A little more help for CHA kids

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After years of fighting a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of homeless students, the Chicago Board of Education last year put together a Homeless Education Program that is vigorously applauded by the advocates who filed the suit. Its main goal is to provide educational stability for children whose lives otherwise are in chaos. Under the program, children get free transportation to a home school while their parents search for permanent housing. That’s a common-sense response to transient homelessness, backed by solid research: Children who switch schools lose ground academically; the more often they switch, the farther behind they fall.

Blondean Davis, chief of schools and regions, oversees this program and has replicated some aspects to help stabilize the lives of students whose families are being forced out of public housing. Children who move mid-year can ride on the School Board’s dime to their old schools for the remainder of the school year; 7th-graders can get free transportation for an additional year so they can graduate with their classmates. But that’s it. According to Davis, the board can’t afford to pay for transportation indefinitely. That’s seems like a common-sense position. But reporting by Catalyst and our sister publication, The Chicago Reporter, indicate that the board would not be diving into a bottomless pit by extending transportation support beyond the current limits.

In talking to parents, reporters found that one of the main reasons they send their children back to their old schools is that a comforting network of friends, relatives and social services is there to support them. As more Chicago Housing Authority buildings bite the dust, that network will shrivel, making the old schools less attractive. Further, once CHA families get established in new neighborhoods—which sometimes takes several moves—and their children make new friends, they likely will want to keep their kids closer to home. Given these tendencies, an extended support program for the CHA’s commuter kids becomes affordable. It’s also just: State law and the board’s own open enrollment policy provide for transportation support for low-income students who choose schools outside their neighborhoods.

Though a surprising number of displaced CHA families are sending their kids back to “project” schools, the great majority are not. These students would benefit from fresh attention to practices that ease the impact of mobility, such as designating buddies for the newcomers and establishing school welcoming centers for them and their families. The Chicago Panel of School Policy has produced a booklet, “Staying Put: A Mobility Awareness Action Plan,” that includes other suggestions and lesson plans for teachers. The School Board has distributed this booklet to schools but taken no follow-up action.

Having agreed to a lawsuit settlement, the board has been more aggressive in making schools serve homeless students. For one, each school must select a liaison “who will assure that services are provided to eligible children and youth.” Since most displaced CHA kids are spread thinly across the system—typically no more than four per year per school—the homeless-education liaison should be able to keep an eye out for them, too. All they would need is a list of schools in CHA neighborhoods.

Among the many demands placed on schools, tending to mobility may seem like a low priority. However, mobility has a ripple affect that can spread disruption to all children in a school. Not tending to it not only hurts the kids who are most in need, but also makes life more difficult for teachers who have to deal with new, often distressed kids.

ABOUT US The staffs of Catalyst and the Reporter give special thanks to Todd Rosenkranz, a senior data analyst for the Consortium on Chicago School Research, for pulling together the database for this month’s report on students attending CHA-area schools.