The Long Way Home

The Long Way Home

School District of Lancaster (Pa.)

The bucolic Amish country of Lancaster County, Pa., is home to a group that survives with only basic means, minimal possessions and the bare essentials of shelter. But these people are not Amish. They're the homeless of Lancaster, a city with typical urban problems. Chief among them is its homeless students.

"It can be frustrating when a child suddenly disappears" because his family has decided to move on. -Kenneth Marzinko, homeless student project facilitator

A staggering 843 of the district's 11,400 students are homeless--out on the streets, living in shelters or crashing on the couches of friends and family (also known as "doubling up"). More than 500 of these children are under age 14. For many, education comes second or third or not at all in the game of survival. The district aims to change that, one student at a time.

The need--and the machine

In 1988, one year after a federal homeless assistance act was enacted, the state approached Lancaster administrators about starting a homeless student initiative, says Kenneth Marzinko, facilitator for the district's student assistance program. After winning DOE funding, the district's Homeless Student Project was born.

A social worker-turned-homeless-education champion who facilitates the project, Marzinko says the city's eight shelters house most of the homeless children. Situations such as domestic violence, mental health disorders or addiction, as well as eviction and fire, have displaced the families. Trapped in minimum-wage jobs, parents, unable to meet monthly expenses, find they've exhausted resources from their extended families and have no where to turn but a shelter.

In the process of this residence bouncing, children often miss days or weeks of school, or stop going altogether. When families move, either from city to city or within Lancaster, parents mistakenly believe their children can no longer attend their original school.

"No one has challenged these parents and asked them why their children aren't in school," Marzinko says. To that end, he credits the HSP and its task force. Members representing shelters, local agencies and churches help find these students and provide housing, child care and other services needed to resume--and continue--their education.

Vicki L. Phillips, Pennsylvania's education secretary, says the task force's role in the project is crucial. And she would know. Phillips was Lancaster's superintendent from 1998 until this past spring. "We worked proactively with community groups and even businesses to develop strategies and provide resources to get at issues, such as poverty and all that it does to keep children from coming to school ready to learn," she says.

Before a child even steps into a classroom, Marzinko's team is hard at work. Shelters provide names of new children they've received, and then he and his project partner hit the paper trail--calling clinics for immunization records, former districts for school records and hospitals for missing medical records.

Reaching the 20 percent of the district's homeless students who live doubled-up, or the 7 percent living in motels, campgrounds, cars or on the street, is a different challenge. "We can only find them when they come to us," Marzinko says. To encourage that, he frequently speaks to church groups and service clubs. The task force encourages service providers to communicate among themselves and with the project.

The team also provides school necessities and food. "We want homeless students to start with supplies equal or better than those of their peers," Marzinko says. Clothing donations help elementary and middle school students to meet the navy bottoms, white tops dress code, established partly so poor students don't feel the stigma of not being able to wear the designer logos their peers may have, he says. Donations have come from local clubs and businesses.

A day in the life

Shelters provide that extra push to actually get the kids to school each day. Weekdays at the Water Street Rescue Mission, which is currently home to 26 children, one-third of whom are school-age, look like this, according to Director of Development Brad Hoopes: The children are fed breakfast and given their lunch, then driven to school. After getting picked up in the afternoon, students join in on youth ministry activities at the shelter. Two nights a week, a special activity is planned.

Communication keeps everyone in sync. If there's a problem with a student, for example, the task force will mediate, address and ultimately correct the issue, which might require remedial training or discipline. Hoopes says, "The lifestyle of these kids is so transient and uprooted, and often their education is the last consideration of their families. The involvement of the shelter and task force provides these kids with some stability."

Most of the district's teachers and staff are sensitive to homeless student needs, Marzinko says. Still, it's taxing work. "It can be tough on a teacher who has given time and attention to a student [when] his family has decided to move on. It can be frustrating when a child suddenly disappears," he explains, adding that they may not find out what happened until later.

Teachers and community members voluntarily staff an after-school program for homeless children established at Carter & MacRae Elementary School. First-grade teacher Kristin Greenawalt, who works with program facilitator Becky Ortega-Lyda (also Marzinko's project partner), says the support really makes a difference. "One student was not returning homework completed on nights he didn't go to the after-school program," she says. A bonus is the one-on-one time students get with a mentor.

Even bus drivers in the district have helped in the project's mission. Once a driver noticed that a student on his route had become homeless. He alone raised $300 for supplies to help keep the student in school, Marzinko says.

Getting Band-Aids to stick

Although critical assistance is continually offered to families in need, so many homeless families come and go that the number of homeless students in Lancaster remains about the same year to year. "We're putting Band-Aids on a huge gaping wound," Marzinko says.

Phillips, whose department helps fund 14 homeless student programs across the state, says that while dollars are most crucial, effective early childhood education is also necessary. "Children are born with a natural desire to learn. It is our job as adults to see that they keep it," she explains.

In Lancaster, keeping homeless children in their schools of origin when a family moves--hopefully to a permanent home--is paramount. In 2000-2001, 275 of the 702 school-aged homeless children stayed in their schools the entire year. Among those who moved during the school year, 112 were able to stay in their schools. A handful of students moving stayed for at least two weeks to allow some closure before switching schools.

Marzinko remembers one family's turnaround particularly well. A nomadic life had stood in the way of the children attending school for close to five years. Assimilated into the program seven years ago, the students are now doing well. The two eldest made great strides academically, graduated on time and currently attend technical college. Despite some learning disabilities, the youngest is expected to graduate this year.

Parent Brenda Dejesus says the project did wonders for her family, too. "I was very overwhelmed by my situation. I needed help. And the Homeless Student Project was a great stress relief." Dejesus doubts she would have enrolled the children in school when she came to her shelter, because she arrived after the school year started. "Not only were the children put in school, but [the project team] helped prepare them with clothes and school supplies," she says.

The ripple effects of the assistance are wide. Dejesus says she's now "a better mother, a motivated person to establish priorities." Making her children's education a priority is what the Homeless Student Project has aimed for--and achieved.

Moira Cotlier is a freelance writer based in New Haven, Conn.


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