12/19/11 — Schools serving homeless children

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Schools serving homeless children

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on December 19, 2011 1:46 PM

As a social worker in Wayne County Public Schools, Donna Best sees students in all sorts of dire situations, including homelessness.

But she prefers not to use that term.

It's awkward enough when families find themselves in need of help without attaching a label to it, she said.

"I favor 'temporarily displaced,' or 'without a home,'" she said. "They're already under so much stress and strain as it is."

"Instead of homelessness, we call it McKinney-Vento," said Allison Pridgen, director of student support services for the district, referencing the McKinney-Vento Act, an educational assistance effort to ensure homeless children receive an equal education.

The school system's role is about teaching the whole child, which oftentimes extends beyond the classroom to include food, shelter and clothing.

"It's a broad category," said Dr. Willette Stanley, director of federal programs for WCPS. "The largest number of our students are 'doubled up' -- they're sharing homes with relatives or non-relatives, some are migratory children, some are living in a hotel, and we count those as well."

"We don't see so many living under bridges or in cars as you would in the larger cities," Mrs. Pridgen said.

"And very few at the shelters," Mrs. Stanley added.

The district typically learns of the need through assessments, surveys and referrals.

"Generally what the situation is going to be is to be due to economic hardship or something that happens to that family that causes them to lose their home, something catastrophic like a fire," Mrs. Best said. "You may have a family that may be leaving a situation that's not safe and they're leaving things behind."

Whatever the cause, the trend in the county is growing, she noted.

"This year we have identified 287 students at this point," Mrs. Stanley said. "Last year, it was 496 total. For 2009-10 it was 275, so we have seen an increase."

Fortunately, there aren't a huge number of "unaccompanied minors," Mrs. Pridgen said, or children living alone or without a family.

Regardless of how they reached that point, the school system works to step in and provide support.

"It's about removing barriers for children," said Mrs. Stanley. "So we look at those educational barriers but we also look at social barriers as well -- school supplies, clothing, transportation."

Families in that situation have typically had to learn to navigate through the system.

"Most people know what their rights are and they're no longer intimidated or embarrassed coming from other school districts," Mrs. Pridgen said. "We may have started a process here, but they may not get on their feet until two counties away. But anything that we can do to help them toward prosperity, we feel that we have helped them make a difference."

Social workers play a large role in the success of such an effort, as oftentimes they have built relationships with students and families and spent time getting to know them.

"It's fair to say that all our social workers are movers and shakers," Mrs. Pridgen said. "They don't have specific work hours. They do what it takes to get the job done.

"If that means picking children up for school because the transportation hasn't started yet, if it means picking up a parent to go to the grocery store, those social workers are available day in and day out for these homeless families. There have been instances where our social workers have had to go out at night for these families because they're the ones that have the rapport for these families."

That's all part of the territory, Mrs. Best said.

"Sometimes these situations, they're in crisis and we have to prioritize our duties," she said. "We're used to that, and we're pretty flexible with that. We have such support for this program from our administrators, central office right on down.

"Through the years, now that we have been working with the homeless population as a major piece of what we do, all of us have become more educated and our teachers are really in tune now and our teachers have students they'll come across and they'll immediately let us know."

Providing such a "continuity of services" requires collaboration, the officials said. In addition to support from community agencies, the district has relied on efforts from its 19 school nurses, the school-based health centers, and established child family support teams, or CFST, at five schools, North Drive, Grantham, Spring Creek elementary and high school, and Carver Elementary. The teams focus on children at risk for academic failure or being removed from their homes by social services.

Social workers maintain a countywide food closet housed at North Drive Elementary, perpetually collecting non-perishable food donations. Civic groups like the Goldsboro Junior Woman's Club provide vouchers to schools for shoes and some area stores provide clothing at a discount.

"Due to the support within the school system, the support from our community, our agencies, our non-profits, our faith community, there's not a day that goes by that they're not helping our families," Mrs. Best said.

Wayne County has done quite well responding to the plight of displaced families, the women said, and is often asked to send representation to share their efforts at state and national conferences.

"I believe that it's because we are the front-runners with regard to a lot of programs, homelessness, school-based health centers and child and family support teams," Mrs. Pridgen said. "We're held in high regard in the state."