School turns into oasis for homeless students

Five-year-old Nikole Rogers gets ready for kindergarten every weekday morning, just like any other student. But, unlike most of her peers, she gets ready for school at one of San Francisco's homeless shelters.

Nikole and her mom, Cynthia Elliott, left Modesto eight months ago after a series of home invasions in which the girl witnessed assaults on both her parents, Elliott said. They moved to San Francisco's Hamilton Family Center, which houses up to 50 families — including as many as 50 school-age children — according to program coordinator Audrey Muntz.

In January, 1,700 of the San Francisco Unified School District’s 55,000 students were defined as homeless, according to district spokeswoman Gentle Blythe — compared with about 95,000 homeless schoolchildren statewide.

“I was afraid at first, not knowing where I was going to lay my daughter’s head,” said Elliott, who immediately enrolled Nikole at John Muir Elementary. “She’s been stressed out, but she enjoys the other kids and doing her homework.”

A number of living situations, ranging from trailer parks and “doubling up” with another family to living in cars or abandoned buildings, qualify a student as homeless, Blythe said. However, the majority call San Francisco’s shelters home.

School life can be anadjustment process for any student, but for children who are homeless, it often offers the only piece of stability in their lives, according to Muntz. The McKinney-Vento Education Assistance Improvement Act, passed by Congress in 2001, makes it easier for school-age children to achieve that stability.

Under the law, students who become homeless are required to enroll in school within 48 hours, and can do so without having to prove residency or show a birth certificate right away, Muntz said. In addition, the act provides school districts with funds to purchase backpacks, uniforms and other school supplies for homeless students, said Tatum Wilson, families, youth and transition liaison for the district.

This year, the district has received $137,000 in state funds for transportation and administrative services for homeless families, $165,000 in federal funds for tutoring and supplies, and $150,000 over three years for additional tutoring services. But it doesn’t come close to covering all the costs, Wilson said.

But many who work with these students say it’s worth the cost.

“School can be so amazing for a homeless child,” Muntz said. “It’s a great way to learn life skills, and hopefully get the self-confidence they need to never become homeless as adults.”

bwinegarner@examiner.com

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