Voices From the Field Blog: Removing Barriers to Education

by Mary Poor
April 23, 2014

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Homeless and Housing Resource contributing writer Mary Poor highlights the Boston Public Schools (BPS) Homeless Education Resource Network and its commitment to making a difference for the children and families within the community who are experiencing homelessness.
Families represent an increasing segment of the homeless population in the United States, with more than 77,000 households and nearly 165,000 children experiencing homelessness in 2012. The heavy toll of homelessness on children’s health and well-being is well documented – they have higher rates of acute and chronic illnesses, experience emotional and behavioral problems that interfere with learning at almost three times the rate of other children, and go hungry twice as often as other children. The challenges confronting children and families experiencing homelessness can seem insurmountable – except for those individuals who have made a long-term commitment to work creatively to address their complex issues, build relationships, and advocate for a more just system.

Mary William is a Boston social worker that made such a commitment. She is the Director of the Homeless Education Resource Network (HERN), a program that she helped start more than 25 years ago in the Boston Public Schools (BPS). HERN - originally called the Homeless Student Initiative – was established in response to the McKinney-Vento Act, the federal law that removes barriers to education and ensures immediate enrollment and educational stability for children and youth experiencing homelessness. When the HERN program began, it provided basic services, such as transportation, school supplies, clothing, and referrals, for approximately 100 students experiencing homelessness in the school district.

Over the years, HERN has grown to meet the needs of over 3,000 BPS students who are currently experiencing homelessness in the school district. These students attend 142 Boston Public Schools. On a recent spring day, I had the opportunity to talk with Ms. William about some of the challenges facing HERN and the children and families that it serves. Ms. William immediately said that providing transportation to approximately 500 students who reside outside of the school district is one of HERN’s most pressing concerns. She explained that sometimes families who are experiencing homelessness could find temporary housing only outside of Boston. Some children live as far away as Chicopee or Greenfield, Massachusetts, which results in the children commuting up to four or five hours each school day. Since these families do not choose to move to another school district or city, the McKinney-Vento Act ensures that students who are experiencing homelessness can opt to remain in their original school. Since changing schools can negatively affect how a student performs academically and how they form relationships with other students, every effort is made to provide children with educational stability.

Although families have the option of registering their children in the school in their temporary communities, Ms. William said that 99 percent of the families choose not to enroll them. Ms. William explained, “They have lost everything. The only thing stable is their schools. Nothing is familiar in their temporary communities. They don’t know the teachers. The whole culture is a shock for them. Sometimes it’s hard for them to establish new relationships. Sometimes there’s a language barrier, too.” She also noted that some communities do not have the resources to support the families. The bottom line is that every time a child has to change schools, his or her education is disrupted. According to some estimates, three to six months of education are lost with every move. At the same time, commuting long distance to attend school is far from optimal for students.

Ms. William also talked about the challenges that children who are experiencing homelessness face in the classroom. In addition to the distance that some of the children travel to and from school, many of the children that HERN serves are tired and have difficulty focusing on their work. Oftentimes, homework is not completed and attendance can be inconsistent. And sometimes the children aren’t privileged to share the fact that they are experiencing homelessness with their friends or teachers because their parents do not want others to know about their situation. This inadvertently puts an emotional toll on the children. As Ms. William reminded me, “Homelessness is the end result of a long struggle.” And the long-term consequences of homelessness can be daunting. Students who experience homelessness are 50 percent less likely to graduate, four times more likely to drop out of school, and three times more likely to need special programs. These are tough odds to be up against.

Despite these challenges, Ms. William and her staff at HERN are committed to making a difference in helping BPS children and families who are experiencing homelessness to succeed. In addition to providing transportation and other basic services, HERN has established an evening program aimed at closing the achievement gap. Some BPS teachers are trained to work specifically with children and families temporarily living in shelters. Each of these teachers is assigned to one shelter, which s/he visits on a regular basis throughout the school year, providing two hours of mentoring per visit on topics such as math and literacy, relationship building, parental rights, and managing and coping with stress. The teacher also serves as a liaison between BPS and the shelter, which allows BPS to address issues in a timely way and provide support for the families who live there.

HERN also tries to nurture and develop children’s interests and talents through its small but growing mentoring program, Mpcat. BPS students from grades 5 through 12 who are living in transitional housing are paired with volunteer mentors who provide them with enrichment and cultural activities, such as trips to museums, shows and performances, sports games, and other outings. Ms. William noted that mentoring programs make a difference, both in the feedback that she receives from the students and families who participate in the Mpcat program and in studies that have shown that children who have a mentor have improved relationships with their parents and peers, perform better academically, and are 46 percent less likely to develop substance use disorders.

