Homeless Kids Find Haven in School Outreach Efforts
State's districts are struggling and getting creative to
comply with a new law that expands the definition of 'homeless'.
by Monte Whaley and George Merritt, Denver Post, November
For more articles like this
almost cringes when he is told his three sons are considered
But the divorced 35-year-old is learning to appreciate the
teachers, advocates and volunteers who now encircle his children
to help ensure their education.
"I never thought being a single parent was this hard," said the
He works as a roofer, and he and his sons recently moved in with
his brother until he finds a permanent home.
Ramos says he is providing a roof over their heads.
But his sons are considered homeless under an expanded federal
law that is spotlighting a population of youths who have been
largely ignored by schools, agencies and most people, say
The McKinney-Vento Act demands that kids with no fixed address -
those who live in shelters, safe houses or in a relative's home
- get the extra attention needed to keep them from dropping out
School officials laud the act for trying to help previously
overlooked kids succeed in school.
But the law also is driving up the number of reported homeless
kids in Colorado and putting more pressure on strained school
budgets to find and educate those children.
"It's tough," said Liz Murphy, homeless liaison for Denver
Public Schools. "We want to do much more."
But the district is faced with a population of homeless students
that has grown 31 percent in one year, while there was an
increase of only $2,000 in federal funds to teach them, Murphy
About $353,200 in federal funds was distributed to roughly 13
school districts this year for homeless education, a boost of
more than $11,000 from last year.
But the number of homeless youths in Colorado grew from 4,103 in
October 2002 to 5,963 in May 2003, according to the Colorado
Department of Education.
Who are the homeless?
Homeless advocates are sure there are thousands more out there.
The Colorado Coalition for the Homeless estimates there are at
least 2,000 school-age children in the Denver area alone who are
One big reason for the upswing is that the McKinney-Vento Act
now says children don't have to be living on the streets to be
They also can be doubled up with friends or families, living in
parks, motels, safe houses or camping areas, and be school-age
parents living with friends.
"There is a lot of couch-surfing out there," said Margie
Milenkiewicz, who is coordinating the state's effort to educate
Expanding the idea of who is homeless in Colorado and offering
them more resources will help academic achievement, say school
Fourteen percent of homeless children repeat a grade because
they have to move to a new school, compared to 5 percent of
other children, according to the Better Homes Fund, a public
policy group that tracks the homeless problem.
Homeless children also are three times more likely to suffer
emotional or behavioral problems than other children, the fund
The McKinney-Vento Act also requires all of Colorado's 178
school districts to have a homeless liaison on staff to help
find homeless youths in their communities. Most liaisons already
are working other jobs in the district but are taking on the
Once children are identified as homeless, school districts must
do a better job of getting them into classrooms, according to
Homeless students can ask to be transported to the school they
attended before their family became homeless. They also must be
given access to the same tutoring, after-school programs and
services offered to the non-homeless, said Milenkiewicz.
The law was broadened a year ago, but it is taking school
districts time to grasp the implications, Milenkiewicz said.
"In some districts, they have been dealing with the homeless
problem for so long, they already have programs in place," she
said. "But in other communities, it's bringing the homeless into
a new light.
"Now, a homeless student could be in a rural area," she added,
"or even an area considered quite affluent."
Districts reach out for community help
Some districts are learning to cope by stretching resources,
applying for grants, tapping into other federal funds and
seeking help from churches, nonprofits, and even motels where
many homeless live.
"More and more, we are saying, 'Talk to churches, the Kiwanis
Club and others to get them involved,"' Milenkiewicz said.
The St. Vrain Valley School District is getting help from the
First Evangelical Lutheran Church and Wal-Mart Vision Center to
aid its 300 or so homeless kids.
Seven school districts in northern Colorado - which include the
communities of Gilcrest, La Salle, Platteville, Eaton, Fort
Lupton and Ault - are working with local health clinics, food
and clothing banks and the Lions Club of La Salle to aid their
There are about 130 homeless students in the Sheridan School
District, but when winter hits, that number will jump by about
100, said Whitney Ice, a VISTA volunteer in the district.
The district works with families and teachers to accommodate the
students. That can be anything from moving a family into
transitional housing to providing bus passes or taxi vouchers so
kids can get to school.
"We have a pretty unique population here," Ice said. "We try to
work with each student on a case-by-case basis."
Jennifer Clayton, a fifth-grade teacher at Fort Logan Elementary
in Sheridan, said identifying homeless students is now a huge
part of her job.
"I think that when you work in a district like Sheridan, your
whole job is recognizing the student's situation," she said. "A
lot of the time, it is impossible not to see that a child is
Clayton said that in a district where homelessness and poverty
are major issues - 85 percent of the students qualify for free
and reduced-price lunches - getting children to care about
education is the biggest challenge.
"They have so many other things to worry about," she said. "For
them, home may be a place where they share a room with nine
people, and they get to sleep on a bed once every 10 days."
Homeless advocates with Denver Public Schools meet once a month
with local agencies to keep tabs on homeless kids. They also go
to local motels and homeless shelters to hand out informational
posters about offered services that include tutoring and
clothing stores, Murphy said.
Manuel Ramos learned his children could get after-school
tutoring and a meal along with shoes, Murphy said.
DPS also bought uniforms for his boys - ages 9, 8 and 5 - so
they could take karate lessons at the Clare Gardens recreation
Ramos is paying support to his ex-wife and legal fees. That, and
the seasonal nature of roofing, destroyed his budget and forced
him and his children to move in with his brother.
"We were doing OK," he said. "I paid rent and bills on time, but
lately it's been kind of hard."
Moving back and forth between Colorado and their mother's home
in Texas hurt his children's grades. But they have begun to
stabilize at Brown Elementary, and the after-school activities
are helping them succeed, Ramos said.
"They're catching up," Ramos said. "They're reading more and
doing better. It's good."
CRITERIA FOR HOMELESSNESS
The federal government has expanded the definition of a homeless
student to not just mean someone living on the street. It also
Those doubled up with friends or families.
Those staying in parks or camping areas.
School-age mothers staying with friends.
Runaway youths living without adult supervision or staying with
Those staying in motels.
Those staying in safe houses because of domestic violence.
- Colorado Department of Education
back to the top ~
back to Breaking News
~ back to