TOPICS > Economy

Schools Cope With Rising Numbers of Homeless Students

March 31, 2009 at 6:30 PM EDT
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Amid the economic downturn, schools are struggling to cope with a growing number of homeless children and families. Special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters reports from Wisconsin.
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GWEN IFILL: We turn now to the first in our series of stories about people hard hit by hard times. Tonight, a report on how schools are struggling to cope with a growing number of homeless children. It comes from special correspondent John Tulenko of Learning Matters, which produces education stories for the NewsHour.

RADIO HOST: It is now 6:47, 32 in Green Bay, as we head outside on this Monday morning.

JOHN TULENKO, NewsHour Correspondent: Green Bay, Wisconsin, a city of 100,000 where unemployment just passed 10 percent, now finds itself succumbing to a new national trend.

EMPLOYEE: Good morning, ladies. This is your wake-up call.

JOHN TULENKO: More families than ever are homeless. This is Green Bay’s only family shelter, and the waiting list to get in is growing. The shelter’s executive director is Phil Wimer.

PHIL WIMER, Executive Director, Freedom House Ministries: The face of homelessness is changing. It’s going from that stereotypical view of homeless individuals — you know, maybe you’re single, male, you know, no family, substance-abuse issues — to families with children.

Number of homeless students up

JOHN TULENKO: Across the country, hundreds of districts report the number of homeless students has doubled. Schools are often the first place families turn for help. And as a result, schools have to do far more than teach. Faced with a daunting challenge, how much can they help?

At Green Bay's Howe Elementary, some 40 students, about 1 in 10, are homeless. Paul Hannemann teaches fifth grade.

PAUL HANNEMANN, Teacher, Howe Elementary School: A lot of the students who are in the situation of being homeless or in situations where they're close to being homeless, they know exactly what is happening with their family's finances.

They know what checks are coming in. They know how close they are to being on the street. And to know that you're so close to not having a place to live I think would be extremely stressful.

JOHN TULENKO: One of his students, 11-year-old Tyberious, became homeless shortly after Christmas.

PAUL HANNEMANN: Tyberious is a little more withdrawn, quieter in the classroom. He looked very tired. He looked like he had a huge load on his back.

JOHN TULENKO: How did you feel about not having a house?

TYBERIOUS WATKINS, Fifth-Grader, Howe Elementary School: Embarrassed. I didn't want to tell anybody I didn't have a house, because they'd think that being homeless is, "Oh, you live in a garbage can." And it's not even how it really is.

School provides stability

JOHN TULENKO: While living in a shelter, Tyberious' behavior in school changed. Marion Delray is his mother.

MARION DELRAY, Parent: Tyberious really did get angry, like he seemed like he was angry at the world, angry with the teachers. He was just angry with everyone in general.

JOHN TULENKO: Homeless children at Howe are referred to the school's social worker, Mary Ann Hitch, for counseling.

MARY ANN HITCH, Social Worker, Howe Elementary School: So how's school going? Maybe we should talk about that, because I haven't asked you girls. It's been, what, a couple of weeks since I've seen you girls, right?

They feel ashamed, so we try to normalize it. Like, it's sort of like, "Well, no big deal you're living with two other families." We have to in order to make them feel OK.

JOHN TULENKO: Ms. Hitch ensures they have access to the free meal program, transportation, supplies, and more.

MARY ANN HITCH: Regardless of what's going on with their homelessness, this is a place that they'll get fed two times a day, that they're safe. We give them shoes if they need some shoes, a change of clothing if they need a change of clothing.

And then did you say you needed some socks? OK. How many? Just you and your sister? Your brothers, too?

They get some of their basic needs met, which I think makes them feel better, at least for the time that they're here.

PAUL HANNEMANN: You know, I really like how you had that two over here.

As teachers, we can listen to them, talk to them, help them with their homework, have an understanding about the situation that they're in.

JOHN TULENKO: Do you ever cut them slack?

PAUL HANNEMANN: I hold them to the same standards as everyone else because I want them to achieve. I want them to be able to go on to sixth grade and not be behind.

SUSAN HOOPLE, Teacher, Howe Elementary School: Six times six equals 36. Have you burned that into your brain?

STUDENT: Yes!

STUDENT: It burns. It burns.

SUSAN HOOPLE: It's burning. Excellent.

I try to be for them very stable. Everything has an order or a purpose, because this may be their only stability of the whole day.

STUDENT: Four times three...

Students need extra help

JOHN TULENKO: Susan Hoople teaches third grade.

SUSAN HOOPLE: Equals?

JOHN TULENKO: How do they do academically?

SUSAN HOOPLE: In general, they're not doing as well. If you're homeless, and you've moved, and you've missed out on what -- a unit that's been taught in math, math is such a building block, for instance. There's so much that goes on in just one week of school, it's hard to pick that up and get them caught up. And if they're resistant to that because their emotions are in the way, that makes it doubly hard.

PAUL HANNEMANN: It's very difficult. You have to spend a little more time with them, asking them to stay after school to get help, having them pull in during recess when you can spend more one-on-one help with them trying to get them caught up.

It doesn't work every time, but you do the best that you can with the time that you have and just keep moving forward.

All right, if you could bring yourself up...

JOHN TULENKO: Paul Hannemann used that approach with Tyberious.

How is Tyberious doing?

PAUL HANNEMANN: Tyberious is an extremely hard-worker and a very successful student. And I'm very proud of him.

All right, Tyberious, you're going to start. What did you do? What did you end up with?

TYBERIOUS WATKINS: I did 9 times 2, and it was 18. And 6 times 2 is 12. And 9 times 4 is 36.

JOHN TULENKO: Tyberious' success also came from extensive support schools now offer parents.

MARY ANN HITCH: The parents, I think, are pretty tied up in knots when they come in and they've got to try to figure out how they're going to get out of this bad situation. So, you know, they need the support, as well.

JOHN TULENKO: With the social worker's help, Marion Delray found a new job and a home for her family.

MARION DELRAY: She literally opened up her book of resources and just -- between her, the principal, and the fifth-grade teacher, they kind of just went to bat for everything, whatever I needed, whether it be gas to get kids back and forth to school, whether it be food. They really, really pulled, you know, for everything to work out for us.

JOHN TULENKO: But schools can only do so much. Three days after moving in, Marion Delray was laid off and may face eviction again.

A more frightening prospect is the large number of families who could be right behind them. Poverty has put them all at risk.

MARY ANN HITCH: Ninety percent of our kids are poor. They're very poor. A paycheck away, I think, is how a lot of people live from maybe being homeless themselves.

Cutting social workers

JOHN TULENKO: Continuing to help families in need will be more difficult. Green Bay schools currently face a $5.6 million deficit, and social workers could be cut.

MARY ANN HITCH: There are very few places that actually help people to, step by step by step, figure things out. The social work that I do here is school-based, but it has to do with survival for a lot of families.

JOHN TULENKO: Teachers are also worried about losing social workers.

SUSAN HOOPLE: It's going to make the job harder for sure. We're going to have to wear more hats.

JOHN TULENKO: Are you comfortable being both a teacher and a social worker?

SUSAN HOOPLE: Not entirely. I don't think teachers can handle that, plus all their academic load they have to handle. So if we throw the social work into it, the time, you know, we're going to be spread too thin. And we have to do our academic part, too.

JOHN TULENKO: President Obama's stimulus plan contains millions for Green Bay schools, but it's not enough to prevent cuts. Schools already struggle to educate homeless students and to provide families with lasting assistance. Now the job is about to get harder.