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Daily lessons

Homeless students find normalcy at school, but keeping them there requires work, goodwill

Outside, the Wednesday morning rain drums relentlessly on the roof of the St. Anthony's homeless shelter, turning the parking lot to mud at the converted diesel garage in north Medford.

Inside, Deanna West's three boys are getting ready for school.

It's already 6:30 a.m., which means West, 34, has been up for a half-hour, sweeping floors and wiping tables, chores required in exchange for space at the shelter run by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

A.J., her 14-year-old, stumbles down the worn linoleum stairs and across the makeshift kitchen, settling onto a metal folding chair. When he sees the pouring rain and gray skies, the McLoughlin Middle School eighth-grader puts his head down on his arms and sighs. What's happening in school today?

I don't know, he says, shrugging.

Upstairs, Austin, 8, and Bradley, 7, are asleep in bunk beds crowded into a space no bigger than a walk-in closet. A cloth curtain provides the family's only privacy. Austin, still sporting last night's Kool-Aid mustache, rubs his eyes, pulls on his sneakers and remembers what's in store at school today.

We're going on a field trip! recalls the second-grader at Kennedy Elementary School. For lunch, I'm going to a park!

Within minutes, Bradley, a first-grader, is up, too. The little boys rummage through the shelter refrigerator, looking for sack lunch treats.

7:20 a.m., a yellow school bus pulls into the muddy yard. An hour later, another bus will come for A.J., successfully negotiating what West and other shelter mothers say is one of the hardest parts of being homeless: making sure their children stay in school.

School is their security; it's the only thing they have that's not being taken away, says Debbie, a 45-year-old mother of two who has spent three weeks at the shelter with West. If there's one stable thing I can do with them, it's keeping them in school.

That's a goal shared by Mary Solomon, who coordinates homeless student services for the Medford School District. The five kids staying at the St. Anthony's shelter this week are among some 630 current district students classified as homeless.

When you add in the siblings of such kids, the numbers top 940, says Solomon, whose job is to help them overcome obstacles to succeeding in school.

That's no easy task, says Solomon. Unstable housing is often a symptom of larger problems that keep families from focusing on education.

West, for instance, became homeless in the wake of her husband's domestic violence and other criminal acts. He's in prison now, and she's on her own, working 10 to 15 hours a week for minimum wage at a local pizza parlor, trying to care for three of her kids. A fourth son, Blake, 15, lives with relatives near Roseburg.

Because shelter rules require residents to remain away between 9:30 a.m. and 4 p.m., West helps her younger boys do homework at a local park or in their car. Some days, however, even that is a struggle.

It's really difficult being out all day when you're so tired and you just want to lay down your head, she says.

For kids who are homeless, school is both a source of normalcy and a source of stress.

It's kind of like hard to get the energy up to do it, says Brittney, a 12-year-old who says she enjoys chorus and math at a Medford elementary school. Sometimes you have bad thoughts that people are talking about you.

Brittney, mother Debbie and sister Mickey are living at St. Anthony's after domestic violence forced them to leave their home. They were staying with relatives for a while, but that situation turned violent, too. They declined to be identified for safety reasons.

Mickey, 8, who likes reading and animals, says she enjoys school, but she never tells people she's homeless.

I don't want anyone to know where I live, she says.

Mickey and the nearly 1,000 kids identified by the Medford School District aren't all living in shelters or on the streets. Homelessness takes several forms, especially as it's defined by federal law.

It's important for people to know that those aren't unaccompanied youth on the street, says Andy Lee, a homeless advocate with Community Works in Medford.

Most homeless children live with their parents, Solomon says. Even so, their family circumstances are tenuous at best, especially as defined by the landmark McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

Passed in 1987 to ensure equal access to education, the law defines homeless children and youth as minors who lack a fixed, regular and adequate nighttime residence.

That can include kids living in motels, shelters and substandard housing. It can include kids in several families sharing a single house and those who move frequently ' three or more times in a year. It can include children living in cars, teens who couch surf with friends, kids of all ages sleeping in bus stations or other public spaces.

The most common kind of homelessness is seen in families who move frequently, up to three times a year, and who often share cramped quarters with relatives or friends.

Advocates are quick to caution, however, that homelessness must be judged on a case-by-case basis.

Not everyone who lives in a motel or with their grandma is homeless, Lee says.

It's up to advocates to decide when to intervene 'and when not to.

If you have three families in a two-bedroom apartment with children sleeping on the floor, that's one thing, Lee says. But if you have two families in an eight-bedroom house, I might not define them as homeless.

Indeed, Solomon and Lee say they try to avoid strict definitions altogether.

I generally try not to use the term 'homeless' because it stigmatizes, Solomon says. A lot of the people we work with don't identify themselves as 'homeless.'

Instead, the outreach workers simply present themselves as liaisons between families and districts, hoping to help kids succeed in school.

Solomon spends her days visiting with parents and kids, offering information about issues ranging from food and transportation to housing, day care and academic tutoring.

Most families are committed to having their children in school, Solomon says. They want the best for their kids. They have so much to think about just to survive. It's helpful to have someone else thinking of those things for those kids.

Although Medford has the most-developed homeless student program in the Rogue Valley, other school districts address the problem, too.

All districts that receive funds through McKinney-Vento must designate a homeless coordinator. Beyond that, however, school administrators, teachers and others know they must work a little harder to ensure homeless kids succeed in class.

Jay Sparks is principal at White City Elementary School in Eagle Point, a district with about 250 kids identified as homeless.

We have to relax the relationship here at school, says Sparks. Don't expect homework from a kid who has nowhere to do homework.

That doesn't mean students with unstable home lives are excused from achievement, he adds. It means the school environment has to be as welcoming and nurturing as it is challenging.

You can't expect a large quantity of homework, but you can expect kids to read, for instance, he says. You make the school inviting and provide the consistency and organization that they need.

Oregon receives about &

36;630,000 a year in federal funds for homeless education, state Education Department figures show. The Medford district gets more than &

36;90,000 a year through a McKinney-Vento subgrant to pay for Solomon's services and other benefits.

For the families receiving it, such help is invaluable. Solomon helped West get scholarships to the Rogue Valley Family YMCA for her boys for the summer. West hopes that the child care will allow her to get a job as a waitress. Maybe then she'll be able to replace the transmission on her 1994 Dodge minivan. Right now, the vehicle won't run in reverse.

Debbie hopes she can get some child-care assistance that will allow her to return to waitressing or bartending.

Both women hope to find stable, long-term housing soon. West is counting on a letter she received this week promising her subsidized housing through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Shelter space is scarce. That's one reason St. Vincent de Paul will soon launch a &

36;1.5 million capital campaign to construct a new center for homeless families that will increase space from 21 beds to 44, president Bill Schueller says.

That won't come soon enough for Debbie, however. She figures she can stay another month at the shelter. After that, she's not sure where she and her girls will go.

I have no clue, she says. I have no clue ' and it's scary.

Deanna West, 34, encourages sons Bradley, 7,right, and A.J., 14, to finish getting ready for school on a recent morning at the St. Anthony?s homeless shelter in Medford. The Wests have been homeless for eight months and at the shelter for six weeks. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell