According to a 2009 study, four in 10 children in Milwaukee are poor. Milwaukee Public Schools is the largest school district in Wisconsin with an enrollment of 80,000 students — 80 percent qualify for free or reduced-priced meals. More than 2,500 students have been identified as homeless.
Despite these figures, the school district has taken strides towards improving attendance rates and increasing outreach efforts to families and community agencies, and last year the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth recognized Milwaukee Public Schools for its outstanding school-based program in homeless education.
Milwaukee Public Schools has employed a homeless coordinator since 1987, although they mostly worked with shelters until the 2002 McKinney-Vento Act. During the 2011 fiscal year, the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youths Grant allocated $63.6 million across the country, helping every state address the problems associated with student homelessness. In the Milwaukee School District, the McKinney-Vento grant, along with Title I funding, support three homeless coordinators, with the requirement that school districts remove all barriers to the educational process for homeless children and reach out to more homeless kids – including those who have sleeping arrangements that are not permanent or regular.
Catherine Klein is one of the homeless coordinators with the school district who oversees the programs of 180 schools.
According to Klein, each principal appoints someone in the school who identifies homeless families who are then enrolled in a database.
“We encourage homeless contacts to keep an eye on students so they can refer them to programs. To ensure that all school staff members know about it, we train homeless contacts every year,” she said. “Teachers usually know the children are homeless and give them extra time or a place to do homework projects in the classroom.”
Services provided by the program include free lunch, transportation, access to school supplies, as well as access to all other school programs like special education and tutoring. The coordinators also provide community resource guides to families, showing them how to obtain low cost healthcare, dental care, locations of shelters, food pantries and instructions on how to navigate the social service system.
Klein has seen the number of families served increase 15 to 20 percent every year – partly due to school personnel being more aware of the program, but also the economics of the area.
“Just today I saw three families with four kids each,” she said.
For the past two years the program has seen more involvement with organizations and agencies that give material donations to the district.
Lee Wackman is chairman of HL Palmer Masonic Angel Fund, which provides assistance to children in need, as requested from school principals. Wackman chartered the foundation in Milwaukee about four years ago.
One day this past winter, he went to an elementary school where he saw four children arrive with no coats, and after going from class to class, learned that 49 students came to school without jackets.
Within 24 hours, the Angel Fund acquired and brought in jackets for all of them.
In addition to clothing, the foundation delivers 500 to 1,000 hygiene kits at a time to schools, containing a toothbrush, toothpaste, shampoo, soap, deodorant and a laundry bag with a note that says “touched by an angel.”
“Why do I do this?” Wackman said. “I’ve been blessed in my life – I have seven grandchildren. If something happened to me, I would like someone to be there for them.”
Wackman knew a 16-year-old student whose counselor from school called saying he had been wearing the same clothes for three months. He took him to a department store to buy some nice casual clothing for school. The student told Wackman he had been living in a friend’s basement and had wanted a Christmas for the past two years.
The boy said, “You just gave me a Christmas.”
Click here for more information from ED on the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youths Grants for State and Local Activities.
Natalie Torentinos is a graduate student at The George Washington University and an intern in the Office of Communications and Outreach.