From David Bodel, board president of A Child’s Place, a Charlotte-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the academic performance of homeless students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools:
Talent is universal, opportunity is not.
Rye Barcott popularized this phrase in his 2011 book, “It Happened On the Way To War: A Marine’s Path to Peace,” describing efforts he led to help residents of a Nairobi slum bootstrap themselves out of crushing poverty. But one need look no further than our schools to find a group – Mecklenburg County’s homeless children – at risk of losing out on the best opportunity to develop their own talents: a good education.
The statistics never fail to startle: During the 2011-12 school year, 4,922 students enrolled in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools were identified by CMS as homeless. Within CMS, there is an elementary school where one out of every four students is homeless. They are among 1.6 million kids nationally trying to focus on school while living in shelters and pay-by-the-week motels, doubled-up or tripled up with other families, living in buildings unsuitable for human habitation and even sleeping in cars.
The odds are stacked against homeless kids’ academic success. Nationally, homeless children fall two to three grade levels behind kids their own age who have a home, and only 25 percent of homeless kids will graduate from high school. But there is reason for great hope here in Mecklenburg County, where a laser-focused effort has helped homeless students achieve dramatic improvements in academic performance and keep them moving ahead with their “housed” peers.
During the 2011-2012 school year, for example, 97 percent of students supported by A Child’s Place in collaboration with private and public agencies were promoted to the next grade level, compared with 64 percent of homeless children nationally. Equally impressive: 81 percent of these children are reading on grade level, compared with 48 percent nationally.
This effort is working because it provides a comprehensive support system, including full-time social work teams assigned to the 33 CMS elementary and middle schools most affected by homelessness. These teams work to remove barriers to each child’s academic progress and make sure they have the everyday tools to learn, from clothing and school supplies to snacks and tutors. In addition, the teams connect homeless students’ parents with community resources to address the issues behind their housing crises.
Because homeless kids often go hungry during breaks in the school calendar, generous donors have stepped up to provide clothing, gifts and grocery gift cards during the holiday season. During summer vacation, 93 percent of children who attend a sponsored day camp for the homeless maintain or improve their reading levels.
Sadly, the needs of Mecklenburg County’s homeless children have grown faster than the resources committed to them. For example, A Child’s Place served 2,228 homeless children last year – more than triple the number five years ago – yet nearly 2,700 remain unserved. And despite an improving economy, it is not certain that the problem of homelessness will abate.
Opportunity will never be universal, but every child deserves the chance for a good education regardless of where they rest their head at night. The ability to make that a reality is within our grasp.