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Program aims to end absenteeism among Charlotte's homeless students 

In a crisis, out of the classroom

In July 20, members of the Boys & Girls Club living in the Salvation Army Center of Hope play amongst themselves in a classroom, switching between board games and card games.

A girl and boy split two games of Connect Four and each beams after their respective wins. A group of four boys plays Uno, slamming the cards down on the pile as seen on television.

According to Anthony Buckson, unit director for Center of Hope Boys & Girls Club, the heat was too much to carry out any planned outdoor activities. Buckson says that, even with Walter G. Byers School — the home school for most children living in the shelter — in session, the rest of the kids are still pressed for space.

"With school being in this week, we are sort of down on the numbers we had last week," Buckson says. "I know it's down this week, but space is still an issue; space and activities. We can only do so much in this room and outside. We don't complain about it. We make it work and the kids have fun either way."

Byers was one of four Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that opened on July 20, following a new, year-round model that officials hope will keep west Charlotte kids from losing crucial skills during the summer.

The new schedule also marked the kickoff for A Child's Place's new STAR program, aimed at lowering absenteeism among homeless children in Charlotte's highest-need schools.

Staff at A Child's Place has worked non-stop since winter to revamp its policies and focus on attacking absenteeism among homeless kids in CMS.

Thanks in part to a $20,000 grant from Bank of America, A Child's Place (ACP) begins its new STAR program this year, which implements strategies designed by staff over seven months of researching best practices around the country.

While ACP worked for years to erase the impact of homelessness on children's education in Charlotte, the STAR program will emphasize absenteeism among middle-school kids this year.

"A child's job from age 5 to 18 is to be in school," Susan Hansell, executive director at ACP, says. "We are saying to a child whose family has gone through, generally, more than one homeless crisis, 'You don't have to be a homeless parent as an adult.'

"I don't call them homeless children, I call them children experiencing a homeless crisis. I do that specifically because maybe that child is going to be a great singer, or maybe that child has a cure for a type cancer, or maybe that child is just going to be an awesome mom who raises four college grads who go on to do great things. Being in school is the starting place to make all of those dreams come true. It's also the starting place to begin to chip away – and it really is tiny chips – at the next generation of homelessness."

According to a report released on July 21 by child advocacy group the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the percentage of American children living in poverty increased from 18 to 22 percent from 2008 to 2013.

The number of homeless children enrolled in CMS has hovered between 4,100 and 4,500 for the last three school years, according to ACP. That includes kids living in hotels or doubled up with family or friends. Metz estimates about 400 kids in Charlotte are "truly homeless," meaning living on the streets, in a car or at a shelter. However, Metz said, the number is almost impossible to pinpoint.

The percentage of children who are chronically absent in high-poverty schools is above other schools in the county, and it's rising, according to CMS.

Though ACP will operate in 15 of Charlotte's highest-needs schools this year, Bank of America will study the results of the STAR program in middle schools including Sedgefield, Ranson and Martin Luther King, Jr. Seven other schools with ACP staff on-site are K–8 schools, which include elementary and middle school students.

Staff will implement the attendance-based strategies of STAR in each school it works on, but will share the results specifically on middle school students with Bank of America, which also awarded grants to 15 other Charlotte nonprofits that benefit workforce development and educational programming.

The STAR program includes a team within each school, which includes a student advocate and a family advocate. The student advocate builds a relationship with the children and anyone who comes in contact with them at school, creating a "cheerleader team," that makes sure the children know people at school are waiting there to see them each day.

Perhaps the most important relationship is between the family advocates and the student's family, who may prioritize certain things above their child's education while experiencing a homeless crisis. Over 90 percent of the families ACP works with include a female head of household, usually a single mother, often with multiple children.

"The family is in crisis, so school is not the top priority. Keeping the family together and keeping the family safe may be the top priority. Getting out of an unsafe situation may be the priority that day," Hansell says.

The effectiveness of such a program is based on an understanding between parent, child and ACP staff that does not involve passing judgment toward anyone involved.

"I think when you have a parent in crisis who has one, two, three, or four kids, her goal is to keep everyone safe and to get herself stabilized. What we do is accept that and work with our parents from where they are at that moment," Hansell says. "If you made a decision yesterday to keep your child home, we're not going to argue that decision with you. Let's talk about why you made that decision and can you make a different decision if that situation happens again?"

That includes understanding how the situation is affecting the child as well.

"I think, too, the community needs to understand that, even if a child is acting out, that child is recognizing that things aren't normal at home and there's some extra anxiety and stress," Hansell adds. "Maybe, 'Grandma, who used to love it when we came to visit, isn't really as happy now that we're living there. Or we have to keep moving so often and we lost all of our toys when we were locked out of our apartment.' We have to understand that our children are going through their own angst and anxiety."

According to Katrina Griggs, program manager with ACP, the goal this year is to knock one absence off the total for each of the nearly 1,000 children ACP works with as compared to their number last year.

"It starts with educating a parent about the importance of a child being to school on time. What we plan to do is provide tips to the parents," Griggs says. "Things we may think is common sense but things that parents in crisis mode aren't thinking about."

At Center of Hope, Executive Director Deronda Metz sat in the classroom with the young children as they dodged the heat. She pondered what it is the children think about their lives at the Center.

When asked if the kids see a difference between their own situations and those of classmates, she said she thinks about it constantly but doesn't know the answer.

"That is the question. Obviously if you're an older child, you know more. But the smaller children, I often wonder from their view, what's happening here?" Metz says.

She reminisces with a child at the table happily spinning a wheel from the board game Life, unconcerned with the results. "What I believe is that from watching our kids, children are resilient. I think if they can find a place that's safe and a place of love, they will adjust, but I often wonder."

Buckson takes a seat next to Metz and says he sees a difference when he visits kids at their respective schools.

"Yeah, I do feel they know they're different from their friends," Buckson says. "They got a lot of pressure on them. They feel that from the school, from their peers, and a lot of them are ashamed to be associated with the shelter.

"They tell me sometimes, but I can see it on their face, too. When I go to the school, I can see how they separate themselves from everybody else. A lot of them don't want to tell their friends where they are."

I ask Metz some misconceptions she deals with as far as how the community views people who live in the Center. I expect an answer about closed-minded people viewing homeless families as lazy or unwanting of work. Instead, Metz turns the question in on herself, and awareness on a broad scale.

"I don't think people are aware that there are so many families that struggle with homelessness," Metz said, looking at the children playing in the room around her. "I think the greatest misconception is that we got a handle on this."

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