WASHINGTON -- On one of the last warm nights of October, Charles “Chuck” Gaines was one of the first to arrive for Homecoming, well before the football team came out to warm up. Even though he graduated in 2011, he’s still a big man on campus at Coolidge High School.
To many of the students and teachers -- and even incoming freshmen -- No. 4 Chuck Gaines is a legend. The team’s offensive coordinator even has a picture of Gaines hanging in his office.
“He said I was legendary. Freshman knew who I was," Gaines says humbly." When he told me that, it touched me because I didn’t know I was that big of a person at Coolidge."
For Gaines, who just finished his first semester at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., visiting Coolidge is a must whenever he is home. At 19, he’s lived in more than 10 homeless shelters. For Gaines, home is where his family is, and his family is at Coolidge.
The U.S. has the largest number of homeless women and children among industrialized nations, according to the National Center on Family Homelessness. It estimates that about 1.35 million children, or one in every 45, will experience homelessness in a given year.
Throughout his childhood, Gaines, his younger brother and older sister were part of that statistic. They and their mother stayed with relatives when they could, then bounced around from shelter to shelter, never for more than two months at a time. Gaines even recalls living in a hospital -- not for medical reasons, but because it was a place to stay.
“When I was younger, I didn’t know where I was at. I was just -- there,” he says. “I don’t even remember going to school.”
Families account for one third of the national homeless population. Those circumstances can be due to a host of reasons such as the lack of affordable housing, limited government assistance and other hardships like unemployment and domestic abuse.
When 53 percent of homeless mothers themselves lack a high school diploma, the transient lifestyle also makes it difficult for young people to receive a consistent education. A 2003 study by the Institute for Children and Poverty showed that 42 percent of homeless children transferred schools at least once, and 51 percent of those students transferred twice or more.
For Gaines, one of those transfers lasted for just one school day before his family moved again.
And moving so frequently impacted his basic reading and math skills -- a consequence he is still dealing with.
“A lot of stability is required for a child to learn and to learn effectively,” explains Dona Anderson, the director of the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness. “Any time you transfer in the middle of the school year, that generally means days of school not attended.”
And these missed days of class add up. According to some studies, homeless students miss on average of 20 days of school a year. That’s 10 percent of the school year, says Anderson.
“I never could stand my classes because I wasn’t as smart as the other kids,” says Gaines, who also has a learning disability. “It took me a while to catch up, ‘cause I struggled with reading and math skills growing up. ... I still am catching up. Even though I’m in college, it’s still kind of hard for me.”
Things began improving in late middle school for Gaines. That’s when he found football.
Watch: Natalie Randolph, 32, is slightly-built and has a high-pitched voice, but she is plenty tough. A version of this will be aired on Tuesday's broadcast. Produced by Lorna Baldwin.
Student athletes at Coolidge must attend mandatory study hall in order to practice. For one hour and fiften minutes after school, every Monday through Thursday, players meet as a team to finish homework, prep for the SATs and get extra help from academic coaches.
It wasn’t until science teacher Natalie Randolph became head coach of the football team in 2010 that Chuck Gaines realized that it was school, not football, that was going to give him a future.
Randolph, 32, is unlike any other head high school football coach in the country. At 5 feet 5 inches, her petite frame will disappear completely inside a team huddle.
Randolph broke it down for the boys on her first day: “If you don’t go to study hall, you don’t practice. If you don’t practice, you don’t play.”
“The first thing she said was school first, football second,” Gaines says of the nation's first female head high school football coach. There were a lot of skeptics when her leadership was announced, and Gaines openly admits he was one of them.
It didn’t take long for Coach Randolph to win everyone over.
“She said she is not concerned about football, she’s concerned about us having a future. Us going to college. Us being successful,” he says. “She cared about us more than football.”
“We tell them they have to be a whole person. You have to be smart,” explains Coach Randolph. “We let them know that these colleges, they have hundreds of applicants to choose from, hundreds of players to choose from, that are just as big, just as strong, just as fast, and what's going to set you apart is your character and your academics.”
But by then, Chuck Gaines was already behind. Struggles over basic math and reading compounded by a learning disability and the academic year he missed caught up to him when it was time to take the SATs, and prevented him from playing college football this year.
“I had a lot of schools looking at me, but that’s when the SATs got in my way. Because I wasn’t aware of the SATs... When I was younger, that one year of school that I missed kind of affected me.” Gaines studied, hard. He took the SATs three times, each time improving, but never enough. “I got better every time I did it, but it just got too late for me.”
Anderson explains the education gap that develops when schooling is interrupted. “We see higher dropout rates for those kids. They don’t go on to higher education.”
There were times when Gaines thought he wasn’t going to make it to college. But Coach Randolph was there to keep his head high, reminding him: "if it’s not hard, it’s not worth it."
“We’re going to be okay,” she would say.
“And I believed her, and I trusted her,” says Gaines. “She said to me, ‘Do you trust me?’ And I said, yes.”
Coach Randolph is modest about how much she cares for her students, but she puts a lot of behind-the-scenes effort into their future, including contacting college coaches and driving her students to visit campuses.
The same day Chuck Gaines graduated high school was the same day he got into Shaw University. He is the first in his family to attend college. He doesn’t get to play football right now, which is frustrating for a guy who likes to stay active. But if it’s not hard, it’s not worth it.
Instead, he’s focusing on adjusting to college life, where he hasn’t missed a class yet. He hopes to one day become a physical education teacher, where he gets to combine athletics and help young people.
“A lot of people at Coolidge just helped me through everything I needed,” he says. “It’s a big family. That’s why I don’t mind going back to Coolidge. That’s where my family is. That’s the family that I see when I come back to D.C.”
American Graduate is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to help local communities across America find solutions to address the dropout crisis.