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School districts report upswing in homeless students as they struggle to offer stability

Photo: Scott Andrews, License: N/A

Scott Andrews

Recent education grad Kristina Martinez

Kristina Martinez is well dressed, articulate, and passionate about her chosen profession. As a newly minted teacher with a certificate in special education from Texas A&M University - San Antonio, she had high hopes for herself and her daughter, now eight years old. “When I started going to college, everybody was like, ‘Oh education, that’s where I want to work. It’s a booming field!’” she said. “That was five years ago.”

She graduated in 2010 and the ground shifted.

“I never expected things to turn around like that.”

Instead of starting a full-time job, she found herself scouring for substitute teaching gigs. For a while, things seemed to go well, she even landed a tutoring position in a San Antonio school that lasted for over three months. “The students would see me and say, ‘Hi Ms. Martinez, how are you?’ or they’d stop by my classroom where I would do all my tutoring and they’d stop by in the morning and would ask me if they could help set up or something like that.” Then the work stopped. Unable to afford rent, she and her daughter stayed with her father, and then with friends. In the past year they have moved four times. And with public education spending cut by $5.4 billion by the Texas Legislature this year, it’s perhaps unsurprising that she’s still waiting at the phone for a few days of substitute work when she can get it.

The public face of the homeless is male, standing next to a highway entrance with a ‘work wanted’ sign, or trudging shadows outside homeless shelters. Hidden from view are the families living on the margins: doubled-up with friends or family, staying in cheap hotels, cars, and campgrounds. According to a 2009 study by the National Center on Family Homelessness, approximately half of those without stable housing are children. Nationally, one in 50 children are homeless, that’s over 1.5 million. Texas reported the largest number — over 337,000. Those children who are able to receive help by staying a few weeks or months at a time with friends or family, are likely to be moved from one school district to another over the course of a year. Each time a child’s education is interrupted, however, they must get to know a new school, catch up with missed lessons. Inevitably, the child falls behind, becomes isolated, and years are lost. Fortunately, as a recently trained teacher, Martinez knew her child had options. Though she bounced around plenty, thanks to Northside Independent School District’s Connections program, her daughter was able to stay at her regular school.

Connections is one of many programs in school districts across the country that have been set up to implement the McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Assistance Act guaranteeing education rights and protection for homeless children. The act mandates that all districts search out and aid homeless children and youth. In addition, homeless children are guaranteed enrollment in their home school districts, giving them the ability to stay in the same school, no matter where they may be staying at the moment. Without help from Connections, Kristina Martinez’s daughter would have been moved from the Northside, to the Southside, and back again in one school year. Instead, the third-grader has been able to stay at the same school, close to her friends.

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