Articles in the Homeless People category

‘Freedom Writers’ author gives board members a glimpse into her classroom

Erin Gruwell said she’s an ordinary person.

That may be so, but this “ordinary person” brought the crowd to tears as the final speaker of NSBA’s Council of Urban Boards of Education (CUBE) annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, on Saturday.

Gruwell gave urban board members attending the meeting a glimpse into her classroom and the work she was able to accomplish with 150 California poor and disadvantaged high school students who had been written off by basically everyone.

Gruwell told the story of her classroom and those students in her book, The Freedom Writers Diary, which was made into a movie released in 2007 called “Freedom Writers.”

When the students proved to be difficult for the new teacher to reach, she began to reconsider how college prepared her for her profession. “I was taught to teach to a test. Every kid walked in to my class and said, ‘don’t teach to a test, teach to me.’ Every kid has a different story.”

She was further discouraged by her principal, who told her that she was teaching the lowest performing students in the district. When he told her he hoped they dropped out before they took the year’s standardized tests, she thought, “Where are these kids going to go? They are not invisible and they can’t just disappear.”

Gruwell looked over her English syllabus and chose a few books that she thought would resonate with these students, including the Odyssey and Anne Frank: Diary of a Young Girl.

Her students began writing their own stories, triggering the events chronicled in the book and the movie. “Each kid said they were tired of being poor, tired of being called dumb,” Gruwell said. “Each kid knew what it felt like to be hungry. To try to turn on lights and the electricity has been shut off. To dread Christmas or a birthday. Each kid regardless of where they lived knew what it felt like was to be poor.”

Gruwell showed a scene from the movie where a young man reads from his diary about being homeless and finding a home in Gruwell’s class – a scene that brought many in the audience to tears.

“Home is what a lot of your kids don’t have,” said Gruwell. “I hope that when you go back to your communities, those classrooms and schools will become their homes. We have to be families. We might not be the biological parents, but we must fight for them. We have to give them hope, to take risks, fall, and get back up again.”


Kathleen Vail|October 5th, 2013|Categories: Urban Schools, Homeless People, CUBE, CUBE Annual Conference2013|Tags: , |

Hope and hardship in Maplewood, Mo. — in the 1930s and today

Editor’s note: The following piece was sent to NSBA staff by Senior Editor Lawrence Hardy, whose mother passed away on Sept. 12. A native Missourian, she was a graduate of Maplewood High School, near St. Louis.

My mother, Eleanor Collins Hardy, was born in 1916 in Kansas City but spent most of her early life in St. Louis. Her father, a civil engineer, died of tuberculosis when she was 3, and as a result, my grandmother had to struggle to support her and her older brother. Not able to afford their own place, they lived with my great grandmother and other relatives in what must have been a crowded apartment over a drug store in Maplewood, a close-in, working class suburb of St. Louis. My grandmother worked at the drug store with the pharmacist, another relative.   

While others certainly had it worse during the Great Depression — witness the homeless families living in “Hoovervilles,” the makeshift campsites that sprung up downtown along the Mississippi River — my Mom had to forgo a lot of material things. She loved music, but had to quit piano lessons when my grandmother could no longer afford them. When walking to school, she was instructed by my grandmother to walk on the grass, not on the sidewalk, so the soles of her shoes would last longer. When she graduated from high school in the early 1930s and my grandmother started talking about college, one indignant relative would respond: “Eleanor can’t go to college!” (presumably, because there was no money). And my grandmother, a wonderful, kind, and deeply religious woman, would say in a strong voice, “Eleanor’s going to college.”

She did go to college, too, earning an associate’s degree from William Woods College in Fulton, Mo.  In later years, my Mom would tire of my grandmother repeating that story, but its lesson meant so much to her — that with hard work and the support of others, they could find a way.

This summer, for a story on community Involvement for September’s ASBJ, I interviewed Linda Henke, the recently retired superintendent of the Maplewood Richmond-Heights (Mo.) School District. Maplewood, as you recall, was a Grand Prize Winner of this year’s Magna Awards for districts under 5,000 enrollment. They won for a most unusual initiative. Struck by the number of homeless boys in their small district – boys who tended to show up in Henke’s office after school (perhaps because of the crackers, peanut butter, and frozen dinners she kept there) – Henke and the school board decided not to wait for the city, or the state, or someone else to face the problem of homelessness in their community: they bought a house themselves, formed a coalition, and turned the house into a homeless shelter for teenage boys.

Henke, a truly buoyant personality, told me of how she was walking around Maplewood one day and saw the big yellow Victorian with the “For Sale” sign in front.

“I thought, ‘Wow,’ she recalled. “That must be the house we’re supposed to buy.’”

It was an audacious move that took courage, hard work, and quite a bit of faith. As of this summer, of the 14 boys enrolled in the program 13 have graduated or are on the graduation track. College, once out of the question, is no longer a fantasy.

I told Henke I that had a connection to St. Louis, to her still-working class town, and to the castle-like fortress, not far from her office, that is Maplewood High School.

“I grew up in St. Louis,” I said, “and my Mom graduated from Maplewood High.”

