Thursday, March 13, 2014

A Homeless Child in Every Classroom

One of the books I plucked from the "new books" shelves at the library this week was "Educating Students in Poverty: Effective Practices for Leadership and Teaching," by Mark Y. Lineburg and Rex Gearheart. It's published by Eye on Education, an education-oriented small press out of Larchmont, New York.

To my surprise, most of the examples in the book came from my home town. I hadn't realized it, but Mark Lineburg is the superintendent of Bristol, Virginia, public schools. (Remember that my town straddles the state lines of Tennessee and Virginia. Because education is mostly state-funded, we necessarily have two public school systems. I live on the Tennessee side. But when you drive through our town you see one city, not two.) Now I knew that poverty was greater on the Virginia side (Some of this is due to state taxation laws, which tend to drive higher-income residents to chose to live in Tennessee.). I had read articles in our local paper about the growing problem of homeless students. I work at Faith in Action; I meet poverty every week.

I was still thrown off guard by the book. Not by the offered solutions, which were pragmatic and useful; not by the degree the authors seem to understand the topic. By the pervasiveness of the problem.

Sixty-two percent of the students of Bristol, Virginia, receive free or reduced school lunch.  Okay.

Five percent of the students of Bristol, Virginia, are homeless.

"Homeless" in this instance doesn't mean sleeping on the streets. It mostly means doubling up with family members or friends, or sleeping in a car. And at first I had the audacity to think, "Well, five percent, that's kind of small."

Except that in a classroom of 20 kids, it's one child. It's every classroom in the school system having one child who doesn't have a regular place to go to after school, to eat, to do homework, to sleep. One child in each room who's probably scared, confused, and whose parents are scared, confused, desperate.

Yesterday afternoon my daughter's high school tennis team played Bristol Virginia high. It was so pleasing to watch them--a nice multiracial group, all athletic and fierce, but also all good competitors. My daughter and her opponent congratulated each other on especially good shots. I thought of how much I love to see girls playing sports. Studies show that girl athletes are less likely to become pregnant as a teen and more likely to graduate high school, two things which greatly decrease the chances of someone ending up poor.

Then I thought of that homeless child in the classroom. Maybe she's athletic. Maybe she'd be great at tennis. For all I know she could give tennis a try in her freshman P.E. class, and the city has free courts she could practice on. I don't know where she'd get a racket or a regular supply of tennis balls, but let's give her those, too. The high school will give her a uniform if she makes the team.

But who's going to take her to practice?It's not going to be a priority for her family. Her family doesn't have a home. They may or may not have a car. If they have one, they won't have money to spend on gas for tennis practice. That car is for getting to work. Speaking of work, the odds are that her parent or parents are working, albeit at minimum wage, twenty-five hours a week. It's quite likely that they have to work strange shifts, three hours here, three hours there, and if there are younger siblings our girl has to be available to look after them, which will also rule out being on a team.

This morning I read this.

I wish I knew what to do for that homeless child. We keep fighting this at FIA. We fight and fight, but the problem is so large. The current federal poverty level is $23,850 for a family of four.