HERN also has a well-established summer program, which is held throughout the month of July. Ms. William says that the program is “loaded with enrichment activities and art projects.” Participants go to the zoo, bowling, movies, playgrounds, and local museums, including a sleepover at the Boston Museum of Science. They also create poetry, practice writing, act in short plays, and participate in art activities. Ms. William said the summer program allows “kids to be kids,” while helping them to become better readers and writers, strengthening their leadership skills, developing their talents and creativity, and helping them form positive friendships.

In keeping with BPS’s integrated and holistic approach to education, HERN works closely with the BPS Office of Family and Community Engagement, Boston area family shelters and housing service providers, the faith-based community, Interagency Council City of Boston, Boston area hospitals, Citizen Banks, and City Missions Society. HERN also relies on volunteers to provide support for its mentoring program and special events. To volunteer or learn more about HERN’s commitment to action and advocacy for the educational needs of children and families, please visit the HERN website.

The National Alliance to End Homelessness: State of Homelessness in America 2013: http://www.endhomelessness.org/library/entry/the-state-of-homelessness-2013

The Homeless Education Research Network: http://www.bostonhern.org.

Interested in being a HRC Guest Blogger? E-mail us at homelessprograms@samhsa.hhs.gov

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Rachel's Story

by Wayne Centrone
June 22, 2011

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Sometimes the most important lessons—the kinds of lessons that have lasting effect on one’s attitude or outlook—occur in the most unlikely of situations. I recently recalled a patient I had the good fortune of working with a number of years ago, while I was still in clinical practice.

I had a busy morning in clinic that day. The schedule did not leave a spare moment for reflection. After a working lunch, I planned to catch up on phone calls and e-mail correspondence. Around 2 p.m., a young woman came to the clinic. She really made me think twice about all the “business” in my life.

Rachel (not her real name) was a 16-year old suffering from a heroin addiction. She wanted help with her third attempt at drug detoxification. What made Rachel so unique to me (keep in mind that I worked for a number of years in very close proximity to a needle exchange program and thus saw many intravenous drug use patients) was the fact that she came to the clinic with her parents. Mr. and Mrs. Smith (again, not their real names) were anything but “typical” patrons at my clinic. They were both in professional careers, lived an upper-middle class lifestyle, and never thought they would find themselves sitting in a community healthcare center. However, they expressed their commitment to Rachel and wanted to help in any way possible.

It is important to mention that injection drug users do not fit a particular profile. Sure, we can stereotype them to the “skid row” image of Hollywood, but there really is no “one size fits all” addict. I saw injection drug users come into the clinic fresh off the streets, and I saw some come straight from their offices. The single caveat that holds them all together is their powerlessness over a drug that has the potential to destroy their lives.

Rachel started using drugs when she was a 13-year old. She never saw herself becoming an addict. It just seemed to happen. Previous attempts at detox and sobriety had all come to naught. Strung out as a 16-year old, her face held the sort of sorrow that one would expect to see on someone many years her senior. Rachel was the victim of a life that she never envisioned nor desired. She was angry and scared. Most of all, she needed help.

I now know that one does not need to be a great thinker or renowned scientist to make a difference in the world. Rachel did not need a marvel of modern medicine. She did not want someone to lecture her about the “deleterious” effects of injection drug use. She really only wanted to get well.

Acute early detox-related treatment for injection drug use is not standardized. Earlier that day, Rachel and her family tried to see their family doctor. That doctor told them not to come, because she would not treat Rachel. They tried going to a doctor recommended by a friend, but again the services they requested were not available. Finally, in desperation, Mrs. Smith phoned the needle exchange program at our clinic. She heard that we had limited resources. She said she wanted to come in anyway.

What Rachel and her family needed was someone who would listen to their concerns, and show them that they were not alone. What they wanted from me was a listening ear and a concerned advocate.

What I learned from this remarkably strong family was that I make a difference just by being present to the suffering of another person. I learned that the “little things” (a smile, the gentle touch of a caring hand, an open heart) comfort the biggest of worries and sorrows. I learned that taking time to care about another means that I need to be present to suffering. Most of all, I learned that life’s most significant lessons come in the most unlikely of ways.

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Category: HRC Insight