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Increasing Number Of Homeless Students Puts Pressure On D.C. Public Schools

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Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger standing in front of a poster advertising helping for homeless students.
WAMU/Kavitha Cardoza
Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger standing in front of a poster advertising helping for homeless students.

Many of the children who stay at D.C. General Shelter go to Ketcham Elementary School in Southeast D.C. Nearly 30 percent of the student population there is homeless.

Principal Maisha Riddlesprigger stands in the foyer of Ketcham Elementary School at 8:30 every single morning.

“I think it’s important to greet families. It’s important they see the principal, when they come in they are greeted with a warm face, a ‘Good morning,’ a ‘Hello,’ because you never know what’s happened the night before,” she says.

The school is about two miles from the D.C. General. Little children come up to Riddlesprigger for a quick cuddle before they go to class. Riddlesprigger says these children have very unstable lives.

“When you’re moving around from place to place there are a lot of things as a child you feel are out of control. So we want to make this a constant,” she says.

It isn’t obvious which students here are homeless. Julia Zahn, the social worker and homeless liaison at Ketcham, says that's the school’s goal. Students wear uniforms so there are no obvious differences; they have a very structured routine and all follow the same rules.

“For our children having a place of belonging, that’s the same every single day, they know they’re going to get their hot meals here, they’re going to look like everyone else, they know they’re going to go outside and play, knowing what to expect helps improve their behavior, helps them improve academically,” Zahn says.

Zahn says a federal law allows students to keep attending the school if they become homeless during the academic year. She says that’s very helpful, because otherwise the stress is even greater for these children.

“They bounce and bounce and bounce, they might have had four or five different teachers over the course of the year and that’s really difficult,” she said.

Homelessness a difficult challenge for young students

For homeless families struggling with immediate needs, like food and shelter, school is often not a priority. A big challenge for this school is absenteeism; many students come late or sometimes not at all.

Fifth grade teacher Camille Townsend says poor attendance is a problem and in turn hurts learning.

“It’s like, ‘Oh, they're just learning their ABCs, they're just learning how to count, I can teach that at home,’ but there’s a conceptual knowledge, application their learning in school how to take those skills and link them to science and social studies, art and music. And that’s one thing that really does affect homeless students because they really do have such poor attendance,” Townsend says.

Townsend says children learn the building blocks of reading and math in elementary school.

“What a kindergartner learns, phonics, how to decode words those specific skills and that can because when they were in kindergarten or first grade. I have children struggling with subtraction, well how are they going to division? If you don't have a foundation it’s a lot harder later,” she says.

Jamilla Larson, who directs the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, says it’s more difficult for homeless children to concentrate.

“In the classroom, we know that Cortisol — the stress hormone — really corrodes the child’s developing brain and has a direct impact on the hippocampus which is the memory center. So it’s very difficult for children to retain information when cortisol is eating away at your brain. So there’s a lot of research on even in the highest level of educational quality, it takes half a day to reach a level where they can actually absorb new information,” she says.

A University of Chicago study found homeless students were less likely to perform on grade level than classmates who weren’t homeless. They were also twice as likely to be identified as needing special education, and a third had been held back a grade once. All these pressures means teacher Camille Townsend needs to make time for a lot more one-on-one instruction.

Click to see a map of where homeless students go to school.

“It’s definitely worrisome as a teacher. How am I going to address this new skill when I know this child has been gone last week? You have to figure out how do I teach normally for everyone else and how do I double back for this child,” Townsend says.

It also puts additional pressure on teachers who are evaluated in part based on their students’ test scores.

“It’s definitely a worry, it’s something I verbalize, other teachers have verbalized. Unfortunately it’s something we have to deal with. But the impact on me is minimal; I'm an adult I can bounce back. My evaluation is secondary,” she said.

Schools serve as support system

Donice, a young mother, lives at D.C. General with her two children, aged one and seven. She’s almost two hours late in dropping off her first grader at school. She says she wants her son to do well in school but it’s hard living in a shelter.

“He wants to go outside and play but there’s no place for him. Sometimes he has bad dreams. We don’t be as happy you know, we're not as comfortable as normal people with a normal house. We have to find the motivation,” she says.

Donice is looking for a job and says this school is a huge help. She gets free bus tokens to bring him to school, staffers organize food drives every month and she can use computers to search for a job. But most of all her son is taken care of.

“There are kids his age, he loves his teacher, makes him a little happier. School is a big impact because he’s comfortable; he likes it,” Donice says.

According to the National Center on Family Homelessness, children who are homeless show three times the rate of emotional and behavioral problems compared to non-homeless children. Teacher Camille Townsend says it just depends on the child.

“I know a particular student who tends to steal and that is because there’s this desire, I want to have own set of things. I don’t have anything that is mine. There are some students I know who hoard food, they're always asking for extra breakfast, extra snacks,” she says.

Principal Riddlesprigger says she worries most about children who withdraw from everyone.

“It’s the ones who are quiet I worry about. Friends can be a great support they can say ‘I went through this before, this is what happened at our shelter, this is how we stayed safe, this is how we stayed with our mother.’ But a child who bottles up their feelings we never know what’s going on and how we can help,” Riddlesprigger says.

Answering those questions — what’s going on and how can we help — has become increasingly important at this school. Julia Zahn, the homeless liaison at Ketcham, says five years ago she was helping two students with transportation, and now she has over 50 receiving transportation assistance.

“There are a couple reasons, the number of homeless families is increasing, the other is more awareness of services,” she said.

Zahn opens a large closet with all the extra supplies she keeps on-hand. There are winter coats, hats, gloves and mittens in a variety of sizes.

“It’s all inventoried, these are a few leftover toys we had donated to us. A lot of my families move and don’t have access to their belonging so being able pick out a stuffed animal is really helpful. You can see uniforms, different sizes. Backpacks, backpacks, backpacks,” she says.

Zahn works with about 20 different community partners, stocking up on uniforms, shoes and shampoo.

“Just last month a community partner asked is there anything else you need? And I knew right away, ‘underwear!’ Then the next day we got a huge packet of underwear,” she says.

Worrying trends across D.C.

Nicole Lee-Mwandha oversees homeless programs for D.C’s public school system. She says every year the numbers of homeless children increase. Since the 2009-10 school year, it has jumped by 60 percent.

“DCPS is about five percent [homeless], but in my heart I strongly believe students go unidentified because of the shame and stigma surrounding homelessness,” she says.

Lee-Mwandha is getting more buy-in from school staff and has begun holding training workshops for them at shelters.

“Instead of a training in a nice cushy air-conditioned room, I do training in D.C. General and really see where their homeless children are coming from,” she says.

Lee-Mwandah says there’s a sense of urgency to help these homeless children. Stanton Elementary packs food for its approximately 70 homeless children to take home for the weekend. Roosevelt S.T.A.Y., with more than 100 homeless students, has a relationship with a bakery so families get fresh bread. She says some schools’ homeless liaisons even provide turkeys for homeless families on Thanksgiving, but, she says, it’s still not enough.

“And that’s the hard part when they need to select how many families out of the abundance of families they can help. We’re doing the best we can with the resources we have, it’s still very limited,” she says.

For school staff on the front lines, the fear is the issues these children deal with are much bigger than what can be addressed during the hours they’re at school.

Music: "The Dilettante" by Sansyou from The Dilettante

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