Op-Ed: For Homeless Kids, Caring Teachers Offer Hope


The truth was revealed when Donald's teacher, Samuel Klein, decided to follow him. Klein was one of the very best teachers at Frederick Douglas High School, a challenged school in a challenged urban neighborhood. Mr. Klein was popular with his students not just because they learned in his class, but, more importantly, because they knew he cared.

For weeks, Mr. Klein noticed that Donald was always at the school. For instance, Donald never missed band practice even though he wasn't in the band. He was always at the girls' basketball practice. And he even attended the neighborhood community meetings that took place in the school, despite the fact that he was the youngest person at those meetings by about 20 years.

It was at the end of one of those community meetings when Mr. Klein decided to follow Donald, one of his favorite students, who came from an abusive and troubled home. Totally undetected, Mr. Klein followed Donald to his locker, where Donald gathered his books and his backpack before walking down the hall.

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Since it was nearly 10 p.m., the school was virtually empty. After following Donald up the stairs to the third floor of the school, Mr. Klein then saw Donald duck into the boiler room door. He entered the door, discreetly followed Donald up a ladder located in the back of the boiler room, and saw Donald sitting at a desk doing homework next to a makeshift cot with clothes on hangers dangling on nearby pipes. Upon seeing Mr. Klein, 17-year-old Donald burst into tears. Mr. Klein was speechless: Donald was living in the attic of his high school.

In my book Voices of Determination: Children that Defy the Odds, I tell Donald’s story and the stories of nine other young people who overcame significant challenges on the path to their education. Donald's case is noteworthy because he embodies a growing phenomenon facing our schools: increased numbers of homeless children who need to be educated.

According to federal statistics, during the 2010-2011 school year, there were just over a million homeless children attending public school, a 13 percent increase from the previous year and a 57 percent increase from the 2006-2007 school year just before the recession. While many of these kids come from abusive households like Donald, a growing number of these homeless schoolchildren come from good families experiencing hard times due to the recession.

Unfortunately, because of the one- size-fits-all structure existing in most of the nation's school districts, many schools are ill-equipped to deal with the various complexities of this emerging student demographic. For example, most schools have strict registration requirements that include providing verifiable proof of address and guardianship, prior school records and health records. Additionally, many of these children don't have the means to buy school supplies or clothes. Transportation is another issue altogether. Unless the school district and/or local school is prepared, it is virtually impossible for most homeless children to get to school on a consistent basis.

Part of the solution lies in ensuring that school leaders are trained in federal law which requires schools to immediately register homeless students even if they don't have proof of residency, as well as requiring that there is a homeless liaison in each school and a homeless coordinator in every state.

More than anything, however, schools need to have adults like Mr. Klein, whose vested interest in his students gave many of them the confidence they needed to overcome their life circumstances and excel.

In Donald's case, Mr. Klein helped find temporary living quarters for Donald as he prepared for the end of the school year. Two months later, Donald became the first in his family to graduate from high school. Immediately thereafter, he joined the military. Indeed, his life trajectory had changed, in part because Mr. Klein believed in him. For many students, particularly those facing extraordinary life challenges, steady support from a caring adult can give them the incentive they need to thrive and succeed.

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Kevin P Chavous is a noted attorney, author and education reform leader. As a former member of the D.C. Council, Mr. Chavous helped to usher charter schools and school choice into the District of Columbia. Currently, Mr. Chavous runs The Chavous Group, an education consulting firm and is a Senior Advisor for the American Federation for Children.