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Children Able to Stay at Same School

The provision that homeless children may continue in the same school is one good part of NCLB

APPLETON — Robert Janz is a jovial, chubby-cheeked kindergartner at Lincoln Elementary School who loves his teacher, making purple cow puppets and especially enjoys “when I get to be line leader.”

But last month the 6-year-old with the gap-toothed smile worried that he might have to switch to a new school in Menasha. “I didn’t think my new school was going to be funner,” he said. “We have a better playground here. I don’t want to leave.”

Robert’s mom, Sarina Terry, doesn’t want him to leave either but that’s not an easy promise to make when you’re homeless.

Fortunately, this school year Appleton Area School District received a federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act grant.

Its chief goal is to remove barriers to a child’s continuous attendance in school despite a topsy-turvy home life, and has allowed social worker Kendra Vandertie to intervene with an array of services, including daily cab rides to school for Robert.

Appleton, and all other districts, are now required under McKinney-Vento to give homeless children like Robert the same opportunities non-homeless youngsters get.

So even though he now lives in Menasha with his dad, who is also homeless, Robert has remained at Lincoln the entire school year while his mom rebuilds her life and his parents work through their joint custody issues.

Robert’s family is not alone.

Last year the school district counted 350 children and adolescents under age 18 who meet the definition of homeless, whether they are living in a shelter or “doubled up” with friends or relatives.

Approximately 160 are school age and Vandertie has no doubt there are more yet to be identified. “Every time I make presentations at schools I get more referrals,” she said.

Through the grant, which amounts to $53,000 annually for three years, Vandertie is able to add an important measure of stability to homeless children’s lives and hook their families up with community agencies.

Parents trying to deal with homelessness are usually in survival mode and “doing the absolute best they can,” she said, “but when you have all this other stuff to contend with, you need somebody else to guide you sometimes and give you the resources.”

“The thing these people need more than anything is something stable,” said Gary Van Lankvelt, school district homeless education liaison. “School, jobs, housing — their whole life seems fluid. If we can keep their kids in one school even if they move around, and if we can start to break that cycle, we can be a major help in their lives.”

Mary Maronek, state Department of Public Instruction coordinator for the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program, cites “Homes for the Homeless” and other national research that underlines how critical continuity is to the education of homeless children.

“Every time a student transfers from one district to another they lose between four and six months of academic progress, which is why highly mobile students are behind grade level,” Maronek said.

“In fact, 35 percent are more likely to repeat a grade, and 78 percent are more likely to have poor attendance than those who do not transfer at all.”

Maronek estimated there are 17,000 homeless students kindergarten age through 21 in Wisconsin. Nationally, they number more than one million.

Vandertie said Appleton’s homeless are a diverse group, with every ethnicity represented, and their stories are complicated.

She described one family that left Appleton for another district, was evicted, and then “doubled up” with friends here. “It’s hard to get a straight answer, and many times there isn’t one,” she said.

Another family had moved four times, including four different schools, by November. “For the habitually homeless this is a way of life,” Van Lankvelt said.

A family of 10, including eight children the parents drove to three different schools, lived in a van and with relatives until Vandertie discovered them and hooked them up with Emergency Shelters of the Fox Valley. Now the grant provides the children with transportation to school, allowing the parents to look for housing.

Vandertie and her community connections are a lifeline for Robert’s mom.

Sarina Terry, 28, said she did her share of moving around in her troubled past.

“I hooked up with the wrong people, I had messed up relationships and didn’t have a decent job,” she said. “I wasn’t happy with my life. For a long time I just saw Robert on weekends. Now my main thing is to be more involved in my son’s life. I’m trying to better myself.”

Terry, who lives in transitional housing through the Housing Partnership and cleans offices at night, goes to Emergency Shelters two days a week to work on her GED (General Equivalency Diploma) and gets help with budgeting.

“Once I went to talk with Kendra, doors opened,” she said. “I figure if I can get my life in order, I’ll be able to get his back in order.”

In the meantime, Robert’s teacher, Kristin Sedovic, is glad she told the family about the homeless program at conference time and referred them to Vandertie.

The red flag went up when she and other teachers noticed a big change in Robert’s once polite and cooperative behavior. When she questioned him she learned he had been moving around a lot.

Since he and his family began receiving services, things have improved, she said.

“His good behavior in the classroom, cafeteria and on the playground is back. He’s happy, he’s performing in class. Everything else in his life may have changed, but school is the constant.”

If his family were not part of the program, Robert would have started in a new school two weeks ago, Sedovic said.

“The last few weeks I’ve been testing on material I taught. At a new school, they would be testing on material another teacher taught and there would be no guarantee she’s teaching the same things at the same time or in the same way. Keeping him here a whole year gave us ability to show how much he’s really grown and accomplished.”

As for Terry she knows custody of Robert is very much up in the air, but wants to give it her best shot by getting her life on track.

“I’m doing this for Robert. I want him to have a good life and graduate from high school, something I didn’t do. He’s a good student and I don’t want to see something so good and precious go to waste.”

Kathy Walsh Nufer can be reached at 920-993-1000, ext. 290, or by email at knufer@postcrescent.com.

McKinney-Vento Assistance Act
Part of federal No Child Left Behind legislation reauthorized in July of 2001. Defines homeless as anyone lacking a fixed regular or adequate night-time residence. That includes:

• Living in an emergency shelter or transitional housing

• “Doubled up” living with friends or family due to lack of housing or financial hardship

• Abandoned in hospitals or awaiting foster care

• Living in motels, hotels, trailer parks or camp grounds due to lack of adequate housing

• Living in cars, parks, public spaces, abandoned buildings, substandard housing

Homeless children have certain rights and protections:

• They do not need a permanent address to enroll in school

• They cannot be denied school enrollment just because school records or other documentation is not immediately available

• They can continue in the school they attended before they became homeless, if the parents choose, and it is feasible

• They will receive transportation to and from the school they last attended before becoming homeless if the parent or guardian requests it

To learn more, contact Appleton Area School District Homeless Education social worker Kendra Vandertie at 920-832-6235 or by voicemail 920-997-1399, ext. 8294

— Kathy Walsh Nufer


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