Lawrence Hardy|September 27th, 2012|Categories: Dropout Prevention, Homeless People, American School Board Journal|Tags: , , , |

“It takes a school system” — and then some

Call it “Disneyland Brain,” but when I returned from a two-and-a-half-week trip that included NSBA’s Annual Conference in San Francisco, three days of reporting on the Long Beach schools, and a family vacation to the famous Anaheim theme park, among other places, I was at a loss to identify the Conference Daily story I wrote that our analysis said was getting a lot of hits.

The story was slugged: “Rivers.”

Rivers?” I thought, trying to place it. Like other ASBJ editors, I covered three or four sessions a day, on everything from dual-emersion elementary schools to the most significant education-related court cases of the past year.

“Rivers,” it turns out, didn’t have anything to do — at least, directly — with the business of running a school system. It was a lunchtime speech by actor Victor Rivas Rivers, who has made highlighting the problem of domestic violence a personal goal. It is a quest born of personal experience.

Rivers said his father was a charming man — in public. In private he was an abuser who terrorized Rivers’ mother, beat him and his brothers, and even harassed the family pets.  Rivers eventually escaped his punisher through the help of a series of families who took him in, and a variety of people in the school district, including a teacher who secretly gave him a meal ticket when Rivers’ father was limiting him to one meal a day.

Lawrence Hardy|April 26th, 2011|Categories: Governance, Diversity, Educational Research, School Climate, Urban Schools, Student Achievement, Dropout Prevention, Policy Formation, Homeless People, American School Board Journal|

The week in blogs

What? You’re tired of the election already? So how about that economy!

Sorry, bad joke. But I just had to point out a great blog — “Off the Charts,” from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities — that I stumbled on last night while writing a story on (what else?) the election. Read the post by Senior Fellow Michael Mazerov on why cutting or eliminating state corporate taxes is a bad idea. Then see State Fiscal Project Director Nicholas Johnson on why this will be the states’ worst budget year ever.

I said it was a “great” blog; I didn’t say it was happy. Because, as Johnson explains, next year could be even more dismal for states – and for the school districts that depend on them for much of their funding.  Earlier posts offer helpful comparisons of states and their projected shortfalls.

Elsewhere, Diane Ravitch wrote a devastating review of the movie Waiting for Superman in the New York Review of Books called “The Myth of Charter Schools.” For those public school advocates who thought the film was a trifle, well, biased toward charters – no high- or even decent-performing regular public schools were featured – you might take heart from the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss, who said in her blog that the critique from the influential Ravitch might even prevent the film from winning an Oscar.

Finally, read Maureen Downey, of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s “Get Schooled” blog, about how a determined principal turned around a low-performing Alabama elementary school and made it one of the highest performing in the state. She did it with hard work, perseverance, and an unwavering belief that disadvantaged students can excel.

My favorite part is when the principal tells her staff: “Whatever your expectations are for these kids, triple them today. They’re not high enough.”

Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

Lawrence Hardy|November 5th, 2010|Categories: Governance, Curriculum, Teachers, Diversity, School Reform, Student Achievement, Dropout Prevention, Policy Formation, Homeless People, Budgeting, American School Board Journal|

Fragile familes, fragile lives

Library of Congress photo

Library of Congress photo

Maybe you’ve never heard the term “fragile families” — I hadn’t — but you no doubt have many children from these families in your schools. If your district is relatively affluent, you probably have less of them; but if your district is poor, these children could easily represent 70 percent or more of your students.

Fragile Families are defined as couples that are unmarried when their children are born, according to a new report from The Future of Children, a collaboration between Princeton University and the Brookings Institution. According to the report, children from these families are more likely to live in poverty, have serious behavioral issues, and (it will probably come as no surprise) do poorly in school.

Lawrence Hardy|October 12th, 2010|Categories: Governance, Diversity, Wellness, Educational Research, Student Achievement, Dropout Prevention, Policy Formation, Homeless People, American School Board Journal|

The week in blogs

duck_soup_1933When I heard that the Alliance for Excellent Education has a new blog titled High School Soup, I couldn’t help but think of the classic Marx’s brothers comedy, Duck Soup, the irrepressible Professor Quincy Adams Wagstaff (Groucho), and the ridiculous football game between Darwin and Huxley colleges, during which Quarterback Chico gives the signal: “Hey diddle diddle, the cat with the fiddle, this time I think we go through the middle.”

Appropriate, too, because the film is about the absurdities of college life — and High School Soup is all about high school graduation rates, preparing students to succeed in college, etc.

Except that …. well, that movie was called Horsefeathers. (Duck Soup was great too!)

In one of its first posts, High School Soup has a more sobering story to tell: According to the latest issue of Education Week‘s Diplomas Count, the national graduation rate fell by nearly a half a percent – to 68.8 percent – for the class of 2007, the last year for which statistics are available. This is a “cohort” graduation rate, one that basically looked at the on-time graduation percentage of students who were ninth graders four years earlier. Like all graduation measures, it has its problems. Many students, especially ESL students, do indeed graduate, but take more than four years to do so. And, in some urban schools with high student mobility, defining an accurate “cohort” is difficult.

