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