At least one million children in the United States experience homelessness each year, putting them at increased risk for problems with their health, safety and education.
Without a fixed address and with their family facing financial problems, homeless students often have difficulty registering for school, getting to class, having the proper supplies and finding a quiet place to do homework. But a school district in Dallas, Texas, where nearly half the students are homeless, is helping those pupils are overcome the odds.
This past summer, single mother Angela Arnold moved halfway across the United States, from North Carolina to Dallas, Texas, with her 9-year-old son Jordan. A veteran mortgage lender who'd been laid off, she expected to quickly find a new job here, where the economy’s better. So she rented a room by the week in an extended-stay motel. That was more than six months ago.
When she enrolled Jordan in her neighborhood school, Arlington Park Learning Center’s counselor told her she was considered homeless.
"I’m like, 'Homeless? What do you mean homeless? I’m not homeless,'" says Arnold. And, like I said, I’ve never been put in a situation such as this. He said, 'Well it’s a homeless program you’re in because you don’t have a permanent address, you don’t have a residency. I thought ‘Wow, OK.’"
Arnold is still looking for work while managing with her unemployment check. She is one of more than 100 Arlington Park parents considered homeless. The small school with 246 mostly black and Hispanic students sits close to Interstate 35, a busy highway. The county hospital, a women's shelter and several extended-stay hotels, where the rooms have small kitchens, are also nearby.
"We have a lot of children coming from the hotels and motels out on 35," says Mark Pierce, who runs the school district’s homeless education program, including the one at Arlington Park. "So we have a lot of kids there. Every single day we get new kids from the hotels and motels."
There are at least 5,000 homeless students in Dallas schools. Pierce says families find themselves in that situation for a variety of reasons.
"A family living with another family, because they’ve been evicted, because they’re fleeing from domestic violence, because they just weren’t able to afford their housing anymore, and just gave it up and moved in with somebody, they’re homeless."
The school district gives their children breakfast, lunch and weekend snacks, and provides transportation between the hotels, motels and shelters. It helps parents too, by offering free city bus passes.
Arnold is grateful for the help she receives. "If it wasn’t for the program they have here, with the clothes, the uniforms they provide, the book bags, because all our things are in storage."
Her 4th grade son, Jordan, says he loves his new school, but not the hotel.
"I wish we were going to have a house to go in. I like Texas better because they have more schools, art schools. It’s kind of good here, because it’s so, it’s so just good to me. It’s all good to me in every way. And then all the teachers, they just want you to have a good day. That’s why they’re so hard on you."
They’re ‘hard’ on the students, says Arlington Park Principal Nikia Smith, because they want them to excel, adding that homelessness is no excuse for low expectations.
"The expectations for learning are still there, and expectations we’ll get them close to the level of proficiency for testing as any of our students who’ve been here all year is still a very big thing we have to deal with," says Smith.
But homeless students have more than academic issues to deal with, says first-grade teacher Jacqueline Smith. It's difficult for their parents to worry about school supplies when they're not sure where their next meal is coming from.
"I needed to adapt, adapting to where I realized I had to go out sometimes and buy the comb, buy the brush, buy the lotion. Have it in my drawer," she says. "They come and their hair wasn’t combed. I had to comb their hair. I had to have wipes, 'Go in the bathroom and wash your face.' In a way, I became mom."
Smith expects to stay at Arlington Park until she retires, because she says, these students are like her kids.
That personalized attention might be paying off. The school’s rank among Texas schools - based on student performance on math and reading tests - keeps improving.
Principal Nikia Smith says it’s not the child’s fault a parent is out of work, on drugs or in jail. But their home situation shouldn’t affect what happens at school. At Arlington Park, she says, students will learn and everyone will defy the odds so they can shine.