Lawrence Hardy|June 18th, 2010|Categories: Governance, Curriculum, Teachers, Diversity, Educational Research, School Climate, Student Achievement, Dropout Prevention, Policy Formation, Homeless People, Leadership, Assessment, American School Board Journal|

“At-promise and “at-risk”

cover_12-06It’s an awkward phrase — “at-promise” — but I sort of like it.

 “At-promise” is how the public schools here in Alexandria, Va., refer to students who previously might have been labeled “at-risk.” I learned about this nomenclature yesterday from The Washington Post‘s Jay Mathews, whose Class Struggle blog harkens back to a July 23 newspaper column by Alexandria Superintendent Morton Sherman explaining the district’s rationale.

“We use the term ‘at-promise’ in Alexandria City Public Schools to describe children who have the potential to achieve at a higher rate than they are currently achieving,” Morton wrote in the Alexandria Gazette Packet. “Really all children are at-promise because we, as educators, have made a promise to each and every child that we will work toward higher achievement for all…”

“At-risk” means at risk for failure, and it’s an important designation. It tells adults who work with these children that they have special needs, in the broadest sense, and deserve extra support. Two years ago, I wrote an ASBJ series called “Children at Risk,” which looked at some of the reasons why disadvantaged children are more likely to fail, reasons that include inadequate nutrition and health care, dysfunctional family life, and childhoods spent in violent or drug-prone neighborhoods.  By the time I reached the end of the series, however, I wanted a more positive name for these students. So the last story (so far) uses a kind of hybrid label: “Children at Risk/ Children of Hope.”

Lawrence Hardy|November 17th, 2009|Categories: Governance, Diversity, Student Achievement, Dropout Prevention, Policy Formation, Homeless People, American School Board Journal|Tags: , , , |

Do you see your invisible homeless children?

0609asbjcvrIf you didn’t know better, you’d think the cars and trucks parked outside South Potomac Church in Waldorf, Md., one weekday night meant there was some kind of church social going on. Actually, it was something quite different — the last evening of Safe Nights, Charles County’s seasonal shelter program for the homeless.

I was at the church off a busy state highway in this Washington, D.C., exurb to do a story on how the Charles County Public Schools are helping homeless students and their families.

I’d talked to school officials at length. Now I had to find homeless students, which isn’t necessarily easy. Safe Nights rotates between various churches throughout colder months, and finding out where it was this particular week was harder than you might think.

Sometime in the 1960s, when I was in either high school or middle school, I read a book for an American history class called The Other America, by Michael Harrington, about poverty in the United States. It made a big impression on me, and one of the things the author said that has stuck with me all these years is that poverty is “invisible.” The poor are, by nature, separated from the mainstream, both physically, to be sure, and in other ways as well.

You could say the same about families that are homeless. Driving the 45 miles from my office to Waldorf, past sprawling shopping centers and endless subdivisions, I wondered, “Is there really a story here? If I have to drive this far just to find a homeless student, how big a deal is this?”

It is a big deal; we just don’t see it. Once inside South Potomac Church, I found a small, cordial community of about 50 people. Adults talking softly, sharing an evening meal. Children playing, laughing, drawing pictures, and running among the cots set up in the church hall. And, to be sure, it really did have the kind of warm atmosphere of a church social — albeit one with a backdrop of shared hardship.

Read my story, and you’ll meet two members of that community, Adrian Barbour and his 8-year-old son, son, Dubois, who goes to a Charles County Elementary School, where his father meets him every day for lunch when he’s not out on a job interview. They are remarkably accepting of their current predicament, but hope it will be temporary.

“We’re just trying to get to ‘next,'” Barbour told me. “We’re not asking for that much.”

Lawrence Hardy, Senior Editor

Kathleen Vail|May 26th, 2009|Categories: Wellness, School Climate, Student Achievement, Homeless People, American School Board Journal|

Homeless children — then and now


Six years ago, I wrote a story about homeless children in the June issue of ASBJ. I visited a city I love, New Orleans, to interview children and their parents, as well as school administrators, on the challenges of educating children without permanent addresses.

In those pre-Katrina days, the intractable poverty of children was crushing the New Orleans school system.  Homelessness was just one symptom of that poverty. I was hoping to find examples of student who were stigmatized by living in shelters.

Instead, the children I spoke with were happy to be in the shelter, where they received regular meals, tutoring sessions, and counseling. Their parents were getting treatment for their drug and alcohol abuse problems and their mental health issues. 

Many of the children didn’t want to leave the shelter when their time was up, wondering if they were again facing hunger and uncertainty.

In 2003, when I wrote that piece, the number of homeless families was on the rise, with the high cost of housing being one of the factors. This year, those numbers are growing again,  as more middle-class families are being hurt by the mortgage crisis and rising unemployment.

This month, my colleagues Naomi Dillon and Lawrence Hardy take a look at how schools are working to keep homelss children on track academically and emotionally. Their articles are online and free to nonsubscribers for a limited time.

Kathleen Vail, Managing Editor

Kathleen Vail|May 22nd, 2009|Categories: Wellness, School Climate, Student Achievement, Homeless People, American School Board Journal|
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