Putting 3 'R's Into Homeless

For Some Kids, A School For The Homeless Is Their Only Chance To Learn

Public schools are called that because they're open to all children. But one group of children is still sometimes turned away, homeless children who may be told they can't enroll because they have no fixed address. To make sure these kids get educated, about 40 special schools just for the homeless are operating around the country, trying to give some of those children some sense of stability.

About a million children face homelessness each year in America. Their education can be as haphazard as their lives. But in Maricopa County, Arizona, homeless children have their own school, Morley Safer reports.

Every morning there, special buses roam the streets, bent on bringing homeless children to the Thomas J. Pappas School in Phoenix. It has an enrollment of more than 800, making it far and away the largest school for the homeless in the country. Some children will be there only for a few weeks or months until their families get settled. Others,without a permanent place to live, have spent years there.

For many of these children, regular public schools can be difficult places. They are often teased for being homeless. "You're different, and everybody makes fun of you because you're different," says one student, Michael.

"Here you can say, 'Well, I'm like this person and I'm like that,' and - and I don't have to feel ashamed that I'm homeless," says Amy.

Sandra Dowling, the Maricopa County school superintendent, helped start the Pappas school 11 years ago. At that time, many public schools were refusing to enroll homeless children.

Says Dowling of those schools: "They were saying, 'You don't have a permanent address. You don't have an immunization record. You don't have a birth certificate.' Those were the types of things that they were using to turn children away."

In addition to an education, the students at Pappas get at least two meals a day and some help with basic hygiene. They are given backpacks and birthday parties, complete with a choice of presents.

There's a health clinic in the school with a pediatrician on call and a clothing room with a closet for every age group. The clothes are donated by the community.

The school is financed by public funds, much the same as any public school - except this one is only for homeless children. It also raised more than half a million dollars from private and corporate donors, like Southwest Airlines, who sponsor the haircuts.

Chuck Bacon is the poster boy for Pappas. He now attends Phoenix College full-time in the evenings and works all day for a corporation. But he spent much of his childhood hungry and homeless.

"If it wasn't for Pappas, I wouldn't be here today, 'cause I probably wouldn't have made it through high school," he says. "It brought success into my life and showed me some of the things I was capable of."

One reason for the school's success is its school buses. While public school buses generally pick up only th children in their school district, Pappas buses travel all over the county, changing routes as families shift and move.

Who could possibly be against a school that's trying to help the neediest of children? A lot of people, including the U.S. Department of Education, along with most of the organizations that advocate rights for the homeless. Barbara Duffield, from the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, says that separate schools for the homeless should not exist.

"They violate federal policy, which says that homeless children should not be separated from the mainstream school environment because they're homeless," she says.

Federal law says that all homeless children must be admitted to regular public schools, and must not be isolated. But the law is still vague about schools specifically for the homeless, and so far, the government has been reluctant to either force separate schools to close or to force all public schools to accept homeless children.

Pappas students say they genuinely were stigmatized in public school, teased until they just had to leave. And they feel free in a place like Pappas because they're all in the same boat.

"We have not segregated these children," Dowling says. "Society has already segregated them before they got to us. All we're trying to do right now is to fix the problem."

On recent standardized tests, homeless children at Pappas generally scored lower than homeless children attending regular public schools.

"Rather than looking at what the national average is, we look at where the student came in and how much progress they made that year," Dowling says. "We are bringing those kids up faster in their standards and their skills than anybody else could, because we're able to deal with the individual needs of the children."

Some public schools like the idea of schools exclusively for the homeless so that these kids become someone else's responsibility. Advocates for the homeless feel that all regular schools should provide the same services that Pappas does.

One example: the Sunset public school in Phoenix, which has about 50 homeless children. It provides free uniforms and meals for the neediest children but it's done in a way that maintains anonymity.

Congressional hearings were held at the Pappas school this past fall to debate the merits of funding schools for the homeless. Lisa Graham Keegan, the state superintendent of public education, supports Pappas and wants the federal government to leave the school alone.

"I object to the word 'segregation,' because that's not what happens at Pappas," she says. "This is a school of choice. Nobody says to these kids, 'Here's your school. You go.' They choose this school."

A bill was recently introduced in Congress this week designed to eliminate separate schools for the homeless. If it passes, school districts that continue to operate such schools would lose a good part otheir federal funding.

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